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Read: The Musical Mystery

A review of Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain (Oliver Sacks) by Colin McGinn in the New York Review of Books

Music is so ubiquitous and ancient in the human species—so integral to our nature—that we must be born to respond to it: there must be a music instinct. Just as we naturally take to language, as a matter of our innate endowment, so must music have a specific genetic basis, and be part of the very structure of the human brain.

An unmusical alien would be highly perplexed by our love of music—and other terrestrial species are left cold by what so transports us. Music is absolutely normal for members of our species, but utterly quirky.[1] Moreover, it is known that music activates almost all the human brain: the sensory centers, the prefrontal cortex that underlies rational functions, the emotional areas (cerebellum, amygdala, and nucleus accumbens), the hippocampus for memory, and the motor cortex for movement. When you listen to a piece of music your brain is abuzz with intense neural activity.

Oliver Sacks is fascinated both by the normality of this oddity and by its abnormal manifestations. Daniel J. Levitin, in his recent book This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession,[2] deals largely with the normal human response to music —particularly with the brain mechanisms that underlie ordinary human listening—but Sacks’s interest is more in the pathologies of musical response, not surprisingly in view of his occupation as a clinical neurologist. Where Levitin gives us the peculiarities of the everyday, Sacks ventures into the outlandish and exotic—into the deficits and excesses of the musical brain. Yet both authors recognize that the normal is exotic enough in itself, and the abnormal merely variations on a theme (so to speak).

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