I have since finished reading Oliver Sacks’s Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain and I have been quite moved by this book. It has sparked much introspection and thought for me.
Musicality, the sensitivity to, knowledge of, or talent for music, as defined by Merriam-Webster, is different for everyone, but is often present in some form for most. Some are gifted with perfect pitch, the ability to hear and name the exact note being played, but sometimes this gift can take away from the overall affect of all the pitches interacting. Some people with perfect pitch can only hear a C and an F#, but not enjoy (or cringe) from hearing the tri-tone that this interval creates like those with not-so-perfect pitch. (If you are curious what this sounds like, listen to Cool from West Side Story.) Sometimes people’s brains turn the sound of music into something else, like the sound of pots and pans. This effect may not happen all the time, and when it does occur, it’s usually with specific types of music or instruments. This sound distortion is called amusia, sort of like amnesia but with music. People can be born with it or they may develop it later in life, usually after a brain injury. In one account in the book, a composer in his sixties developed amusia in the form of hearing the outer register notes as being out of tune, but he was able to retrain his brain over time by continuing to compose and practicing what he knew the notes should sound like. There are several musical pieces that are named after colors: Blue is usually sad and minor, red is angry, yellow is bright and happy… but some people can’t hear any notes or music without associating a color quality to them. This is called synesthesia, the combination of sensory reactions. And then there are musicians and non-musicians alike, who may not have amusia or synesthesia or perfect pitch, but still have some sensitivity to music, at the very least. We all listen to some type of music because it makes us happy, reminds us of someone, relates to our emotions, etc. So you see, we all have musicality whether or not we are musical.
The second half of this book is what really sparked my interest. Most of it was about how music affects those with Tourette Syndrome, Parkinson’s Disease, Dementia, Alzheimer’s Disease, Autism, and what I found the most intriguing, Williams Syndrome. Music therapy is a profession that uses music to provide calmness, focus, rhythm, and motor skills to help patients. Music helps with focus, activating the brain to be engaged. People with Tourette Syndrome or Parkinson’s Disease can experience these moments of focus while participating in music as moments without tics. Some people with Alzheimer’s can sing and perform music from their past, sometimes creating an avenue to be the “most themselves” according to some accounts in Musicophilia.
I had never heard of Williams Syndrome before, but what was so intriguing to me is that every single person who has Williams Syndrome is impacted by music. This syndrome affects 1 in 10,000 children and is a fairly recently described syndrome (1960’s). Like Down’s Syndrome, Williams Syndrome has very distinct facial features, but unlike other chromosomal syndromes, the brain develops in such a way that their frontal lobes are very highly developed making them highly sociable and musical, but the back of the brain is very underdeveloped, so they tend to have low IQ’s. Every person observed with Williams Syndrome is drawn to music, so much so that if they walk past a group that’s singing, they have to stop and join in. Studies have shown that the way their brain reacts to music is even more intense than that of a musician’s. They also have highly developed language skills, so in having conversation, you wouldn’t know that their brain may have developed differently, but if you asked them what 8+3 was, they may not give the correct answer. In one account, a girl with Williams Syndrome became highly accomplished opera singer and she was able to go to college and live independently.
Music is an amazing tool that can be so helpful and necessary. I am so inspired by this book and hope to help music positively impact the lives of many.
Sacks, Oliver W. Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007. Print.
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Owner and instructor at Keys Piano Studio in Athens, Georgia.
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