Last winter I read a couple of books about music that make for an interesting contrast. Oliver Sacks is a stylish writer and always finds engaging human stories of alien mental worlds, so I was pretty excited to get _Musicophilia_. It was certainly worth reading about the bizarre “ear-worms” that play endlessly in some people’s minds and about Williams’ syndrome, which leaves people unable to recognize simple shapes or tie their shoes but with tremendous musical and social skills. But it was also frustrating, first because Sacks, to my mind, has no gift at all for scientific explanation–each chapter ends with a mind-numbing catalogue of brain parts that never coheres into anything like a concept or argument. That’s a problem with all of Sacks’ books, and to it is added, in this case, his limited musical culture. You would think that only fans of Chopin and Brahms got brain lesions. There are occasional exceptions, but in general he seems to have a very provincial idea of music, largely classical with a bit of jazz thrown in, which must leave out 95% of the people in his environment. It is as though someone developed a theory of filmmaking based entirely on nature documentaries.
Daniel Levitin has nothing of Sacks’ swanky Oxbridge style. What he does have is a willingness to cite examples you’ve actually heard of, an ability to talk about the brain in a way that makes sense, and a rather broad range of experiences, as a student at a famous conservatory, a rock musician and studio session player, and a world-class neuroscientist. I found _This is Your Brain on Music_ revelatory in several ways. For example, Levitin talks about the expertise that most of us carry around as listeners; I’ve often marveled at how years of study are required to get even a modest ability to recognize styles and influences in poetry, while it takes no effort (beyond a lifetime of radio and record listening) to say “That Mason Jennings song is obviously a Jimi Hendrix homage” or “Kelsey’s friend has been listening to too much Tom Waits.” This expertise is a tremendously important part of our culture, and _This is Your Brain_ has lots of cool stuff to say about it, and also about the strangeness of our radical divide between performers and audience.
In many cultures, it is assumed that everybody can sing or play music, just as everybody can walk and talk. Our culture is extreme not only in its notion that the ability to play music is a rare and nearly superhuman gift, but also in the bizarre restriction on audience participation, which in the case of classical music extends to an almost catatonic rigor, in which the slightest physical response is a terrible faux pas. I guess this is a common thread with my previous note–I love to have the weirdness of my own culture brought home.
I also read a book about different systems of temperament by someone named Isacoff, which I thought was pretty cool in a nerdy way but which totally made Shelley’s head explode. Just mention musical temperament to her and see what happens.
And since I’ve mentioned Oliver Sacks, this might be a suitable place to talk about _The Echo Maker_ by Richard Powers, which has nothing to do with music but does have a character who is as much Oliver Sacks as Powers could make him without getting sued. That aspect provides quite a bit of amusement for anyone who knows Sacks’ work, but that’s just a sidelight. The book is a compelling story with a strange combination of naturalist passion (as in Aldo Leopold, not Emile Zola) and mental pahology, set in the endangered and embattled Nebraska wetlands where (apparently) sandhill cranes stop each year on their migratory journeys. This is where a man crashes his truck one night, ending up with a brain injury that leaves him able to recognize his dearest companions (sister, dog) but unable to feel an emotional response to them, leading him to conclude that they are substitutes, part of some vast conspiracy. Powers gets a bit self-indulgent with the prose from time to time but mostly pulls it off, and it is fun to see a talented writer try something unexpected.