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Positive Feedback ISSUE 33
september/october 2007


How Music Affects Us: Speculation on an Article by Dr. Oliver Sacks
by Max Dudious


My dad loved music, especially Beethoven. He discovered classical music about the time the marketing researchers say most people do, about age thirty-five. He was only twenty-two years older than I was, and as I was exposed to his pet enthusiasms, it wasn't long before I fell for old Ludwig von myself. When I was about eleven or twelve, Dad figured out how to have the CRT circuitry of our console TV set bypassed so he could use its audio amplifier and its passable 12" speaker for music. With the coming of the golden age of LPs, he began collecting classical music LPs, and, with some coaching from the sideline by my uncle Muggs, some of the best jazz of the early '50s. And he started bringing home some juke box parts, as he knew someone in the business.

This was about the thing we most enjoyed doing together. We never played touch football. We "played audio." We cooperatively built an AM-FM tuner (ArKay?) one summer, and it pulled stations from Washington, DC; Hershey, PA; and Northern VA. Everything was in mono, and you know how stereo signals halve your reception radius. Our house was on a hill, and on a clear night we could get some Philadelphia FM stations. We did this from Baltimore. Washington, only 40 miles away, sounded almost like crosstown. The other, more distant, stations (Hershey, and Philly, both 90 miles as the crow flies), had increasing amounts of hash; but with a high filter on the pre-amp, they were quite listenable.

We also built a series of loudspeaker contraptions from plans that appeared in magazines like Audio Engineering (soon to be shortened to Audio), that some of the speaker manufacturers would mail you if you sent a written request (Jensen, I think Chicago-based), with drivers that were available to us on the cheap, juke box woofers that we crossed over to horn mid-range and tweeter drivers in a series of two- and, later, three-way systems. They were surprisingly good. And I believe the (Chicago-based) Seeberg Co.'s jukebox amp was a Radio Craftsman (also Chicago-based) Williamson type that was also surprisingly good. So we had pretty good "Chicago Sound" by the time I was fifteen or sixteen, and my dad was 37 or 38. Along the way we had cut up about a fork-lift full of plywood.

His test listening was done through a Garrard changer, with a GE cartridge, and a Grommes (12AX7 tube) preamp. For speaker cables we used "zip cord," the universally available rubber-insulated lamp-cord sold at all hardware stores, and we fashioned our own interconnects from stock co-axial cable, and cheapo zinc-plated RCA jacks. With either a Toscanini or a Szell reading of Beethoven 5th Symphony, he would "lead the band" with a makeshift baton, without losing focus, for the duration. He was a great conductor. He also liked to lead Duke Ellington's band when we played some of Duke's LPs that sounded very vivid. And he was a fan of The Modern Jazz Quartet, but couldn't lead them. Our "system" begged comparison with some I heard at friends' homes that were McIntosh/Tannoy type big-ticket rigs. I learned early that big rig sound didn't have to cost big bucks!

Soon, I left home to be on my own a bit more, at college. So I didn't see him as much, and consequently we didn't "play audio" much after I got out of high school. I do remember he managed to "go stereo," with a little help from his audio friends. He bought and I built an early Dynakit PAS stereo preamp, he got another Seeburg "Willie" amp that had failed and was rebuilt, he bought an early Shure stereo cartridge, and he and I built a matching contraption loudspeaker, a Carlson cabinet with Altec 604 15" coax speakers. I think he dipped into his slush fund for the speakers, and he managed to buy a traded-in Fisher FM mono tuner when stereo broad-casting became common. He was a happy camper.

Thirty years passed in a trice, and he was melting down due to Alzheimer's disease. I had married and raised a family, while he became less and less himself. Sometimes the two of us would go downtown to either his favorite crab-cake restaurant, Connolly's, which was right on the old Baltimore wharfs, before the Inner Harbor, and where we might run into the mayor, or the governor, both of whom liked to be seen shaking hands with someone obviously infirm. He was too far gone to notice. He thought they were glad to see him. Or we'd go to his favorite kosher deli for a corned-beef/Russian dressing/cole-slaw sandwich (a "Cloak and Dagger"), where we might run into some of his old cronies in the "Kibbitz Room." If we were lucky, they were there and that lit him up. He couldn't tell you the day of the week, and he couldn't tie his shoes, but he lit up like a kid when people greeted him extravagantly.

After lunch I'd bring him back to my little old beach shack, and we'd do some semi-serious listening. I was amazed that while listening to his favorite Beethoven Symphonies he managed to sing or whistle along all the time, and wave a pencil about as if he were conducting the orchestra, call it "Air Baton." Anyhow, he had a good time, and he was excited (not depressed and inert) for a few hours. We'd do that every so often during the penultimate stages of his meltdown. He was always on key, on the beat, and he managed to remember when the horns made an entry, or the bass violins had an accent phrase, and he managed to point his baton in this or that direction to bring them into the performance just at the right moment.

Enter Oliver Sacks. He's a neurologist with a flair for showmanship, and I'd heard him give a talk at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine once, nearly twenty years ago, that knocked my socks off, doing a précis of his then current book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (1985). He's a much respected professor of clinical neurology and clinical psychiatry at the medical school of Columbia University who has an amazing facility with making difficult concepts accessible to people without medical training. I have had some training in Public Health, so I didn't feel too out of it. His 1973 book Awakenings was made into a film of the same name, starring Robert De Niro and Robin Williams (who plays Sacks). Most recently, he's written a new book titled, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain which should be out this month.

In his work, Sacks reports on a case of amnesia that was the result of a very disabling infection—a herpes encephalitis—of the brain that was visited upon Clive Wearing, "an eminent English musician and musicologist in his mid-forties." This affected "especially the parts of his brain concerned with memory. He was left with a memory span of only seconds—the most devastating case of amnesia ever recorded." He lived in a perpetual present, which was an ever-changing moment. Sacks goes on to describe this in some very poignant recounting of his episodic interaction with Clive Wearing.

After a while it was discovered that Wearing still had much of his musical skills, that he remembered a great deal of his musical knowledge, how to sight-read printed musical notation, how to play the piano and the organ, how to sing, how to direct a choir. Sacks (and others) infer that episodic memory of everyday events must have been registered in a different part of the brain than unconscious memory for procedures, or procedural memory, which (being more primitive and more deeply placed in the brain) is unimpaired by amnesia. Sacks stresses that no two cases of amnesia are alike, as the brain damage may vary in location and intensity.

He explains a good bit about the parts of the brain, and how disease or auto accidents might destroy this or that part. He presents hypotheses about the consequences caused by this and that kind of neurological insult. And then Sacks launches into what I feel might be the most relevant paragraphs for audiophiles:

A piece of music will draw one in, teach one about its structure and secrets, whether one is listening consciously or not. This is so even if one has never heard a piece of music before. Listening to music is not a passive process but intensely active, involving a stream of inferences, hypotheses, expectations, and anticipations. We can grasp a new piece—how it is constructed, where it is going, what will come next—with such accuracy that even after a few bars we may be able to hum or sing along with it. Such anticipation, such singing along, is possible because one has knowledge, largely implicit, of musical "rules" (how a cadence must resolve, for instance) and a familiarity with particular musical conventions (the form of a sonata, or the repetition of a theme). When we "remember" a melody, it plays in our mind; it becomes newly alive.

Thus we can listen again and again to a recording of a piece of music, a piece we know well, and yet it can seem as fresh, as new, as the first time we heard it. There is not a process of recalling, assembling, re-categorizing, as when one attempts to reconstruct or remember an event or a scene from the past. We recall one tone at a time, and each tone entirely fills our consciousness yet simultaneously relates to the whole. It is similar when we walk or run or swim—we do so one step, one stroke at a time, yet each step or stroke is an integral part of the whole. Indeed, if we think of each note or step too consciously, we may lose the thread, the motor melody.

It may be that Clive, incapable of remembering or anticipating events because of his amnesia, is able to sing and play and conduct music because remembering music is not, in the usual sense, remembering at all. Remembering music, listening to it, or playing it, is wholly in the present.

So, it seems that Clive's amnesia was serendipitously matched to his musical self, that when he was playing music he was "his old self" again. This was true of my father, with his air baton, as well. I just wondered at it. I thought then, still do, that it was marvelous that I could get him back to himself in the present moment, get him to "lead the band" through some Beethoven symphony or two. Now, with Oliver Sacks' help, I see the how and why of it. I also see how music can be more important than everything in life except food, clothing, and shelter.

Whenever I hear the word "primitive," as in "Music reaches into our more primitive back-brain," I think of that as being the archaic brain structures we have in common with all other men, and some of the animals. I visualize a baby picture with a reptilian body superimposed. My good old dog, "Dizzy," seemed to like to lie down and listen near the loudspeakers when I had certain music on. Of course there were taxing moments for him, like the drum-shot at the entrance of Stravinsky's firebird, that frightened him enough to make him run upstairs and hide, sometimes, under the bed. Gad, what a critic. At least he didn't pee on my speakers. But music does seem to dig down deep into our cortical pathways. It seems very powerful to the elderly and to the ill. It takes them into the profound present. It ties them to who they've been all their lives, whether the music is Beethoven, old Broadway Show tunes, bebop, or doowop. Familiar music triggers all sorts of experience recapturing. The number of great religious pieces that fill the history of classical music suggests music also has a close affinity with the mystical. Who could say no?

I think I've given Oliver Sacks a pretty strong plug here. And if you didn't get it yet, go to I think we all ought to get over to the computer, and punch in our favorite book vendor to order Sacks's Musicophilia. Love of music, right? Isn't that who we are supposed to be? Audiophiles and musicophiles? I'm going to give a copy of Musicophilia to my wife as a seasonal gift. I suggest you do the same. I'm sure there is a common denominator in Sacks's work that is meant to be aimed at the bright, college grads our marketing firm says you are.

And when you make your purchase, tell 'em Maxie Waxie sent you.

Ciao, bambini.