Soft musical hallucinations

May 11, 2009

I am finally reading Oliver Sacks’ terrific MUSICOPHILIA. It has truly been a life-changing read. In it, he discusses musical hallucinations. I had always assumed that everyone had a constant playlist going in their heads as I do, but I guess not. My brain is full of earworms as well as an enormous playlist of songs and pieces of music that never stop. It gets in the way of my reading, going to sleep, sex, and most things that require concentration. I now know that my condition is rather unique and incurable.

When I am composing, whatever I work on plays in my head constantly. When I get to know a piece of music or a new song, it’s in my head constantly. Evidently, I’ve got it easy: some people have their internal radios going at full blast. Mine is softer, so that if there is talk, music, or white noise, I don’t hear it as much. Some people’s musical hallucinations do slice and dice to songs and they have chunks from different songs that get all jumbled together.

I roared with sympathetic laughter reading about one poor woman who gets an annoying earworm where she hears DING DONG DING DONG (where the DONG is a fifth lower) that repeats over and over for hours. Poor girl. My most annoying earworm is a fragment from Stravinsky’s FIREBIRD that loops and loops and loops and never resolves.

I recommend this book to all, but especially musicians.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Brad Wood May 13, 2009 at 11:27 am

When I used to play jazz a lot I often had practically endless improvisations going on in my head. As I did less of this they gradually diminished.

For a somewhat critical review of that book, see Musical Maladies by neuroscientist Norman Weinberger, available on the American Scientist website. The writer rather echoes my own sentiments about Sacks, despite my admiration of him as a fine writer and a compassionate person. A lot of special cases and very little theory—as another writer says you are charmed and entranced but come away from a read wondering what you have really learned.

One recent bit of related nature-of-music news (I have fairly plagiarized below from a recent bit in the Science of 13 March) that is comforting: a study reported in the European Journal of Neuroscience by Nina Kraus and colleagues, where three categories of young adults with varying degrees of musical training—those with none, those who started learning to play an instrument before age 7, and those who started later but had at least 10 years of it—were monitored with electrodes that recorded the response of the auditory brainstem to a quarter-second of an emotion-laden sound: an infant’s wail.

The subjects with the most musical experience responded the fastest, and those who had practiced the earliest had the strongest response to parts of the cry where timing, pitch and timbre were the most complex. Commenting on the paper, a composer says the study helps show that music is not just “auditory cheesecake” as suggested by Steven Pinker, but that “its enjoyment is deeply rooted in our cognition.”

Elaine May 28, 2009 at 10:26 am

That chapter about earworms is really an interactive experience. Every piece Sachs would mention would enter into my head, and to my initial amusement, stick around for a while, and a while longer.

I’m glad that you are reading the book. I loved it too.

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