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Wednesday, July 23, 2008 01:42 am

What’s playing in your head?

You don’t have to know much about music to find Musicophilia fascinating

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Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain By Oliver Sacks, Knopf, 2007, 400 pages, $26 (available in paperback Sept. 23)

Every now and then I tune in to my head to see what's playing there: sometimes nothing, sometimes a childhood song, sometimes an annoying advertising ditty, sometimes a symphonic bit I can identify, or can't. When my sister called this noon I asked, "What's playing in your head?" "Just bills." "What's this?" I sang her the few measures that had been circling through mine all morning. "Oh, that's a Mozart piano concerto," she said, and hung up. When was the last time I heard that concerto? No clue. My nephew Josh continually hears music. When he was 8 he woke up screaming. They finally figured out he was hearing the cannons of the "1812 Overture." There are a lot of people whose heads play all the time, not with those ever-present earphones and iPods (though perhaps influenced by these) but, like Josh's, on their own. The music might be pleasant, dull, but it's increasingly maddening if you can't switch channels.

Last Christmas we visited friends whose mother had Alzheimer's. Mary could only recognize one of her children, didn't speak, was in constant agitation — but when my granddaughter sang "Angels We Have Heard on High," we noticed Mary's lips moving on the "glorias." We were amazed, repeated the chorus as a group, and Mary sang along. We started another carol; Mary sang, words and music. She sang happily with us for an hour. That brings me to the neurologist Oliver Sacks' book. The last chapter deals with music and dementia, principally Alzheimer's: The brain's special musical area is the last to fade. We'd had a confirmation.

Musicophilia needn't be read like a novel or even an informational book. I recommend the preface and the first few chapters, to orient yourself, the guy struck by lightning, and on through seizures and brain worms, sticky music, and catchy tunes — even music hallucination — and then, if you're like me, skimming the neurological stuff — yes, a terrific lot has been learned about the brain in the last two decades, but can I comprehend every detail? — then graze here and there, zeroing in on what interests you, especially the stories. Sacks is a compelling storyteller, and this book is loaded — some stories long, some anecdotal, with a generous spill-over into footnotes, for he can't resist peripheral stories. He describes musical savants. Synesthetes who literally see music in color (and smell and taste it sometimes, too.) Those with absolute pitch, or perfect pitch, or, alas, are tone-deaf. Amnesiacs with no remembrance of past or sense of future, and only a few second of the present moment, who live "on a tiny platform above the abyss." Musicians such as Beethoven who go deaf or, like Schumann, go mad or, like one pianist described in the book, lose an arm.

You don't have to know much about music to find this book fascinating — it merely requires being human. The regret I've had for some time now, and that has grown deeper, is that I never queried my grandfather about what his deafness was like. I assumed total silence. Nor did I ask my mother, blind for the last 10 years of her life, whether there was heightening of her other senses, especially music, which she loved. This book has made me more aware, and I find myself asking others besides my sister what's playing in their heads — a conversation-starter or stopper, by the way — and also warning kids, including my grandkids, that if they don't tone it down they'll continue to lose enough of their cochlea's irreplaceable 3,500 hair cells— their auditory receptors — that they'll join the currently estimated 15 percent (and growing) of young people with significant hearing loss. And that a delicate ear is something to prize, something passionately worth saving.

Jacqueline Jackson, books and poetry editor of Illinois Times,

is a professor emerita of English at the University

of Illinois at Springfield.

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