Oliver Sacks explains how your brain does music

Oliver Sacks has an interview in the latest Wired, talking about his new book Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain with Steve Silberman. This sounds like a fantastic book -- a real Sacks-ian exploration of all the wild and illuminating ways the brain has of dealing with music.
Hume wondered whether one can imagine a color that one has never encountered. One day in 1964, I constructed a sort of pharmacological mountain, and at its peak, I said, "I want to see indigo, now!" As if thrown by a paintbrush, a huge, trembling drop of purest indigo appeared on the wall -- the color of heaven. For months after that, I kept looking for that color. It was like the lost chord.

Then I went to a concert at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In the first half, they played the Monteverdi Vespers, and I was transported. I felt a river of music 400 years long running from Monteverdi's mind into mine. Wandering around during the interval, I saw some lapis lazuli snuffboxes that were that same wonderful indigo, and I thought, "Good, the color exists in the external world." But in the second half I got restless, and when I saw the snuffboxes again, they were no longer indigo -- they were blue, mauve, pink. I've never seen that color since.

It took a mountain of amphetamine, mescaline, and cannabis to launch me into that space. But Monteverdi did it too.


See also: Oliver Sacks on music and amnesia


  1. That Seed piece, by the brilliant Jonah Lehrer, is excellent.

    Thanks for the link to my interview, Cory! I also want to call attention to a sidebar that ran with the piece, written at my request by Sacks himself — his annotated list of favorite classical music:

    Sacks’ IPod Playlist

  2. Whoa! Literal flashback…

    Once I was on a very similar mescaline mountain (many years ago – ahh… college). I was listening to Coltrane’s version of Mood Indigo, and with every phrase he played, a swirl of amazing color was splashed across the wall. One of the greatest experiences of my life.

    Crazy. So many odd parallels. Great article. I feel as though I am REQUIRED to read this book now – especially being a musician.

  3. Absolute pitch … In professional musicians it’s 1 in 10.”

    I think most of us would disagree with this. Out of the thousands of musicians I’ve known only two or three had perfect pitch.

  4. Iain, I wouldn’t be surprised if he meant symphonic musicians. But I’m not sure.

    > Coltrane’s version of Mood Indigo

    I didn’t understand Coltrane at all until I heard a version of “India” with Eric Dolphy when I was tripping on acid in college. Then all became clear, and has remained clear since, at least Coltrane-wise.

  5. One of the things I love about Dr. Sacks is how much he makes emotion (and endeavors based on emotion, like music) primary to understanding medical conditions. It’s fascinating to me how he and other neurologists even think of music as being essential to human beings, perhaps even earlier than speech. Which is so strange, when you think about it, because we’re used to thinking of homo sapiens’ logic and reasoning abilities as what separates us from the beasts. I’ve been reading a lot about Dr. Sacks at http://www.cuarts.com/sacks.

    Question: Why doesn’t my dog seem to respond to music?

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