Tuesday, February 19, 2008


My father, I believe, was tone deaf. He certainly showed no interest at all in music, and once, when I played him a major and a minor chord, he said he could not hear any difference. I have had people tell me that there is no such thing as tone deafness, but now I read in the latest book by Oliver Sacks that perhaps five percent of the population is tone deaf. The book is entitled Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain (Picador, 2007), and covers an extraordinary range of conditions and phenomena.

Some of the conditions Sacks describes are very rare or unique, such as the extraordinary case of a composer, who, after being seriously injured in a car crash, lost her ability to hear harmony. She describes listening to a Beethoven string quartet: "I heard four separate voices, four thin, sharp laser beams, beaming in four different directions". Other conditions discussed in the book are commoner, such as tone deafness. My father had a good sense of verbal rhythm, enjoyed poetry and wrote it himself. According to Sacks this is certainly neurologically compatible with tone deafness, as rhythm is "represented widely in the brain". Another condition that increasing numbers of us can look forward to as we age is musical hallucinations: hearing music that apparently comes from an outside source. At the onset, people who get this think that someone is playing a radio or CD nearby; the experience is quite different from that of mentally singing a tune. Musical hallucinations are associated with going deaf. The explanation is apparently that those parts of the brain receiving aural signals expect a continual stream of input, and if they don't get it, they produce activity anyway. With normal hearing, silence doesn't produce these hallucinations, as the auditory system actively reports silence. It is only if the communication is broken that the hallucination-generating mechanism kicks in.

Sacks doesn't only consider defects in musical perception or appreciation. He also describes unusual positive abilities, including perfect pitch (something I don't have a trace of). Sacks reports studies by Diana Deutsch showing that native speakers of a tonal language will pronounce words with close to absolute pitch, and that Chinese music students are much more likely to have perfect pitch than U.S. students. Sacks also describes cases of musical savantism, where people who are seriously disabled in many ways display some extraordinary ability, such as the man who knew by heart more than 2000 operas and all the Bach cantatas. These savant abilities usually come at the expense of abstract thought. Sacks mentions the intriguing work by Allan Snyder and others in artificially producing temporary savantism by magnetic stimulation of the brain: inhibiting the activity of the part of the brain responsible for abstract thought can release savant-like abilities in at least some people.

There is a lot more in Sacks's book. It isn't a neurological treatise; as the subtitle Tales of Music and the Brain indicates, it is largely anecdotal. It raises questions rather than answering them, and I think in that general there aren't any answers yet as to why we as a species have such an extraordinary sensitivity to music, though Sacks mentions speculation about the intertwined origins of music and language. Anyone interested in music is likely to be fascinated by this book.


  1. How fascinating!!!! I wonder if Sack's book also explains why the repetative squeak in the luggage carrousell at the airport sounded like a bird chirping and even though I knew then and there, that the squeak was in the machinery, however, my brain would absolutely not accept the sound as anything but a bird chirp, and similarly, why when the late night train passed my neighbourhood in the early hours of the morning recently, it's screeching wheels woke me with a sound I was convinced were choral voices singing in unisen blasting out one single chord, a slightly different experience as my brain did only momentarily believe the sound was choral voices and then seconds later easily accepted it as a train.
    I must get a hold of the book!
    Carla Teixeira
    Recorded Sound Archivist.
    National Film and Sound Archive. Sydney.

  2. No, I don't think the book explains the things you describe, except that maybe if you'd been listening intensely to bird sounds (for example) you might be conditioned to hear them everywhere. Maybe this is an occupational hazard of sound archivists?