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The power of music

Oliver Sacks
DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/brain/awl234 2528-2532 First published online: 25 September 2006

What an odd thing it is to see an entire species—billions of people—playing with listening to meaningless tonal patterns, occupied and preoccupied for much of their time by what they call ‘music.’ This, at least, was one of the things about human beings that puzzled the highly cerebral alien beings, the Overlords, in Arthur C. Clarke's novel Childhood's End. Curiosity brings them down to the Earth's surface to attend a concert; they listen politely and patiently, and at the end, congratulate the composer on his ‘great ingenuity’—while still finding the entire business unintelligible. They cannot think what goes on in human beings when they make or listen to music, because nothing goes on within them. They, themselves, as a species, lack music.

Clarke likes to embody questions in fables, and the Overlords' bewilderment makes one wonder, indeed, what it is about music that gives it such peculiar power over us, a power delectable and beneficent for the most part, but also capable of uncontrollable and sometimes destructive force.

We may imagine the Overlords ruminating further, back in their spaceships. This so-called ‘music,’ they would have to concede, is in some way efficacious to humans. Yet it has no concepts, and makes no propositions; it lacks images, symbols, the stuff of language. It has no power of representation. It has no relation to the world. These, indeed, are the very issues Schopenhauer raises in The World as Will and Representation—and Schopenhauer himself was passionately musical. Music, for him, was an embodiment of pure ‘will’—but this is not a notion that goes down well in a neuroscientific age.

Another passionately musical philosopher, Nietzsche, said, ‘We listen to music with our muscles.’ This, at least, is something we can see. It is evident in all of us—we tap our feet, we …