Effects of music

Neurologist and popular writer Oliver Sacks has long chronicled the oddities of neurology. His most striking anecdotes involve hallucinations, both visual and auditory. In Musicophilia, Sacks describes patients who experience musical hallucinations as instances of unwanted music breaking into “hearing,” arising by controlling auditory functions. The noise is fired off by offending brain activities that heighten the forced hearing of nursery rhymes, old patriotic and religious songs from childhood, pop tunes, and other unwanted auditory detritus. From low incessant murmurs these tunes become excruciating maladies.

Sacks’ patients were usually in their seventies and had suffered hearing loss, so the explanation for these musical hallucinations is over-stimulation of nerves and synapses, still an as yet unknown process. The patients may feel that they are experiencing psychotic episodes, but Sacks assures them that they are auditory but not psychotic.

Of course, hearing music, or voices, has historically been defined as psychotic by science, or either demonic or spiritual by religion. Neither is correct in Sacks’ case studies, but the issue suggests that events are always internal, and that others may never understand unless they, too, experience the same phenomenon — yet why would we want them to?

Most of Sacks’ patients learned to live with their malady. But perhaps the malady is in part the product of auditory functions themselves and the ability to discern sound, even when the sound is potentially music but, in these cases, offensive. A sector of humanity is disabled in its ability to appreciate music anyway, and one may wonder if they have enured themselves from potential degeneration through musical hallucination. Another sector, the deaf or near deaf, will not hear sound at all, and one can wonder if that is the only way to avoid musical hallucinations.

But is any music intrinsically benign? Can any music not potentially become a hallucination? The structure of music, specifically melody, what makes a piece “catchy,” seems to be the chief factor for memory, storage, and reproduction. Sacks’ patients all regurgitated childhood pieces, long interred in the subconscious brain, not extirpated, overwritten, or even replaced by better music. (Some patients actively played instruments and listened to the “best” classical music, just to end this way!)

Such facts suggest that only a deep, calming meditative silence can gradually extirpate not only bad music but bad memories, habits, thoughts, intentions, or desires. The recovery of primordial silence is the return to home, to peace, to originating state that tradition refers to in speaking of the mind. Meanwhile, simple sounds like predawn birdsong break the silence of night may be enough to solidify the benign effects of silence in the mind. Similarly, some ambient music, too, has the effect of addressing vulnerable parts of the brain with regard to sound, even though ambient music is modern and synthetic.

But the world militates against such silence, such simplicity of sound, even when composed and played on muting nontraditional instruments or when, by design, the music intends to evoke a spiritual purpose. In Huxley’s Brave New World, for example, the authority’s use of suggestive repetitions, like songs, condition children from infancy to childhood to form social values. Adults are further conditioned by, among other things, music both loud and rhythmic, deliberately charged with erotic and violent energy in their purpose — in fact, not unlike nearly all of society’s music from earliest times to today!

As Nietzsche quipped, only sick music makes money, but in the brave new world, only sick music need exist. Music is a social phenomenon, susceptible to manipulation, whether of the weak body and spirit or the collective industry that manufactures it. Plato understood this, but did not know enough about music to do anything with it. What to do with music is up to ourselves, but realizing its potential effects, both individual and social, ought to alert us to what we do when we dismiss silence.