Skip to main content

'Musicophilia' Examines Music in the Mind

In the book Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, neurologist Oliver Sacks explores the relationship between music and the mind.

Through a series of case studies ranging from songs stuck in one's mind to a newfound passion for concert piano after being struck by lightning, the professor of Neurology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and the NYU School of Medicine examines the complexity of human beings and the role music plays in our lives.


Other segments from the episode on October 17, 2007

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, October 17, 2007: Interview with Oliver Sacks; Review of Fiery Furnaces' album "Widow City."


DATE October 17, 2007 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Neurologist Oliver Sacks on his new book,
"Musicophilia," about music and the brain

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest is one of the world's best
known neurologists, Dr. Oliver Sacks. He's famous for his books collecting
case studies of patients with neurological disorders that have produced
strange distortions of reality. One now-famous example is the title story of
his book "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat." In Sacks' book
"Awakenings," which was adapted into a film, he told the stories of patients
awakened by medication after years of being institutionalized with a
Parkinsonian sleeping sickness. Through such stories, Sacks offers insights
into the brain and our experience of reality.

In his new book, Sacks considers the profound effect that music has on us and
tells the stories of people with neurological disorders that have altered
their perceptions of music and their musical ability. These case studies pose
larger questions like, why do some people have perfect pitch while others
can't hum a tune? The book is called "Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the

Oliver Sacks, welcome back to FRESH AIR. You tell many amazing stories in the
book. The book opens with one of those stories, of a 42-year-old orthopedic
surgeon who was using a pay phone in a phone booth during a lightning storm
and his head was struck by lightning through the phone. What change did it
produce in him musically?

Dr. OLIVER SACKS: He was hurled backwards and he was, in effect, killed for
a short time. He had a cardiac arrest for maybe 30 seconds, and of course his
brain got no oxygen during that time. And he had some immediate
consequences--loss of memory and so forth; this came back--but then he
developed a sudden insatiable passion, as he put it, for hearing piano music
and then for playing piano music, despite the fact that he'd been really
without any particular musical taste or talent all his life. Then he started
to have dreams that he was composing music, and when he woke the music was
still going through his head and so then he wanted to be a composer as well as
a performer.

And all of this happened really in the course of two or three days, two or
three days in which he was completely transformed. He continued to work as a
surgeon, but he started getting up at 3 in the morning. He got himself a
piano teacher. He learned to transcribe the music which was going through his
mind. But this change has been permanent. And in 15 years now he has become
quite an accomplished musician in a way which could never have been predicted

GROSS: What does that story tell you about what happens neurologically with
music? Like, what do you take away from that story?

Dr. SACKS: Well, I don't know exactly what has happened with him. And I
hope we can sort of get some functional brain imagining and see what has
happened. This sort of imagining was not available, really, in the early '90s
when he was struck by lightning. But there are a number of situations in
which there may be a rather sudden, astonishing release or emergence or
heightening of musical abilities. One sometimes sees this with epilepsy, with
temporal lobe epilepsy. One sometimes sees it with a rare disease called
frontaltemporal degeneration, when the temporal lobes get released and music
and visual patterns can play in the mind. I suspect that something like that
happened with the surgeon.

GROSS: You know, you mentioned epilepsy. You've worked in an epilepsy clinic
for a while so you were exposed to a lot of people with epilepsy, and you
write about how some people with seizures would hear like beautiful music but
other people would be tormented by music, the music would be horrible for

Dr. SACKS: Well, occasionally, music can cause a seizure. I saw a patient,
I describe her, who told me that she had been found unconscious with a bitten
tongue next to the radio three or four years ago, and all she could say was
that she had heard some Neapolitan songs being played on the radio, songs that
she normally loved, but these produced a queer feeling, a strange, faint
feeling and then she couldn't remember any more. And this was regarded as an
unhelpful piece of history. But then she had another seizure, another
convulsion, also following a Neapolitan song, and it became apparent that
Neapolitan songs would give her seizures and no other music. She came from a
large Sicilian family, and Sicilian and Neapolitan music was always being
played. If it was played at a wedding, she had about 20 seconds to block her
ears and get out of earshot. Otherwise she would be taken over. And she was
sort of heartbroken because this was music she loved, and now she started to
dread it.

Now, there've been many cases in literature--sometimes it's a particular form
of music. Sometimes it's a particular instrument. In one case it was a peal
of bells. Someone would be found unconscious by the radio at one minute to 9
every night without fail in Australia, and it turned out that it was the sound
of Bow Bells was played just before the 9:00 news every night, and that would
knock him out. Nothing else would.

GROSS: Which part of the brain deals with music?

Dr. SACKS: Well, a great many different parts of the brain deal with music,
but the auditory parts of the brain obviously deal with music in the first
place, with the sound of music. Then there is analysis of the pitch and the
rhythm and the timbre and the melody, the melodic contours and other aspects
of music in different parts of the brain. The motion of music, the tempo and
the rhythm, is separately registered and so also is the emotional reaction to
music, so there are really 20 or 30 different parts of the brain which are
being recruited in the musical experience, and these are never quite the same
in any two people.

GROSS: Is language as complex as that? Does it fall on as many parts of the
brain as music does?

Dr. SACKS: Language doesn't seem to call on as many parts of the brain, and
this may be a reason why if one has a stroke or something and loses language,
knocks out a particular language area in the left hemisphere, one usually
retains one's musical sensibility and one can still recognize and sometimes
sing songs.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is the neurologist Dr. Oliver
Sacks, and his new book is called "Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the

What have MRIs allowed researchers to see about the differences between
musicians and nonmusicians in the brain?

Dr. SACKS: Well, there have been very, very striking findings here. You
know, people have been looking for some sort of cerebral correlate of
intelligence or of musicality or artistic gifts or literary gifts for, you
know, ages. When Einstein died, his brain in fact was stolen by a pathologist
and subsequently cut in little bits and distributed. People wanted to find
out what was Einstein's secret. Nothing clear-cut really came of this. And
in general, if you look at a brain, either in life as an MRI or later, you
can't tell whether it's the brain of a genius or a fool, whether it's the
brain of a visual artist or literary artist, but you can look at a brain and
say, `That's probably the brain of a musician' because musical training and
involvement in music enlarges various parts of the brain. The corpus
callosum, the great band which goes between the two cerebral hemispheres,
parts of the auditory cortex, parts of the cerebellum, parts of the frontal
lobe cortex, there are striking changes which can occur with a single year of
musical training, and these are changes which are really visible to the naked
eye, at least if one knows where to look. So the power of music to alter the
brain is very, very striking.

GROSS: Is this a chicken and egg thing? Is a person with a certain kind of
brain and certain enlarged parts within the brain that becomes a musician, or
is it the musical training that has the impact on the brain?

Dr. SACKS: Well, we don't fully know. Because usually one does not do an
MRI on a gifted three-year-old or four-year-old before they start musical
training. I think we need to do this, but what we do know is that the musical
training itself can make very great changes, though obviously some people are
born, you know, with greater musicality and others not. Usually innately
musical people get early and intense musical training.

GROSS: Have you ever looked at an MRI of your brain and like analyzed your

Dr. SACKS: Yes, actually, quite recently. Both a structural MRI, which, to
my relief did not show Alzheimer's, you know, or anything like that.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

Dr. SACKS: But I've also been looking at a functional MRI of my visual
cortex because I've been fascinated by certain visual phenomena and visual
experiences and I want to know what my brain is like, what the visual brain is
like. I'd also like to do some auditory MRIs listening to music.

GROSS: So what did you learn from your own MRIs about your brain?

Dr. SACKS: Basically it seems similar to other people's brains. Although,
having said that...

GROSS: Uh-huh.

Dr. SACKS: know, as one examines this in more detail, you do in fact
find that MRIs, and especially functional MRIs, are as individual as
fingerprints, and this is especially so with musical responses. No two people
are exactly the same, and sometimes, you know, an individual's functional MRI
with music may change over the years as they change, as perhaps, you know, as
you described earlier, when perhaps a tune which didn't move you much, heard
years later, is strangely familiar and gets you. Something must have
happened, and I think that, you know, that could probably be shown up if one
had an MRI of the earlier hearing and then a functional one of the later

GROSS: You know, like you describe somebody who has perfect pitch in your
book and who wonders why is it that people are mystified at perfect pitch, yet
everybody seems to be able to see and name colors. Now, to me, being able to
identify a G or, you know, a G above C or an A-sharp or something is
completely different from being able to say that's turquoise.

Dr. SACKS: I take it that you don't have absolute pitch then.

GROSS: I sure don't.

Dr. SACKS: Well, nor do I. But to people who do have it, it seems to be as
natural to say G-sharp as to say turquoise, and they don't have to make any
explicit comparison with, you know, any other pitch, just as we can say
something is turquoise without having to compare it to pink or green. There's
some suggestion that all of us may have absolute or perfect pitch in the first
year of life, but the the vast majority of us then lose it, although with
intensive musical training it's more apt to be retained. So absolute pitch
may occur in something like one in 10,000 people in the general population,
but it's closer to one in 10 or one in 15 with professional musicians.

GROSS: But the thing is that like notes like G and A and B-flat, they're just
kind of like human constructs, like that scale doesn't exist in nature. It
was created by humans so...

Dr. SACKS: Well, I mean I suppose one might say that blue and green don't
exist in nature, I mean, though obviously there is a continuous spectrum of
wavelengths but we arbitrarily pick out a certain segment of that and say,
`Well, call this blue' or `We'll call this green.' And similarly, I think, out
of a tonal continuum we will pick out a particular thing and will, you know,
we will divide an octave. An octave is a universal, is a mathematical
universal and it's a physiological universal. Middle C has double the
frequency of the C below it, half the frequency of the C above it, and every
human being can tell an octave. And if we then divide an octave arbitrarily
into, say, 18 steps or whatever, then we get our particular scale. The Hindu
scale is different. I mean, obviously, culture comes into it, but there is
something natural as well.

GROSS: My guest is neurologist Oliver Sacks. His new book is called
"Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain." We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is the neurologist Oliver Sacks.
He has a new book which is called "Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the

Now, the first book you ever wrote was about migraines, and this was after
you'd seen about 1,000 patients with migraine...

Dr. SACKS: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...early in your career. You got--or maybe still get, I'm not sure
which--migraines yourself. Do you still get them?

Dr. SACKS: Yeah, I still get them occasionally. I usually don't get a
headache. I usually just get the visual phenomena of migraine, which I
confess fascinates me. They frightened me when I first had them as a little
boy because you can be blinded to one side, or lose the sense of color or the
sense of movement and you see sort of blinding zigzags like lightning, but now
I feel it's a certain privilege seeing the brain at play and knowing, of
course, that this is benign and this will last a quarter of an hour and then
it goes away.

GROSS: And in the lingo of migraines that's called aura, but you write about
some people who get a musical equivalent of that. Instead of seeing things
they hear things with a migraine?

Dr. SACKS: Well, one can certainly get auditory equivalent. Sounds become
much louder or much more remote, and on one occasion--it was more than 30
years ago--I had a very odd experience myself. I was driving in the car. I
had the radio on. I was listening to a Chopin ballad on a now-defunct
classical radio station. It was 103.4. It was a favorite station. And then
suddenly the music seemed to change and there was this sort of odd resonance
or banging or reverberation and tonality seemed to drain out. And finally it
was as if the ballad was being played on steel drums or hammered on a steel
sheet. I could only recognize it because it kept the rhythm and the structure
of a ballad, but tonality had vanished.

And I phoned up the radio station as soon as I--and then after about 10
minutes, the tonality and the melody came back. And I was very, very puzzled.
I phoned up the radio station and I said, `Was that a sort of joke, an
experiment? What were you doing?' And they said, `We weren't doing anything.
You'd better check your car radio.' But then this happened a second time when
I happened to be at home and indeed playing the piano, and again the tonality
drained out and it was as if I were playing a metal sheet instead of the
beautiful old Bechstein which I have. But at the same time then I saw one of
these scintillating zigzags, and this time it was synchronous with a visual
aura of migraine, and I realized that I was having a brief amusia, a sort of a
musical aura at the same time and that the migraine must be hitting the
auditory parts of the brain as well as the visual.

GROSS: I have to say , you know, I've never had anything happen to me the way
you described it, but when I get a headache, it's the only time I find music
kind of unpleasant. It's like I have no appetite for music when I have a

Dr. SACKS: Yeah. And does it seem unusually loud? Does it hurt at all?

GROSS: No, it's not that severe. It's just irritating in a way that I never
find music. I mean, music I love will be irritating.

Dr. SACKS: Yeah. Do you lose your taste for anything else when you're in
that state?

GROSS: Well, you know, all of life kind of becomes pretty--I mean, when you
have a bad headache, everything kind of is...

Dr. SACKS: Yeah?

GROSS:'s not very pleasant, but, you know, music can often lift you out

Dr. SACKS: Yeah.

GROSS: unpleasant circumstance but I find not with a headache.

Dr. SACKS: Yeah. No, I ask my question because there are certain states,
sometimes after a concussion, in which one can lose one's taste for music or
indeed actively dislike it, but nothing else--there is no change of mood or
change of aesthetic generally, and it is just a response to music and that
only changes.

GROSS: Hm. That's interesting. Didn't you get fired for writing that book
instead of getting like a book award?

Dr. SACKS: Well, yes I did. I'd forgotten that I'd spoken or written of
this. Yeah. At that time I worked in a headache unit, and my boss was, in
fact, very upset that I devoted a lot of attention to the nonheadache parts of
migraine, like the visual parts we've been speaking of, and he didn't want me
to write the book and told me that I would never get another job if I
proceeded, but finally I did proceed and the book came out. And I had the
most joyful release of my life when that book came out in 1970. I've had a
lot of books since, but nothing was attended with quite the fear and then the
delight that "Migraine" was. It was so forbidden, but then it came about.

GROSS: Why was it seen as such a bad thing to write about the nonheadache
part of headache, like the visual aura?

Dr. SACKS: It did seem sort of strange and that, but I remember my former
boss sort of banging the table and said, `Sacks,' he says, `you're working in
a headache unit, you know. You stick to headache!' I think he was a little
crazy. But, you know, also I was an intimidated junior and, you know, people
can get very irrational...

GROSS: Right.

Dr. SACKS: Though, in particular, he himself was known--and rightly
known--as a headache expert. He'd done sort of good original research. And I
think he, you know, he sort of didn't want me altering the emphasis.

GROSS: Dr. Oliver Sacks will be back in the second half of the show. His
new book is called "Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain." I'm Terry
Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with neurologist and
best-selling author Oliver Sacks. He writes books that collect case studies
of people with neurological disorders that have altered their perceptions of
reality. His new book is about music and the brain. It's called
"Musicophilia." It collects the stories of people with neurological disorders
that have altered their perceptions of music and their musical abilities.
These stories get to larger questions like why music has such a profound
effect on us and why some of us are more musical than others.

You know, one thing I often wondered is why are familiar melodies so special
to us? You know, like you can go to a concert and really like the new songs a
perform does, but when the performer does the song that you already know and
like, the familiar song, there's just a different feeling that overcomes you.
And I have found that even songs I might not have liked in their own time,
when I hear them now--this isn't always true, but it's sometimes true--that
the familiarity of it kind of overtakes me and just gives me that feeling of
musical familiarity that feels so good. Do you wonder like what causes that?
Why is there like a special groove in your brain that seems to resonate with
familiar melodies?

Dr. SACKS: Yeah, well, I mean--and familiarity always goes, I think, with a
feeling of a particular memory, a particular place, a particular mood, a
particular emotion, and there's a very, very intense relationship between
music and memory and emotion. I think music has a tremendous mnemonic power,
which of course Proust writes about. I think nothing--you know, it's almost
as powerful as taste or smell. Music brings back things. But, as you say,
familiarity alone can do it and can sort of give one goosebumps, bring back
one's early years.

GROSS: You write not only about music that we hear but you write about music
hallucinations, music that only exists in our minds, and you say that you
became interested in musical hallucinations when your mother, at the age of
75, started hearing patriotic songs during the Boer War playing incessantly in
her mind. First you should tell us what the Boer War was and why your mother
would now those songs.

Dr. SACKS: Well, my mother herself was surprised because she was only seven
at the time, and the Boer War was going on in South Africa. And in general a
seven-year-old child is not that interested in a remote war, but there
were--lots of patriotic songs being sung in England at the time. But my
mother was intensely surprised. She said that she, you know, she thought
these sings had never meant anything much to her in the first place, and
secondly she hadn't give them a conscious thought in nearly 70 years. And now
suddenly they were erupting inside her. She knew that it was going on in her
head. She didn't feel that, you know, the songs were actually being played.
And so she wondered what had happened. She herself had been trained in
neurology. She wondered if she'd had a little stroke. She wondered if it was
the medication she was taking for high blood pressure. Whatever it was, the
songs died down in a week or so and they never recurred. And it was just a
strange little episode.

GROSS: What do you make of it?

Dr. SACKS: Well, I was intrigued and also slightly frightened by this. I
mean, I'm now in my 75th year and it doesn't seem that old. But but at the
time I thought of my mother as well old and I wondered whether--you know, in
my end is my beginning, whether the mind was somehow preparing to go,
preparing to depart and regurgitating very, very early memories.

But I also--I was also very much reminded of something which I'd read a few
years earlier about people with temporal lobe epilepsy who would sometimes
suddenly have songs come into the head, and it had been found that particular
parts of the brain responded to that. Although that was different because
they would have, as it were, a seizure, with a song going thorough their head
for two minutes and maybe some twitching movements, maybe unconsciousness,
whereas what my mother described was a sort of a kaleidoscope of songs going
on continuously for hours on end. And I didn't know what to make of it, but I
was intrigued.

And later in the 1970s I was to encounter this in several of my patients, most
of whom were rather deaf, although at that time I noted that they were deaf
without making any explicit connection between the auditory hallucinations and
the deafness. And in some of these cases, people were really very uncertain
as to what was going on. One old lady was woken in the middle of the night by
hearing Irish songs played tremendously loudly. You know, hallucination is
quite unlike imagery. You feel musical imagery as your own. You think of a
song, where as a hallucination startles you. You look around. You wonder,
what's going on? Has someone turned on the radio? Is there a band outside?

And this woman wondered why music was playing loudly in the middle of the
night in a nursing home. She wandered out. She was amazed that everyone else
was asleep. She thought they'd all been sedated. She couldn't find a radio.
She wondered whether a filling in her tooth was acting as a crystal radio, as
a transistor, and then finally she had to infer that something was occurring
in her brain. She called a radio in her brain that was behaving autonomously
and convulsively. This can be very frightening to people. You know, one
associates hearing things. People wonder, are they going mad? Is their brain
rotting? And in fact, there's been a great underreporting of musical
hallucinations, I think, because people are afraid to mention them.

GROSS: Well, I was going to say, I hear much more about visual hallucinations
than auditory ones. Though, you know, people who hear voices...

Dr. SACKS: Yeah...

GROSS: ...have auditory hallucinations, but I guess that's different from
music hallucinations?

Dr. SACKS: Yeah. It's completely different because, you know, the voices
are accusing, persecuting or humiliating, seductive, whatever. The voices
seem to be addressed to one. They seem to be moral agencies. They make one
acutely uncomfortable. And none of this is the case with a musical
hallucination, which is like a sort of automatic replay of music one has heard
in early life which may not mean anything in particular to one. Typically
people with musical hallucinations never get voice hallucinations, and one of
the first things, if people have these is to, you know, is to listen carefully
to their story and reassure them that this is not psychotic, that it's
completely different from a psychotic hallucination.

GROSS: My guest is neurologist Oliver Sacks. His new book is called
"Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain." We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is the neurologist and
best-selling author Oliver Sacks. His new book is called "Musicophilia:
Tales of Music and the Brain."

Now, I've read that you've been in therapy since 1966 and one of--correct me
if that's a misstatement.

Dr. SACKS: Yeah, I mean, at this point I have no secrets, or very few. Yes,
I have.

GROSS: Well, here's one of the things that interest me about that. With all
that we've learned about the biochemistry of like mood and behavior and
everything, do you feel that talk therapy--you know, as a neurologist, do you
feel that talk therapy is actually helpful?

Dr. SACKS: It depends on the situation. If someone is, you know, in an
acute psychosis or acutely manic, then I think that may not be the time for
talk therapy. You need some chemical therapy. But I think that for
long-standing neuroses, which perhaps have a long sort of powder trail going
back to conflicts in the family or whatever, then talk therapy may be crucial.
It is expensive of time and attention, but this may sometimes, I think, be the
only way of addressing certain problems. I also think--and at the moment
there's a new discipline coming up called neuropsychoanalysis, which is trying
to see if there are neurological changes associated with neuroses and also
with their treatment. I would certainly think that if people do well in an
analysis or prolonged psychotherapy, that we would find structural brain
changes to go with this.

GROSS: Now, I've read that in 1961 you were a consulting physician for the
Hell's Angels, and it seems like such an unusual fit. You're such the kind of
like erudite intellectual, shy, you know, neurologist. Like, how did you get
hooked up with the Hell's Angels and what was your job? Yeah?

Dr. SACKS: Well, it wasn't exactly a job. I mean, I am now a consultant for
Little Sisters of the Poor, and it was not a similar consultancy with Hell's
Angels. No, at that point--I sort of grew up with motorcycles. My father had
a motorcycle. There was a sidecar. Much of my childhood was spent in the
sidecar, so obviously when I was 16 or 17 I got a motorbike myself. And when
I came to the States--I don't know what term to use. I was going to say, I
fell in--I didn't. I somehow had some contact with Hell's Angels then, and
they in fact found me a mild, shy, nonjudgmental figure with some medical
knowledge. And people would have accidents. They would have headaches.
There would be fights. And so there was a little informal medical advice, but
that's the beginning and end of it.

GROSS: How do you "somehow" get in contact with the Hell's Angels.

Dr. SACKS: Well, you know, you're on the road, you have a bike, and at that
time, there was, you know, a brotherhood or fraternity among bikers.

GROSS: So did you have to fix up a lot of bite wounds?

Dr. SACKS: Yes, I wasn't terribly good at it because I'm actually rather
clumsy. My mother was a surgeon, and when she saw how clumsy I was, she said,
`You'd better go into neurology where you don't actually have to do anything.'
But I did my best.

GROSS: Now, you've described yourself as being very shy, and you've said in
previous interviews your shyness can be crippling, which you certainly
wouldn't know from this interview, but do you think of that as like a
psychological disorder, a neurological issue, just, like, a personality trait?
Like what's your analysis of your shyness?

Dr. SACKS: Well, all of the above. There is good evidence, including with
some animal studies, that sort of timidity or audacity are to some extent
inborn, although obviously they can be modified a great deal by experience.
For me, there was a period of intimidation in the war, in World War II, when I
was evacuated between the ages of six and 10 and bullied very much. And a
friend who knew me before said I was a rather pugnacious, forthright kid of
five and when I came back at the age of 10, I was rather timid and withdrawn,
so that obviously sort of a negative experience played a big part.

But there are all sorts of situations in which I'm not shy. I'm often more at
east with a large audience than with a single person. I'm something of a ham,
it has been said, and I think they're probably right. But I do freeze in
social situations and I don't have small talk. And I sort of don't quite know
how to conduct myself, and I will tend to stand in a corner until maybe
something comes up which really interests me and then I change and I start
talking. And I can then, as it were, become a social focus rather than a
social recluse. So there's an odd dynamic.

GROSS: Do you think this is a problem, something that needs to be fixed, or
just the way you are?

Dr. SACKS: I feel it is a problem. And my mother, who was intensely shy in
social situations, you know, felt it was a problem, but then, I deal with it
on the whole by avoiding social situations. I mean, I'm comfortable with a
few friends and, paradoxically, I may be comfortable with an audience. But
above all, I'm comfortable at the typewriter. I'm comfortable reading and
writing. And I think, to some extent, the written word, for me, forms a
refuge from speech and society, which I need every so often, which I need

GROSS: Your mother was a surgeon and, when you were young, apparently she
brought home, I think, like fetuses and limbs and stuff to dissect and to
teach you about the human body. Now, a lot of children would take the, like,
`Yuck!' point of view in any kind of dissection. What did it teach you about
the human body when you did dissections with your mother, like--and not just
about the anatomy of the human body but about an attitude toward the human

Dr. SACKS: Well, this--an older brother of mine, who's also a physician,
felt I should not have spoken of this when I wrote my memoir, "Uncle
Tungsten." He said people won't understand. I mean, there have--it didn't
seem to me, or to my friends, that unusual that the son of a doctor, the son
of an obstetrician, should sort of be brought things to dissect, although I
was very young at the time. I was only 10 or 11, and it did give me the
creeps as well. My mother was also a professor of anatomy. She adored
anatomy. She was fascinated by anatomical structure, the human structure. I
don't think she realized how frightening this would be to a child.

GROSS: Was it frightening because it was the inside of the body or because it
was about death, or both?

Dr. SACKS: Both. And also a particularly sad, grim sort of death. Because
these were people basically who had never lived, who were stillborn...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Dr. SACKS: ...and, you know, and some of the tragedy of this, you know, and
wondering what their mothers thought and, you know--I mean, a whole wretched
situation I sometimes thought must have been associated with this. So I
couldn't just see them as anatomical specimens but as sort of, you know, as
the expressions of, you know, of a tragedy.

GROSS: Do you feel in some ways your work has become, as a neurologist, more
about, like, observing the human condition, often in extremes, as opposed to
trying to, like, cure people?

Dr. SACKS: Well, I want to see people better, and for example, with
"Awakenings," when L-dopa became available, this was a fantastic sort of
breakthrough, and these people would have remained in the abyss had it not
been for something like L-dopa, which could awaken them. There are huge
changes of all sorts going on in medicine and in neurology. But there are
also terrible conditions, like Huntington's disease,
Huntington's...(unintelligible)...which are incurable.

And my own special interest is in rehabilitation, on general, sort of
exploring with people, if they've lost some power, other ways of doing things.
If they're visually impaired, I will explore with them sort of other ways of
reading, other ways of getting around. And I don't think anyone is incurable.
Something can always be done, and I'm certainly not a passive observer. I
hope I'm not an intrusive or tyrannical intervener, as some doctors are, but
I'm always looking out with a patient for what can be done.

GROSS: Dr. Sacks, it's been great to talk with you again. Thank you so

Dr. SACKS: Lovely talking with you, Terry.

GROSS: Oliver Sacks is the author of the new book "Musicophilia: Tales of
Music and the Brain." He's also a professor of clinical neurology at Columbia
University and occupies a newly-created position at the university, Columbia
artist. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Ken Tucker on "Widow City," the new album from Fiery

Fiery Furnaces, the brother and sister team of Matthew and Eleanor
Friedberger, are on a creative run. They've released five albums in four
years. Rock critic Ken Tucker says their new one, called "Widow City," is,
for such an intentionally obscure, sly band, their most accessible to date.

(Soundbite of "Duplexes of the Dead")

FIERY FURNACES: (Singing) On our honeymoon
My husband sat still
With a look in his eyes
And a pen in his left hand
He wrote on the varnish the magic word
Seldom seen and never heard
He shushed me then slumped backwards dead asleep

(End of soundbite)

KEN TUCKER reporting:

There are bands to whose rhythms your whole body seems attuned. Listening to
their music, you feel you've entered familiar territory, no matter how new or
strange the terrain may be. With bands like that, you give yourself over to
the music. There's a bond of trust. That's the way I feel about Fiery
Furnaces, whose musical landscapes almost invariably strike me as being
simultaneously disorienting and inviting, peculiar and witty.

(Soundbite of "Clear Signal from Cairo")

FIERY FURNACES: (Singing) It's a clear signal
It's a clear signal
It's a clear signal from Cairo
Calling me back to your arms
Calling me back to your arms
Calling me back to your

Desert winds are strong
But they're not strong enough
Love of my life
Desert winds are strong
But they're not strong enough
Baby doll

It's a clear signal
It's a clear signal

(End of soundbite)

TUCKER: Of course, after professing my great fondness for the work of Matthew
and Eleanor Friedberger, I'm duty-bound to acknowledge that most of the time I
haven't the foggiest idea what the songs are about. In a way that's quite
exhilarating, you can latch onto certain phrases, enjoy certain small jokes,
such as Eleanor saying, `To locate my ex-boyfriend, check the yellow pages
under plywood.'

Any song here takes cues from verbal phrases that are underscored by the
emphasis placed on them by Matthew's guitars or keyboards, or by semi-regular
drummer Robert D'Amico.

(Soundbite of "Japanese Slippers")

FIERY FURNACES: (Singing) Down at the Shell shed
The boys are picking out the pearls
The home I'm in lets the rain get in
I bought 22 ounces of the petrol, park, wait at the light
I'm never going to make it back in time
'Fore Geraldine and me to begin
Mr. Raymond and his Japanese slippers come creeping in

(End of soundbite)

TUCKER: That was "Japanese Slippers," featuring the Bob Dylan-esque phrase
"Mr. Raymond and his Japanese slippers come creeping in," and another line
that could have been lifted from a hard-boiled detective novel: "I learned to
sleep standing up so I don't have to make the bed."

Now listen to the way the Friedbergers build a song such as "Navy Nurse,"
commencing with a guitar riff that sounds like an homage to an Aerosmith
record, but it shifts into Eleanor's very different intensity as she jabbers
about booze and selecting a nautical-themed doormat with one of the year's
catchiest musical and verbal hooks. Quote, "If there's anything I've have
enough of, it's today."

(Soundbite of "Navy Nurse")

FIERY FURNACES: (Singing) I got warnings from jealous friends
Cases of borrowed clothes
And a vial of Dramamine from my mother
And she said, forget what Mom likes
Because things have changed

Taught me how to make booze at home
Call it Old Uncle Zeke and drink it early next week
If there's anything I've had enough of, it's today
If there's anything I've had enough of, it's today
If there's anything I've had enough of, it's today

(End of soundbite)

TUCKER: With the exception of the drums, Fiery Furnaces' music is played
almost entirely by Matthew, yet such insular recording never feels
self-conscious or precious or turned inward. Indeed, these siblings seem very
much engaged by the world, even as it constantly lets them down. Or at least,
that's how I interpret many of Eleanor's more mournful inflections as a
character in one song who complains: "My baby's angry, he's always angry. He
smiles only when he can give me abuse, what's the use?'

The use, as Fiery Furnaces know very well, is to create music that flings
around melodies and chord changes that borrow from all kinds of music, not
just rock, and all kinds of grammar, not just the rock 'n' roll vocabulary.
Then they seduce you into giving yourself over to their newly-created world.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor at large for Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed
the new Fiery Furnaces' CD, "Widow City."

You can download podcasts of our show by going to our Web site,


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


'White House, Inc.' Author: Trump's Businesses Offer 'A Million Potential Conflicts'

Forbes magazine investigative journalist Dan Alexander has pored over business records, mortgage documents and government reports — and even staked out some Trump properties — to assemble a detailed picture of the president's business interests. He says the president has broken a number of pledges he made about how he would conduct business while in office.


Country Singer Mickey Guyton Opens Up About Race And Gender In 'Black Like Me'

Guyton's hit song, off her EP Bridges, is about feeling like a stranger in one's own land. The issues Guyton raises pose new challenges — not just to country music, but to our country itself.


Jeffrey Toobin On 'Tough As Nails' Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Toobin spoke to Fresh Air in 2013 about his New Yorker profile of Ginsburg, written as she marked her 20th anniversary on the Supreme Court. Ginsburg died Sept. 18 at the age of 87.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.


Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue