Letter to Oliver Sacks

Letter to Oliver Sacks

I’ve long appreciated Oliver Sacks’ work, and was excited when I received his new book, Musicophilia, as a gift shortly after it came out.  I eagerly began to read it, but then, only a third of the way into the book, I had to stop.  The descriptions of people afflicted with music, sometimes in ways that drove them crazy, was too close to the bone for me.  I feared that just by hearing about these afflictions, I would fall prey to them.

This was not an idle fear, music has afflicted me in the past, looped in my brain in a way that caused intense anguish.  I thought that perhaps my symptoms, which I had not seen outlined by Dr. Sacks, might interest him.  I began writing a letter to him, but never sent it.  I figured he was busy, after all.  While on the KCSM radio show Desert Island Jazz last week, I briefly touched on this issue, and when I got home I looked around and found this letter.  I think it’s worth sharing here, in case someone gets comfort hearing about this form of musicophilia.

“Haunted by music that won’t stop”
I’ve always dreaded fevers – they’re uncomfortable, sure, but for me
they bring on short loops of songs that repeat, over and over.
Usually bad songs, songs I hate, just a chorus that goes on forever
and ever.

Since I entered my 50’s, I’m getting music stuck in my head at night,
when attempting to sleep, and sometimes in the day. But this is
longer pieces of music, and sometimes it’s favorite music from long
ago. And, I’m amazed at my ability to remember complex jazz or
classical pieces – entire bass solos, things I never thought I was
paying attention to.

These are pieces that I used to go to sleep to at night in my high
school days. I loved music so much, I would go to sleep to a stack of
albums, or to my reel-to-reel tape deck, on which one tape at 3 1/2
ips would fit 2 entire albums. I didn’t have a large collection, so I
heard much of this music over and over and over.

The tape deck died when I was 20, so I haven’t heard those albums for
many years. Recently, I bought a favorite CD from that time “The Bill
Evans Album”. Listening to it, I was amazed at how I KNEW the music.
I am a professional musician and composer, but I’ve never been one to
be able to transcribe or sight read well. Yet, I could sing any of the
piano solos after hearing it again just once (after a 30 year hiatus).
And then, the music wouldn’t leave my head. I was stuck with it, for
a few days, like a fevered nightmare. Finally, listening to other
music, I was able to banish it from my head. Since then, I can now
hear the album with pleasure, and not get it stuck in my head. And, I
can still hear (and sing) the solos in all their complexity.

Another example happened just this past week. I owned the John
Kirkpatrick recording of Ives’ Concord Sonata in high school, and went
to sleep to it many times. Last week, I went searching for a CD of
it, but it’s long out of print. I read up on various extant
recordings, and listened to one of them on Spotify. It was good, had
much of the same intensity and lyricism of the Kirkpatrick version.
And, again, I was amazed at how much of it I knew absolutely by heart.
And now, for the past few days, it is running feverishly in my mind.
Knowing that the Bill Evans album eventually abated, I’m not as
freaked out this time. But I am VERY tired today, as my sleep last
night was constantly interrupted by various snippets of the Concord

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