Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Sunday 2 December 2007


Sitting indoors with the makings of a cold on a wet winter Sunday, catching up on yesterday's newspaper, my eye lights on the word "amusia".

For a moment, I thought of a mythical country where the national sport might be giggling, the national anthem Will You Stop Your Tickling, Jock, and the most solemn day of the year would feature the laying of a wreath of water-squirting flowers to commemorate those who died laughing. But like all utopias, it would have its dystopian side: can you imagine what Kafka would have made of The Laughing Policeman?

As it happens, the reality of amusia would be even worse for me: the inability to recognise music as music. It's discussed in Oliver Sacks's book Musicophilia (another one to add to the pile of fascinating things to find out about), but I remember now there was a flurry of interest about a year ago, about the Delosis online test. (I've just done it again, and from what I recall, my score's gone up since I did it a year ago - I seem to be more aware of rhythmic variations).

We might occasionally debate whether it would be worse to lose one's sight or one's hearing. Heaven knows, I hope never to find out. But if there's one thing worse than losing the hearing of music, it would be having hearing but experiencing music as a meaningless clatter indistinguishable from all the other extraneous noise of the world. Imagine, none of the inspiration or consolations of great music (or of the cheaply potent).


  1. Oliver Sacks is an interesting guy. I read his "man who mistook his wife for a hat" - that was hard work at first but fascinating. Amusia, eh? That's a new one on me, although it makes sense when you think about it. I've always found synaesthesia very odd. People with the condition see sounds and letters as colours and other odd mis-firings of the synapses. This from Wikipedia:

    "'Until one day,' I said to my father, 'I realized that to make an R all I had to do was first write a P and draw a line down from its loop. And I was so surprised that I could turn a yellow letter into an orange letter just by adding a line'"

    Most strange. Have a look at the Wiki article if you're not familiar, it's an interesting read.

  2. Well, yes, it does seem a little bit weird, but I suppose it's only a sort of brain-wiring thing. A bit like one's tooth fillings picking up the radio (imagine if your teeth were relating Jonathan Woss or Jeremy Clarkson - the shame of it). Synaesthesia on the other hand wouldn't be that much of a disability - though a lot would depend on precisely what sort of sensory experiences were attached to things the rest of us consider normal or pleasant. And, of course, on whether and how the synaesthete chose to mention it - I wouldn't fancy being on a spacewalk and hearing a colleague say "I do find Tuesdays fluffy, don't you? And somehow Also Sprach Zarathrustra always seems to smell of old socks."