We Know the Tune, Not the Lyrics

Michael Metzger

Awakening from an abyss
In March of 1985, Clive Wearing disappeared into an abyss. Struck by a brain infection in his mid-forties – a herpes encephalitis – Wearing was left with an amnesia that wiped out virtually his entire past. Yet, one faculty was left totally intact. When his wife, Deborah, accidentally discovered it, Clive reemerged from the abyss for brief periods of time. His story could be a clue to connecting Sunday to Monday.

Clive Wearing was an eminent English musician and musicologist who also enjoyed reading. In an awful irony, “The Lost Mariner” was Clive’s book du jour in January of 1985 – the story of a patient with severe amnesia. Clive and Deborah had no idea, as she wrote in her 2005 memoir, Forever Today, we were “staring into a mirror of our own future.”1 The infection devastated Clive’s brain. Memories of his children and work seemed lost forever, as well as being able to retain new memories. It was as if every waking moment was his first waking moment. Clive would say, “It’s like being dead.” He could still function – shave, shower, dance, talk, read and write in several languages, make phone calls, and find his way about the home. Yet when asked why he did particular things, Clive could not recall. He was in an abyss.

Deborah, however, soon discovered that Clive retained two memories. He recognized her and, when she played music, Clive reemerged from the abyss. For example, when handed the two volumes of Bach’s “Forty-eight Preludes and Fugues,” Clive at first said that he had never seen or played any of them before. But when he sat down and began to play Prelude 9 in E Major, Clive said, “I remember this one.” He recognized every tune he had ever learned – Handel, Bach, Beethoven, Berg, Mozart, and Lassus – and the playfulness came back, along with the lyrics. His musical powers were intact. How?

Larry Squire, a neuroscientist who has studied the mechanisms of memory and amnesia, believes that two very different sorts of memory exist: a conscious memory of particular events and an unconscious memory of patterns. Musical tunes are more like pattern memories – they play in our head even if we don’t know the lyrics. Lyrics, on the other hand, are more like particular memories. Dr. Squire says the memory of patterns is unimpaired in amnesia. Amnesiacs can recognize a tune, even if they forget the lyrics.

There are some who say that the human race disappeared into an abyss long ago, and that we “have need of the strongest spell that can be found to wake us,” wrote Oxford don C.S. Lewis.2 There’s a collective amnesia about our past. Of course, we still shave, shower, talk, read and write, and make money. But when asked why we do these things, we can no longer say. Yet, what if there was a tune that could help us recall the lyrics? It’s probably not la-la-la, but what about the four notes of ought, is, can, and will? Don’t they seem to play like a tune in your head?

The first note is that “human beings, all over the earth, have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and can’t really get rid of it.”3 The second note, writes Hollywood screenwriter Robert McKee, is “the struggle between expectation and reality in all its nastiness” – the way life really is.4 The third note was played by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. upon receiving the Nobel Prize in 1964. King refused “to accept the idea that the “isness” of man’s present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal “oughtness” that forever confronts him.” We can do better, he said. And Friedrich Nietzsche recognized the fourth note when we experience joy. “All joy wills eternity – wills deep, deep eternity.”5 Is this the universal tune – ought, is, can, and will?

What, then, are the lyrics? Is the tune playing in our head able to awaken in us a particular memory of ancient lyrics – creation, fall, redemption, and restoration? There is little debate that Adam’s infection left the human race with amnesia that wiped out virtually our entire past. But can the tune call to mind the lyrics? If so, this is a clue to connecting Sunday to Monday. At our core, we might be musical beings.

Look around – music is everywhere. We play it in our car, on our iPod; we hear it in the mall, and on the campus. Look around – music is wildly diverse. Bach, Mozart, hip-hop, Strauss, Schoenberg, soul, jazz, country, and the blues. It’s played on guitars, keyboards, or instruments most of us have never heard of – like rauschfifes, shawms, and gambas of the late European Middle Ages and the Renaissance, for example. Music goes deeply into emotions and memories in ways that words do not, writes Howard Sherpe. A Vietnam veteran contributing to a project that aims to get at a history of the Vietnam war through the music of the era, Sherpe says, “What music does is reach down into parts of our brain, it opens networks and pathways that you can’t get to via language.”6

The poet T.S. Eliot saw the pathway when he was invited in 1951 to address the faculty of the University of Chicago. They asked him to discuss the purpose of education – what it ought to be. Ah… Eliot recognized the tune. Asking what education ought to be “implies some concealed, or rather, implicit philosophy or theology,” he observed.7 Like a songwriter, Eliot combined the tune with the lyrics, noting that the purpose of education would never reemerge without religion. In our amnesiac world that has disappeared into an abyss, the purpose of life will never reemerge until Christians do better at connecting long-forgotten lyrics to the tune that everyone recognizes.

1 This story is drawn from Oliver Sacks, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain (New York, NY: Vintage, 2007), pp. 201-231.
2 C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1977), p. 5.
3 C.S. Lewis, The Case for Christianity (New York, NY: First Touchstone Edition, 1996), p. 7.v
4 Robert McKee, “Storytelling That Moves People,” Harvard Business Review, June 2003, p. 6.
5 Thus Spake Zarathustra, 286.14-16
6 Shankar Vedantam, “Same Old Song, but With a Different Meaning,” The Washington Post, January 22, 2007.
7 T.S. Eliot, “The Aims of Education,” To Criticize the Critic and Other Writings (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1965), p. 75.


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