Listening in

'Theme and Variations: Musical Notes by a Neurologist,' by Dr. Carl Ellenberger

3 minute read
Carl Ellenberger BS Rbooks 112918

In Theme and Variations: Musical Notes by a Neurologist, Dr. Carl Ellenberger creates a fascinating bridge between anecdote and science. Hundreds of years ago, William Congreve made the anecdotal claim, “Music hath charms to soothe a savage breast.” I suspect that people who can’t think of a single instance when their mood was either enhanced or changed by music are rare. ​

Brain training

Ellenberger examines research on the interaction between music and human brains (particularly his). After establishing his theme — which includes the positive ways music can affect neuroplasticity — he takes on a variety of topics, from Thomas Jefferson to Prince.

Each chapter, or “variation,” written in meticulously documented yet readable (even cheeky) prose, could be a standalone essay. Ellenberger invites the reader to peruse the first three chapters, then explore the rest of the book as their interest dictates.

Topics in part one, “Exploring Music in the Brain,” include love, sex, dystonia, music’s ability to heal, and the declining fortunes of classical music in our current culture. Topics in part two, “Reflections on a Musical Life,” include “The Rubato Queen of Shaker Heights,” “Old Goats Playing the Flute,” and my favorite, “My Illustrious Career as a Non-Pianist.”

Aside from being a Yale-trained neurologist, the author studied flute at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music and performed for years in professional orchestras. He also established and became a regular performer at Gretna Music, which was singled out by TIME magazine as one of the best small festivals in the nation (Philadelphia-based luminaries David Kim, Allen Krantz, Joel Thome, Suzanne DuPlantis, and Cyrus Chestnut have performed there, to name just a few).

"Cheeky" prose

Ellenberger says he learned how to write from a medical colleague (my 2017 podcast interview with him, which took place he was still writing the book, is here). As anyone who has read Ellenberger’s program notes can attest, his mentor gave him a firm foundation. Consider, for example, this sample from his chapter on the Audubon Quartet, whose regular appearances at Mount Gretna helped the festival flourish before the ugly court battle that led to the group’s demise.

“A young quartet faces years of daily rehearsals with no guarantee that anyone will ever hear the results... If a member drops out to attend veterinary school or proves to be incompatible, musically or personally, the others, after searching for and auditioning a replacement, must start again, almost from the beginning… As a consolation, you have the regular collegiality of three other humans and some strength in numbers, as each member may contribute a different non-musical skill, like... driving the van. That is a better life, perhaps, than that of your pianist friends who spend most of their time with a large immobile instrument that cares nothing for their fears or dreams.”

Did I mention he could be a tad cheeky? Or just plain wrong, dammit? Because my piano cares. I know it does!

Simply put, Theme and Variations: Musical Notes by a Neurologist makes a wonderful read. Carl Ellenberger appeals to experts and the relatively uninitiated alike ("long ears and short ears," to paraphrase Mozart). He defines complex terms — musical and medical — clearly and succinctly while making a case for the fundamental value of music, particularly "art" music with Western European roots.

Thank God (who also garners a mention): the void left by the sublime Oliver Sacks has finally been filled.

What, When, Where

Theme and Variations: Musical Notes by a Neurologist. By Carl Ellenberger, M.D. Palm Springs, CA: Sunacumen Press, 2018. 299 pages, softcover; $16.95, click here.

Sign up for our newsletter

All of the week's new articles, all in one place. Sign up for the free weekly BSR newsletters, and don't miss a conversation.

Join the Conversation