Musicophilia – Oliver Sacks

sacks-musicophilia“Music, uniquely among the arts, is both completely abstract and profoundly emotional. …[It] has a unique power to express inner states or feelings. Music can pierce the heart directly; it needs no mediation.” pg. 301

Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain is exactly what the title says – an account of how our brains process and understand music. Oliver Sacks, the author of the book Awakenings about patients with Parkinsons, has taken a combination of interesting anecdotes with equally interesting scientific analysis. Though I have some background in psychology and the processes of the brains (specifically with language), I was by no means very well-read on the subject, but I still found the book to be easy to read and understand.

The book is divided up by different “disorders” and how they either effect music or are affected by music. In some cases, patients are “awakened” by music, much like the patients in Awakenings. In other cases the disorders are caused by music or produce music. For example, music hallucinations are a symptom of many diseases, including some you wouldn’t expect. I had an unexpected connection with the story here. I was explaining the difference between a music hallucination and getting a song stuck in your head to K the Older (my 13 year old sister). She said that has happened to her a couple of times in the past year, where she thought the radio was on in the car and it was only until someone told her it was off that she realized it was in her head. That is exactly what a music hallucination is. A few pages later I found out that it is a symptom of Lyme disease… which K the Older was diagnosed with in June (She’s doing fine, by the way :). Crazy! Some of the stuff that Sacks describes is almost too crazy to believe, but there was a real world example right in front of me!

Let me put in a disclaimer here: I am completely musically challenged. I took piano when I was in elementary school and can still read very basic music, but that’s as far as it gets. I cannot carry a tune. I cannot sing (though I do it anyway). I cannot hear the difference between different instruments when I listen to music. I enjoy music, but don’t know anything about it. So this is definitely a book that crosses that line; it is not just for musical people. In fact, Sacks addresses people with my condition on page 286 when he says, “There are many of us who lack some of the perceptual or cognitive abilities to appreciate music but nonetheless enjoy it hugely, and enthusiastically bawl out tunes, sometimes shockingly off-key, in a way that gives us great happiness (though it may make others squirm).” Yup, that pretty much sums it up.

The book is very logically organized, making it easy to follow and understand.  My favorite sections were about how music impacts language and how they are connected.  I loved reading about the patients with Williams Syndrome (a fascinating syndrome that Sacks describes as the opposite of autism).  I could go on and on listing the sections I found the most interesting.  I don’t want to give away too much about the interesting patients you’ll run into along the way, so I’ll leave it here.

If you are at all interested in music, or the brain, read this book. It’s pretty interesting and has a good combination of the anecdotal and the scientific. There were a couple sections that I found less-than-fascinating, but they were few and far between. For the most part, Sacks’ writing is impressive; I’m always amazed (after reading hundreds of poorly written Linguistics papers) when someone can combine science and good writing.  It was insightful and enjoyable.


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8 thoughts on “Musicophilia – Oliver Sacks

  1. I read this one last March and really enjoyed it. Have you read The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat? That’s still my favourite of his! This year, I’ve got his memoir on my TBR list.

  2. Great review!

    I keep seeing this at Borders and have been tempted many a time. But since I’m musically challenged too, I’ve always held back from getting it. But your review has me wanting it again. I think I’ll give it a try.

  3. You know, I have tried and tried and tried to read Oliver Sacks, several of his books, and while the subjects interest me immensely, I’ve never been able to get through any of them. Something about his writing style just makes him difficult to read for me. 😦 Or maybe I’ve just never picked him up at the right time. I’ll keep trying, though. 🙂

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