Oliver Sacks: Musicophilia


At last – with grateful thanks to Santa Claus – here is the book I have been waiting for! –  an intelligent, informed, detailed but also imaginative and perceptive book about music and the brain, from the author of The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, An Anthropologist on Mars, Uncle Tungsten and many another thought-provoking work.  Previous attempts to tackle the subject for the general reader have always seemed to me to be calamitously uninformed musically, and/or insufficiently technical or detailed scientifically  (and the more specialist scientific reports had not come my way).  Pace Dr Sacks, Anthony Storr‘s Music and the Mind (1992) was a great disappointment to me (having eagerly looked forward to it) – too much vague romantic waffling and not enough hard knowledge of what is actually going on in music.

Oliver Sacks approaches the subject from a deep professional knowledge and experience of neurology, plus a keen amateur interest in music and, as always, a probing imagination, an enquiring mind, and an openness to the ‘unscientific’ realms of emotions, personal life histories, irrational thought processes and associations, fantasies and dreams. 

The criticism sometimes directed at his other books – that he finds poetic and philosophical insights in the case histories of what are actually seriously dysfunctional, unhappy and sick patients – is less applicable here, since in most cases music is not only a boon and a comfort to his patients/case histories, but may be the only thing that keeps them functioning at all.

He writes fascinating chapters on topics including:

• Sudden musicophilia (following a stroke or injury)
• Catchy tunes and ‘earworms’
• Musical hallucinations

• Faulty music – amusia, dyhsarmonia
• Absolute pitch
• Musical savants
• Synaesthesia

• Music and amnesia (the case of Clive Wearing, who suffered near total memory loss – short and long term – following an infection, but still has his music)
• Aphasia and music therapy
• Tourette’s syndrome and music
• Musician’s dystonia – the sudden or progressive inability to play one’s instrument

• Musical dreams
• Music and emotion
• Music and depression
• The hypermusical abilities of people with Williams Syndrome
• Dementia and music therapy

Dr Sacks occasionally draws on his own earlier works – The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, An Anthropologist on Mars – but this is understandable.  Sometimes he seems to need an editorial red pencil:  he quotes the same chunk of Anthony Storr twice in footnotes, and on one occasion says the same thing twice in different words on consecutive pages.  There are some surprisingly basic typos, and some appalling hyphenation (somebody please tell the publisher that it is NOT helpful to hyphenate obscure scientific terms or proper names across two pages!).  And he seems to lose interest at the end:  I was waiting for a masterly, inspiring summing-up, but instead the book seems to dribble to a halt in a few sentences.

There are names I would have liked to see in the index but didn’t – George Michael (who had no interest at all in music until a blow to the head as a teenager), Gabriel Fauré (who lost his treble and bass sense of pitch in old age), Ben Luxon (who catastrophically lost his sense of pitch during a song recital – I was there!), Alfred Tomatis, the genius of sound therapy, my friend Jane Mackay, synaesthetic artist extraordinaire…  but I am not complaining.  This is a terrific book, and at last I feel that an enormous and fascinating field of research has been opened for intelligent and informed exploration.  There will be much more to say on the subject, I have no doubt.

Thanks, Doc!

Musicophilia:  Tales of Music and the Brain
Oliver Sacks
Picador, 2007

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One Comment on “Oliver Sacks: Musicophilia”

  1. mona lisa Says:

    Thanks for the review Jonathan. I saw this book, and wondered if it would be worth the time to read it.

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