Musicophilia: Tales of music and the brain

A neurologist shares cases related to music and the brain.

Musicophilia: Tales of music and the brainAuthor: Oliver Sacks
Publisher: Knopf
Copyright year: 2007
ISBN: 978-1-4000-3353-9
Pages: 448
Price: $11.83 (paperback)

Oliver Sacks has created another fascinating book that discusses a realm of human nature (the love of music and musical skill) through his lens as a neurologist. For example, Sacks speaks with curiosity and respect about individuals with Williams syndrome, which involves severe developmental disabilities accompanied by a great sociability and a proclivity for music. (Great musical talent is sometimes present, but not always.) He describes individuals with dementia, with seizures, and with aphasia and how these conditions relate to musical skill or interest. He discusses absolute pitch (otherwise known as perfect pitch) and rhythm deafness, which sometimes occurs following left-hemisphere strokes.

“Musicophilia” shares many of the fine attributes of Sacks’ previous books, such as “Anthropologist From Mars” and “The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat.” “Musicophilia” is well written and easy to follow, well within the capabilities of an introductory student. Sacks wears his scholarship lightly and uses an accessible vocabulary. His voice is humane and caring, and he seems to value the various patients who have helped him understand neurological oddities. Indeed, that seems to be his life’s work: examining people with neurological oddities to see how the brain works. Yet, he never regards them as just data points, and he is adept at communicating their personalities and dilemmas in a page or two. 

“Musicophilia” is disappointing in some respects, compared to some of his 11 other books. Sacks more or less invented the genre of the serious-but-accessible book on the brain, and the novelty of his achievement has naturally dimmed somewhat with time. Individuals who have acquired musical hallucinations as a result of deafness or seizures are interesting but perhaps not quite as gripping as those in “Awakenings,” the book about patients with sleeping sickness (encephalitic lethargica) who recover upon being prescribed L-dopa. That story was turned into a well-regarded film, just as “The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat” has been turned into a one-act opera. Musical savants are also intriguing, but Sacks has discussed them in previous works.

Sacks’ personal taste for music and the arts pops up frequently in the book and will no doubt be stimulating for readers with similar backgrounds. Nonetheless, how many readers know any opera by Janacek; much less know it so well as to have it run through their mind unbidden for weeks? While Sacks never comes across as elitist, it is clear that that he is part of a cultured society, in the heart of medicine and the humanities. Indeed, one of his greatest achievements is to have attained great success despite doing unconventional, humanistic research, rather than the usual natural science approach. Sacks’ scholarship and his accessibility are his finest qualities.