Oliver Sacks: Musicophilia

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Sacks, Oliver. Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, Revised and Expanded (New York: Knopf, 2008)

Renowned neurologist Oliver (Awakenings) Sacks takes us on a tour of our innermost musical instrument: the brain. He discusses earworms (melodies that get "stuck" in your head), musical dreams and hallucinations, conditions such as amusia and synesthesia, and describes how musical abilities and appreciation are affected by various diseases (amnesia, Parkinson's, Williams syndrome, Tourette's, and Alzheimer's). In lesser hands, Musicophilia could have been a dry recitation of case studies, but Sacks is more than equal to the task of keeping his subject interesting by writing in a lively and informative manner.

His descriptions of the brain's anatomy are never overly technical, although a schematic drawing or two wouldn't have impeded his presentation. For instance, a comparative diagram would have further enlivened the passage where Sacks mentions the physiological changes in musical brains:

Anatomists today would be hard put to identify the brain of a visual artist, a writer, or a mathematician--but they could recognize the brain of a professional musician without a moment's hesitation. (p. 100)

Here are several brief excerpts that give a sense of the book's sensibilities:

"In the evenings the rumbles and bells soften. They become grand, sonorous and deep. I hear a vast organ playing a slowly evolving dirge without a time or a beat. It has the solemn grandeur of an aurora...it fits the occasion, for my ears are dying. But they are playing superbly at their own funeral." (p. 69, Michael Chorost, writing about his deafness-driven auditory hallucinations)

Although a teaspoon of Mozart may not make a child a better mathematician, there is little doubt that regular exposure to music, and especially active participation in music, may stimulate development of many different areas of the brain--areas which have to work together to listen to or perform music. For the vast majority of students, music can be every bit as important educationally as reading or writing.
(p. 102, on the much-hyped "Mozart Effect")

Music, uniquely among the arts, is both completely abstract and profoundly emotional. It has no power to represent anything particular or external, but it has unique power to express inner states or feelings. Music can pierce the heart directly; it needs no mediation. (p. 329)

I must thank Sacks for mentioning "Dido's Lament" ("When I Am Laid in Earth" from Act 3, Scene 2 of Purcell's Dido & Aeneas) in this book. The first recording I found, from the Harmonia Mundi label, was indeed a stirring rendition; its repetition has already worn grooves in my auditory memory.

I couldn't find the paper cited here:

Iversen et al. propose that "experience with the native language creates rhythmic templates which influence the processing of nonlinguistic sound patterns. This raises the question as to whether there might be correspondences between the speech patterns and the instrumental music of particular cultures. There has long been an impression among musicologists that such correspondences exist, and this has now been formally, quantitatively studied by Patel, Iversen, and their colleagues at the Neurosciences Institute. (p. 265; citing Iversen, J.R., Patel, A.D. & Ohgushi, K. (2004). Perception of Nonlinguistic Rhythmic Stimuli by American and Japanese Listeners. Proceedings of the International Congress of Acoustics, Kyoto.

although this later paper by the same authors follows in the same vein. The linguistic nature of music is a particularly intriguing one, and this book is studded with gems of similar brilliance. The greater one's appreciation for music, cognitively or emotionally, the more likely it is that Musicophilia will be appreciated. I recommend it highly to any musically inclined readers.

Colin McGinn (NYRB)
Anthony Gottlieb at NYT
Michiko Kakutani at NYT

Oliver Sacks (website and Wikipedia)
Musicophilia website
First chapter

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This page contains a single entry by cognitivedissident published on February 15, 2009 10:43 PM.

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