Books: Musicophilia

Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain

That’s more like it! After having a rather disappointing time with Daniel Levitin last week, Oliver Sacks delivered. Like his famous The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat (and most of his other books), Musicophilia follows various case studies – this time, evidently, all related to music. Sacks offers us a potted history of each of his patients, with touching personal insight into their plight. It feels to me that Sacks is getting more sensitive with age – he used to be accused of being too detached from the humanity of his patients, treating them as oddities rather than people, but Musicophilia defies this accusation. Sacks connects with his patients, and some of the passages are not only very poignant, but show Sacks’ deep admiration for their ability to overcome adversity, sometimes in ingenious ways.

To give an example, Sacks talks of the famous amnesic, Clive Wearing who, despite not being able to remember anything that has happened more than a minute or so ago, is still able to play the piano and organ with the same fluency and skill as he could before he suffered the brain damage he bears today (as a result of severe encephalitis). This musicality is Clive’s link to his “former self”, as attested to by his wife.

Sacks also relates strange tales of musical hallucinations, of amusia and musical dystonia. He lets us in to the musical world of people with Williams syndrome and of the musical savants. But for me, the most incredible and moving thing of all is the obvious relief that music brings: helping people with Tourettes to channel their energy, giving people with dementia a pathway to their past, giving rhythm and the gateway to movement to people with Parkinsons, and expression to aphasics, who are unable to connect with language in any other way.

I have a couple of very minor issues: firstly, with the fact that Sacks revisits a lot of previously covered cases (ones mentioned already in his other books, which he could then ask you to read as well), and secondly Sacks really over uses footnotes. There was a footnote ever few pages, and some were incredibly long. In fact, some pages were more footnote than main body text. However, as I said: minor issues. These did not detract from the book’s wonderfulness.

It is a beautiful book, tempering science with humanity, and giving us an insight into worlds far detached from our own – some cases may be familiar (the stories touching upon depression were quite uncomfortable for me) but others are other-worldly. It gives a true appreciation of the breadth of human experience, and the wonder of music that connects us all.

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2 thoughts on “Books: Musicophilia

  1. Pingback: 100! « Unravelled

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