Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain by Oliver Sacks

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Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain by Oliver Sacks

Category: Popular Science
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A look by Oliver Sacks, physician and neurologist, at the powers of music through the individual experiences of patients, musicians and everyday people, largely through a series of individual case histories.
Buy? No Borrow? Yes
Pages: 240 Date: October 2008
Publisher: Picador
ISBN: 978-0330418386

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Oliver Sacks is a physician and neurologist by profession, but has an extremely keen ear for music. He is supremely, if not almost uniquely, qualified to tell us in the opening pages of this book that the power of music occupies more areas of our brain than language does. This is by way of a prelude to a book consisting largely of case histories of people struggling to adapt to different neurological conditions.

Among the cases he discusses is that of Tony Cicoria, a previously more or less unmusical 42-year-old surgeon, who was struck by lightning while making a telephone call, developed a passion for music within a few weeks, started teaching himself the piano, and became a compulsive composer; Silvia N., who suffered from epilepsy, who was normally sent into convulsions by a CD of Neapolitan songs; and Rachael Y., a composer and performer, who suffered a head injury in a car crash, and has retained her sense of melody but lost her sense of harmony, so that the sound of an orchestra becomes an intolerable mass of individual lines piled one on top of another.

He looks at the effect of music on those who suffer from the congenital disorder William syndrome, which results in a strange mixture of intellectual strengths and deficits, in which sufferers can sing or play beautifully thousands of pieces of music though they cannot do simple arithmetic; and the victims of Alzheimer's Disease. The most fascinating in the latter, I found, was that of Bessie T, a lady in her eighties, a former blues singer who used to work at the Apollo Club, Harlem, now lives in a nursing home, and practised her songs assiduously so she could take part in a talent show there. At the show she sang with great feeling, though a few moments later she had no memory of having performed at all. This part was particularly relevant to me, having had a mother-in-law with dementia who could still play the piano brilliantly until within weeks of her death.

Probably the most extraordinary in the book is the case of Clive Wearing, a brilliant musicologist whose brain was severely damaged by encephalitis. As a result he started to keep a journal, but its short entries make rather pitiful reading. He now suffers severe loss of memory and has a memory span of seconds, rather than minutes, though his musical skills are unimpaired; he can still sight-read, play the organ and conduct, though as soon as he stops, he falls back again into the arms of the grim amnesia.

It is an extremely interesting and thought-provoking book. Even so, I finished it by wondering exactly what the author's conclusions were. As someone who enjoys music yet lacks a detailed knowledge of the finer technical points of the classics (while married to somebody who has), I found these case stories intriguing, yet found myself a little baffled by where it was all leading. Moreover, Sacks has a tendency to go off at the occasional introspective tangent, and resorting to the occasional use of technical neurological terms, while understandable, does make the book a little heavy-going in places.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

If this intrigues you, why not try also Why Do People Get Ill?: Exploring the Mind-body Connection by Darian Leader and David Corfield.

Booklists.jpg Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain by Oliver Sacks is in the Independent Booksellers' Prize 2009.
Buy Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain by Oliver Sacks at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain by Oliver Sacks at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain by Oliver Sacks at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain by Oliver Sacks at Amazon.com.


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