Oliver Sacks,
Musicophilia: Tales of Music & the Brain
(Alfred A. Knopf, 2007)

Why does music affect humans? How does it affect humans? Why has music become such an integral part of our lives? Those are very tough questions to attempt to answer, especially while employing a scientific or objective manner that laymen can understand. Noted neurologist and author Oliver Sacks takes a stab at the subject with Musicophilia.

Just as we hold dear a compassion for living things (with what E.O. Wilson recognized as "biophilia"), this "musicophilia" that we humans experience transcends time and culture. Though music seems always to have had the potential power to evoke emotion, it does this even more so in our electronic age, when recordings constantly swirl around us. We don't need live musicians to provide a background for our every movement. But how music affects the average person is almost indefinable. It's only when we study individuals with physical or mental challenges and their relationships with music that we begin to fully grasp how important music is to human life.

One of the more common maladies appears to be that of having "musical hallucinations." I always have a rock song in my head -- most often, it's the last one I heard on the radio or on TV -- and I've never thought anything of it. For me, it merely supplies a quiet and satisfying background accompaniment. The selection often changes at the whim of a casual remark overheard in conversation, one that can be mirrored in a remembered lyric. But for some folks, musical hallucinations are so loud it's as if a brass band is playing in the next room. And a tune or musical phrase may be so persistent that it repeats ad infinitum, every minute of every day, year after painful year. These true stories make for interesting reading, if only for the relief they bring to those of us who don't have to live with such frustrations.

One after another, Dr. Sacks relates the case studies of persons who from birth, by accident or from the onslaught of a disease or condition have what to the rest of us seems like unusual relationships with music. The condition either greatly enhances their experience or severely hampers it - sometimes to the point of "amusia," where the victim is unable to sense any pleasantness in music or its rhythm.

As more research is being done, so can we see too the effects of music therapy on patients. This book thus also offers insights into the history of the field of music therapy. We learn the differences between Alzheimer's and Pick's diseases. We find out what's being done for children saddled with Williams syndrome. Sacks even puts himself into the mix, sharing tales of relevant events in his life in which music played an instrumental (!) part. I sorely wish I could have seen him, a classical music aficionado, in the audience at that Grateful Dead concert at Madison Square Garden in 1991.

Perfect pitch -- or what Sacks more formally refers to as "absolute pitch" -- is the ability to identify musical tones by letter name, just by hearing them or imagining them. Less than one person in 10,000 can do that. I happen to be one of the lucky ones. While I knew it was a special talent, I (again) never gave it much thought until I read the chapter devoted to the topic here. Sacks quotes a study by Diana Deutsch and her colleagues, which raises an interesting point: "[T]he real question concerning absolute pitch ... is not why some people possess it, but rather why it is not universal." That possibility never occurred to me, either. While Sacks cites hundreds of studies in this book (and includes a valuable bibliography for further reading) he omits the work of the University of California Genetics of Absolute Pitch Study. He explores the part of the brain where pitch definition occurs, but fails to mention this ongoing research. Perhaps the study was omitted because its focus is on genetics and not on neurology. Perhaps the fact that it's still in progress disqualified it as well.

The book also offers food for conversational or argumentative thought. Included is a chicken-and-egg discussion: Which came first: music or speech? Some say music, some say speech, and some say the two developed simultaneously. While we'll never have definitive proof in any direction, we can at least speculate upon and ponder the ramifications.

Musicophilia should be required reading for health professionals, music therapists, musicians and composers. Casual music fans may be put off by the amount of scientific references here; but there's no rule that says you have to read the text of every footnote. The author has a nice style of writing that's not condescending to us non-scientists. Some readers have expressed disappointment that several stories here are repeated from previous Sacks books. Not having read the others, I didn't have that experience. But if that's the case, then I may consider going back and reading The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, An Anthropologist on Mars and Awakenings. As I mentioned, I found myself, so to speak, in various parts of this book. If you are an audiophile, you may see yourself here too. At least you'll know you're not the only one with a continual song in your heart ... or in the back of your mind.

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review by
Corinne H. Smith

25 October 2008

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