Apr/May 2008  •   Reviews & Interviews

Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain

Review by Ann Skea

Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain.
Oliver Sacks.
Knopf Publishing Group. 2007. 400 pp.
ISBN: 9781400040810.

Do you suffer from earworms or brainworms? Most of us do. They are those fragments of music which repeat themselves endlessly in our heads, sometimes (as Oliver Sacks notes) "maddeningly, for days on end." In advertising, television and film, music is often designed to do just that. What is needed, these industries believe, is a catchy tune which noone will forget. And how often do you find that some advertising jingle seems to be stuck in your brain?

"All of us, to some degree, have music in our heads," writes Sacks: but thankfully not all of us are possessed by music as are some of the people in Musicophilia. Some suffer musical hallucinations, hearing loud music just as if a radio had been left on, while others experience music as part of a pre-epileptic aura. One man, a surgeon, after being struck by lightning, dying and being resuscitated, became so obsessed with piano music that his whole life was then devoted to satisfying that obsession. He taught himself to play the piano, took music lessons, and learned notation so that he could write down the tunes he heard in his head. Even a second, serious head injury did not change his obsession and, although he still practiced as a surgeon, musicophilia dominated his life.

Music, it seems is more deeply embedded in us than language. It stirs the emotions, alters our movements, sooths compulsive tics and remains as a memory even in the most deeply amnesic people or in those isolated by disease and dementia. Sacks, in his work as a neurosurgeon, has seen the value of music in people suffering from Tourette's syndrome. He has seen its coordinating power in patients with mental and physical disabilities. And he has experimented with the use of music therapy in patients with Alzheimer’s and other sorts of dementia. He describes the astonishment of seeing deeply demented, mentally isolated, uncommunicative people respond and become alert when music is played; people who never speak sing along with tunes they recognize, faces become unfrozen, immobile patients start to move. And he observes and describes the effects of music on many other very different conditions.

A glance at the chapter headings in this book suggests the wide range of areas and conditions in which Sacks has studied the effects of music: musical savants, Cochlear Amusia, Musician's Dystonia, Parkinson's Disease, aphasia, dysharmonia, Tourette's Syndrome, Williams Syndrome, hypermusicality, depression, musical dreams, emotional response—all these and more are discussed in the context of music and brain function, but in language and style which most readers will understand and enjoy.

Many of the case histories in this book are fascinating and Sacks's seemingly boundless curiosity, excitement and sympathy are readily apparent in his writing. He is (understandably, since he is a neurosurgeon) what philosophers call a "mechanist." For him, every aspect of our experience has some physical basis, is related to some particular brain function or neurological activity, and our response to music, miraculous as it seems in some instances, is no exception. He explores the many wonders he describes in this book with scientific rigour, and although for the non-scientific reader this can be dry and difficult at times, Sacks keeps his science as simple and non-technical as possible.

If you are not a mechanist, you might argue that not everything about music has yet been scientifically explained. Sacks would agree but he is sure that eventually it will be. So, if you wish to take spiritual comfort from the very similar things which people describe after near-death and out-of-body experiences (both of which are discussed in this book) you may need to do what the lightning-struck, musicophilic surgeon eventually did when he refused to have his condition analysed further, and chose, instead, to simply accept the mysteries of his experience and the grace and blessings of the music which changed his life.

And if you are not a Mechanist, there is much to ponder in this book. What, for example, is one to make of the most deeply amnesic patient, who cannot remember anything at all from one minute to the next, and yet is able to sight-read a musical score, play and improvise on the piano, and even conduct a choir through an entire musical score with intelligence, skill and feeling? His behaviour is anything but automatic and he seems totally present and engaged, yet he remembers nothing at all once the music stops. What, too, of the fact that although he has no memory of any previous moment, he knows at times that something in him is "broken"?

Music, for the ancient philosophers, was what connected us with the Divine Source. Its harmonies created and shaped our world. And in spite of everything science has discovered about the brain, in spite of increasingly sophisticated tools which can map the minute areas of the brain which respond to music, its mystery remains. Whatever way we choose to explain its powers, however, the therapeutic value of music is immense, as Sacks convincingly demonstrates in this book. And his own "old-fashioned" method of close observation of his patients and imaginative empathy with their experiences, allied to clinical, scientific analysis, is not only necessary for our understanding and use of the therapeutic power of music, it is what makes Musicophilia such a warm, human, humane and valuable book.


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