Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain

Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain

With the same trademark compassion and erudition he brought to The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Oliver Sacks explores the place music occupies in the brain and how it affects the human condition. In Musicophilia, he shows us a variety of what he calls “musical misalignments.” Among them: a man struck by lightning who suddenly desires to become a pianist at the age o...

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Title:Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain
Author:Oliver Sacks
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Edition Language:English

Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain Reviews

  • Matt

    Oliver Sacks has been one of my favorite authors ever since I first read

    . I still completely amazed, and a little bit disturbed, when I think back to his account of the woman who lost her sense of proprioception - the internal body sense that lets you know your body is there, even when you have your eyes closed. No other author (since Proust) has explored the nuances of consciousness so carefully, nor pointed out how tenuous the our grip on reality can be.

    I

    Oliver Sacks has been one of my favorite authors ever since I first read

    . I still completely amazed, and a little bit disturbed, when I think back to his account of the woman who lost her sense of proprioception - the internal body sense that lets you know your body is there, even when you have your eyes closed. No other author (since Proust) has explored the nuances of consciousness so carefully, nor pointed out how tenuous the our grip on reality can be.

    I've enjoyed his other books that I've read, but his lost something since he wrote

    . His subjects in that book were all his patients at one point - and that kind of clinical closeness gave a depth to his analysis that is slightly lacking in some of his later writing. The sense of amazement is still there, but it seems slightly shallower.

    may have the same problem, but it more than compensates with the sheer enthusiasm that Sacks brings to the project. His love of music permeates the whole book, and his obsessiveness regarding the subject brings back the depth that he lost with clinical distance.

    Certain chapters, such as the one on Synesthesia, rank as some of the best Sacks has written. He gives scientific backing to an idea often dismissed as myth, while at the same time bringing his usual humanistic bent - I was particular enchanted by a description by a synesthete of a conversation in his first grade class, in which he said he was "counting the colors until friday." Really fantastic stuff.

  • Lynne King

    I will never cease to be amazed by books. This above account was given by Tony Cicoria, forty-two, very fit and robust, and a well-regarded orthopedic surgeon in a small city in upstate New York. He survived an experience of being struck by lighning. He continued his work but from this time on he had the most incredible need to connect with music. He was subsequently divorced and continued with his incredible sudden love for music and composition.

    I am not religious and I am not a believer, as such, but I know there is another life after death. I cannot describe it. It is certainly not faith but a certainty from what I have experienced during the last two years that tells me, yes, life continues after death. Many will believe that I am an absolute idiot but I really don’t care. We come from nothing (but there is no proof about this) indeed with birth, but we do indeed go to an illustrious future.

    Oliver Sacks has made the most incredible research of people with neurological conditions and all of these case studies are riveting. You can literally pick up this book and look at whatever page and find something amazing. It is really a remarkable reference book and I was just so enthralled to see individuals with evidently insurmountable problems and yet who managed to overcome these through music.

    Music is a wonderful thing and it indeed takes up a large part in our brain and so we must enjoy it. Well I do anyway.

    It was fascinating when Sacks said that there are certain musical pieces that he has to listen to over and over again before he moves on to a new composer. I can so relate to that. I am on “overkill’ at the moment with Grieg and Sibelius but there are indeed other composers waiting in the wings to enthrall me. Music – my… What else can I possibly say!

    I absolutely loved this book and continually look at it. It is in my library and there to stay.

  • Sarah

    Sacks is, for me, a perfect meeting of a science writer and a writer of creative non-fiction. He has an equal interest in telling an affecting, human story and with exploring how (and why) the brain works. While lots of science writing is dry and objective (as it should be) and while mainstream feature writing often ignores the more complicated science stuff, Sacks is a rare talent who has a penchant for story telling and for explaining the newest research on the brain. He doesn’t condescend, an

    Sacks is, for me, a perfect meeting of a science writer and a writer of creative non-fiction. He has an equal interest in telling an affecting, human story and with exploring how (and why) the brain works. While lots of science writing is dry and objective (as it should be) and while mainstream feature writing often ignores the more complicated science stuff, Sacks is a rare talent who has a penchant for story telling and for explaining the newest research on the brain. He doesn’t condescend, and he doesn’t mind forming personal relationships with his subjects.

    In Musicophilia, Sacks focuses on the mysterious and fascinating connection between music and the brain. Through studying musical oddities in patients, he hopes, we can hope to better understand our greater relationship with music - something that, although it is universal among cultures, doesn’t seem to have a clear function or origin.

    For example, the book opens with a middle-aged man who is struck by lightening. He isn’t badly hurt, but since the accident, he’s been obsessed with the urge to play the piano. He’s never really played before or had an interest in music, but suddenly he’s up all night composing and trying to get better. Why has this happened? Why is unaffected except for this urge, which takes over his life? Brain scans show that his left frontal lobe has been damaged and Sacks hypothesizes that the left hemisphere of the brain might actually inhibit the more creative and musical right side of the brain. Left brain damage might lead to more “freedom” in the right brain.

    The book moves on from there to cover a huge spectrum of diseases, phenomenones, and rarities - spanning from music therapy for those with dementia and Alzheimer’s, to people who suffer from musical hallucinations, to people with perfect pitch, to people with amusica (to them, music sounds like noise - Nabokov suffered from it), to musical savants. The structures of the chapters are very satisfying to me: they start with a story of an individual and then, by the end of the segment, lead to a more general description of the science behind the patient’s symptoms.

    One of the more fascinating chapters covers children with William’s Syndrome, which affects about one out of 10,000 people. These people, who all have strangely elfin features, suffer from severe mental disabilities: they can’t ad 5 + 3, they can’t draw a square, they can’t tie their shoes. They have IQs around 60. However, they also tend to be very verbal, very social, and exceptionally musical. Most have perfect pitch and start composing as toddlers. Unlike some cases of severe autism who show a more mechanical and isolated musical talent, patients with William’s Syndrome love to play music in groups - within a community. Sacks visits a camp for children with William’s Syndrome - which is a constant drum circle, sing-along, and musical wrapped up in one.

    As in all of his tales, Sacks is sure to find the hope and humanity in even the most difficult patients. One man, an amnesiac who has a short-term memory of only a few seconds, can only stay present within himself while he plays the piano.

    More importantly, Sacks doesn’t see his patients as freaks or abnormalities who are simply interesting to read about, but rather as windows into how we can collectively understand how we function. In Musicophilia, I was truly moved by what I read - both by the humanity of the patients and by the awesomeness of the science.

  • Jason

    It’s not a common characteristic, but I recommend this book for all environments where you read. Coffee shop, living room, park bench, subway, or to ignore your spouse--it receives my seal of 4+ stars.

    is a lurid, but respectable, look into the brains and lives of people that appear normal on the outside, but have strong, strange and intractable relationships to music. The relationship is sometimes harmful, often incomprehensible, sometimes therapeutic, even charming, but always unf

    It’s not a common characteristic, but I recommend this book for all environments where you read. Coffee shop, living room, park bench, subway, or to ignore your spouse--it receives my seal of 4+ stars.

    is a lurid, but respectable, look into the brains and lives of people that appear normal on the outside, but have strong, strange and intractable relationships to music. The relationship is sometimes harmful, often incomprehensible, sometimes therapeutic, even charming, but always unforgettable. And that’s the bottom line here for this book--incredibly interesting, highly readable, and, after reflecting about people in your lives with contagion to music, totally unforgettable.

    This is my introduction to Oliver Sacks. A renown neuroscientist with over 5 decades of experience, and a talent for presenting case studies to a plebeian reading public. The great majority of writers are not good writers. And, they’re not neuroscientists either. Sacks, however, is both.

    Every human has a disease. Sometimes that disease is visible on the outside, and we stare and point, and tell our friends what we saw today--an alien rheumatoid hand, a debilitating kyphosis, a piebald psoriasis scar. Sometimes the affliction is in the mind and worn outside, like an Obsessive Compulisive Disorder, a neurodegeneration or a crippling social phobia. But, for the most part, we all have something--an undiagnosed disease or affliction--something we can manage to hide from everyone (so that people don’t point and stare and go home and tell their friends about what they saw

    today). Perversion, narco, nympho, criminality, victim, depression, protein mutation, future Alzheimer, next year’s dementia, next week’s suicide, next month’s spousal abuse, future diabetic, compulsion, addiction. We all mix together. Some of it’s our fault, some not. But it’s there. And most of it’s in the brain. I like reading psychological analysis of material cases. Psychology ‘levels’ the playing field, in a manner. It helps to know you’re not the only one that suffers from hidden affliction.

    Based on a lifetime of personal interaction with patients, the author reveals scores of cases regarding music-related idiosyncrasies. Like a barbell, on the left are people who cringe at the sound of music, on the right are people who fail to thrive without music, and both sides are connected by a continuum, balanced through the middle.

    is a compilation that highlights a very recent surge in psychoanalytic and neuroscientific interest in music-based ailments and music-based therapy. There are fantastic new insights to how the brain compartmentalizes music, and how music is integrated as a global cortical tool. Apparently the brain has allocated a large--a mysteriously large--global amount of neurons to music, and we are only beginning to understand how and why. Medicine and science are beginning to pay attention to these emergent signs and symptoms. What was once overlooked and ridiculed, a mere footnote in the literature, is now a fertile growth area in psychoanalysis.

    This book may not be a watershed event in science, but it was for me. I am amusical, arhythmic, and dysharmonic. It was refreshing to read that many people are like me, on the left side of the barbell. For every person that sings out loud or under their breath at work, there are 2 or 3 of us that can’t carry a tune and refuse to karaoke. It’s not that I don’t like music or can’t be moved or buoyed by music; it’s simply that I don’t have a complex relationship to music, and for the most part, I can take it or leave it. I listen to music about 45 minutes a week, mostly on radio during commute. I don’t collect music, stay current with music, play music, or talk about music. It’s quite common, even though you music-o-philes gasp incredulously at my hideousness. My parents are like this, my wife, my siblings, many of my friends. If I was imprisoned, I would miss reading and exercise, but not music.

    Perhaps I was attracted to the title

    subconsciously. I know I’m socially deficient regarding things music, and maybe I wanted to discover what power music holds over people. Perhaps I wanted to apply definitions and causes to my amusia. Alas, I’m not deficient. My brain appreciates music, but has developed in other ways. Despite Oliver Sack’s covering cases like mine, I was quite interested to learn how important, indeed life-sustaining, music is for certain brains.

    My recently deceased grandfather had dementia near the end. A lanky nonagenarian with a full shock of white hair. He forgot a lot of things, including our names and when to urinate, but he didn’t forget how to polka or whistle or play the harmonica.

    will tell you why, but I like to think it’s because Gramps had something special I can’t yet find.

    I would have awarded 5-stars, but there was no transition between the chapters. Sometimes that works, but in non-fiction I like to see a framework guiding the book. I discovered a loose organization, but each chapter could stand independently in a journal like Neuroscience, Scientific American, or Psychology Today. Still...great take-aways.

    New words: synesthesia, metanoia, hypnagogic, hypnopompic, anhedonia

  • Kelly

    This was unexpectedly touching. I'm glad I finally read it. Review to come.

  • Glenn Sumi

    Have you ever experienced an “ear worm” – i.e., a melody “stuck” in your head? Have you ever found yourself humming or whistling a tune for no reason, then thought back to the lyrics or theme of that song and realized it had something to do with what’s on your mind? Have you ever tried to remember what letter comes after another in the alphabet and found yourself singing that “ABC” song from childhood?

    .

    All of these are explored in

    , a fascinating series of essay

    Have you ever experienced an “ear worm” – i.e., a melody “stuck” in your head? Have you ever found yourself humming or whistling a tune for no reason, then thought back to the lyrics or theme of that song and realized it had something to do with what’s on your mind? Have you ever tried to remember what letter comes after another in the alphabet and found yourself singing that “ABC” song from childhood?

    .

    All of these are explored in

    , a fascinating series of essays by Dr. Oliver Sacks (

    ,

    ). His writing is clear, civilized and genial, if occasionally repetitive and dryly scientific. (A more ruthless editor might have helped.)

    Drawing from more than half a century of clinical work as a neurologist, Sacks recounts tales of patients whose conditions have something to do with music. Among his subjects are people who:

    • have musical hallucinations (they constantly hear songs, often Christmas carols or marching tunes)

    • associate certain notes or musical intervals with colours or pictures

    • suddenly discover, after an accident or some other incident, that they have an aptitude for music or, conversely, lose their musical abilities

    There are some absorbing case studies, such as Martin, who was born “normal” but contracted meningitis at three and succumbed to seizures, limiting his intelligence and physical abilities. As an adult, he had a low IQ but remembered 2,000 operas and all of Bach’s cantatas, including melodies and what each instrument and voice played.

    I was also intrigued by the woman who can remember pages of text, but only when they’re associated with a melody. (Her professor, recognizing his own lecture notes written verbatim on an exam, thought she was cheating until he discovered her gift.)

    And there are eye-opening tales about composers like Ravel, whose famous Bolero, with its relentless repetition, might have been influenced by his frontotemporal dementia, and Shostakovitch, who refused to have a piece of shrapnel removed from his head because it mysteriously provided him with music which he then incorporated into his compositions.

    Also included is the incredibly moving story of concert pianist and teacher Leon Fleisher, whose loss of the use of his right hand for three decades transformed his life and approach to art. Sacks’s description of Fleisher playing a transcription of Bach’s “Sheep May Safely Graze” (the pianist regained use of his hand later in life through Botox treatments) for him alone will bring tears to your eyes.

    And what about those people who hate or feel indifferent towards music? One of them was the great writer Vladimir Nabokov, who wrote: “Music... affects me merely as an arbitrary succession of more or less irritating sounds… The concert piano and all wind instruments bore me in small doses and flay me in larger ones.”

    Before reading this book I didn’t realize that music crops up rarely in the works of Sigmund Freud, or the two James brothers, philosopher William and novelist Henry, although all three were sensitive to other varieties of human experience and expression.

    In a work filled with jaw-dropping stories, one of the most incredible happened to Sacks himself. One day he woke up from a musical dream, which followed him throughout the day.

    Amazing.

    Near the end, Sacks provides an illuminating and moving chapter on the connection between grief and music. How come some compositions provide consolation and catharsis? And there’s a touching chapter on patients with Williams Syndrome, people who tend to have IQs less than 60 but who have universally friendly personalities and extraordinary musical ability.

    There’s no overarching thesis or direction to

    – how could there be, really? – but there are plenty of studies and stories that will make you think twice next time you find yourself turning on your iPod.

    **

    I noticed Sacks cites a study by a Simon Baron-Cohen. I Googled and, sure enough, the scientist is Borat’s (Sacha Baron Cohen) first cousin!

  • Ana

    My brain, my heart and my soul needed this.

    The most random playlist in history:

    Jeff Buckley - Hallelujah

    Guns N' Roses - November Rain

    The Rolling Stones - Gimme Shelter

    Led Zeppelin - Babe I'm Gonna Leave You

    Alice In Chains - Nutshell

    Mother Love Bone – Chloe Dancer / Crown of Thorns

    The Verve - Bitter Sweet Symphony

    Queens Of The Stone Age - Make It Wit Chu

    2Pac - Dear Mama

    2Pac - Life Goes On

    2Pac - Ghetto Gospel

    2Pac - Hail Mary

    Eminem - Space Bound

    Eminem - Rap God

    Gangsta's Paradise - Coolio feat. L.

    My brain, my heart and my soul needed this.

    The most random playlist in history:

    Jeff Buckley - Hallelujah

    Guns N' Roses - November Rain

    The Rolling Stones - Gimme Shelter

    Led Zeppelin - Babe I'm Gonna Leave You

    Alice In Chains - Nutshell

    Mother Love Bone – Chloe Dancer / Crown of Thorns

    The Verve - Bitter Sweet Symphony

    Queens Of The Stone Age - Make It Wit Chu

    2Pac - Dear Mama

    2Pac - Life Goes On

    2Pac - Ghetto Gospel

    2Pac - Hail Mary

    Eminem - Space Bound

    Eminem - Rap God

    Gangsta's Paradise - Coolio feat. L.V.

    Kendrick Lamar - Humble

    The Notorious B.I.G. - Juicy

    Future - Mask Off

    Beastie Boys - Make Some Noise

    G-Eazy & Kehlani - Good Life

    The Weeknd feat. Daft Punk -Starboy

    Wiz Khalifa feat. Charlie Puth - See You Again

    The Chainsmokers - Sick Boy

    Mobb Deep - Shook Ones

    Jaymes Young - I'll Be Good

    Tamer – Beautiful Crime

    The Godfather- music of Henry Mancini with London Symphony Orchestra

    Lewis Capaldi ft. Jessie Reyez - Rush

    Dean Lewis – Waves (acoustic)

    Lana Del Rey - Born To Die

    Lana Del Rey – Summertime Sadness

    Pearl Jam – Sirens

    Mötley Crüe - You're All I Need

    Thriving Ivory - Angels On The Moon

    Ben Howard - Black Flies

    Red Hot Chili Peppers - Don't Forget Me

    The Civil Wars - Poison & Wine

    Florence and the Machine - Never Let Me Go

    Billie Eilish ft. Khalid - Lovely

    Lord Huron - The Night We Met

    Damien Rice – 9 Crimes

    Ryan Star - Losing Your Memory

    Sleeping At Last - Saturn

    Andrew Belle - In My Veins

    Lenny Kravitz - Calling All Angels

    Imagine Dragons – Friction

    Zayn - Dusk Till Dawn ft. Sia

    M83 - Midnight City

    NF - Can You Hold Me ft. Britt Nicole

    Jimmy Eat World - 23

    Greta Svabo Bech ft. Ludovico Einaudi - Circles

    The Killers – Run For Cover

    Brandon Flowers - Lonely Town

    Muse - Starlight

    Vancouver Sleep Clinic- Killing Me To Love You

    Hymn De Lune – In Your Head

    Halsey – I Walk The Line

    Halsey - Is There Somewhere

    Until The Ribbon Breaks – One Way Or Another

    Arctic Monkeys - Do I Wanna Know?

    U2 - Every Breaking Wave

    Stevie Nicks - Edge of Seventeen

    The Irrepressibles - In This Shirt

    Nirvana - Something in the Way

    Nirvana - You Know You're Right

    Awolnation – Sail

    Laura Pausini & Andrea Bocelli - Vivo Per Lei

    Adele – When We Were Young

    Oasis - Champagne Supernova

    Barcelona – Please Don't Go

    Birdy – Wings

    Melissa Etheridge - You Can Sleep While I Drive

    One Republic – All This Time

    Sleeping Wolf - The Wreck of Our Hearts

    Audioslave - Like A Stone

    Aerosmith - Cryin'

    Bruce Springsteen - Dancing In The Dark

    Radiohead - No Surprises

    Meggie's Theme - Henry Mancini

    X-Ray Dog - The Vision

    X Ray Dog - Requiem Overture

    Audiomachine - An Unfinished Life

    Audiomachine – The Truth

    Jamin Winans - Ink Soundtrack (John's Walk )

    James Horner - Briseis And Achilles – Troy

    Close Your Eyes - Buffy/Angel Theme

    Lisa Gerrard & Denez Prigent - Gortoz A Ran

    Gothic Storm - Whisper Of Hope

    The xx - Intro

    Mark Petrie – Surpass

    Balmorhea - Remembrance

    Zack Hemsey – See What I've Become

    Message To Bears – You Are a Memory

    Eagles - Hotel California

    BØRNS - American Money

    Temple Of The Dog - Hunger Strike

    Linkin Park – One More Light

    Pearl Jam – Black

    Massive Attack – Teardrop

    Eminem feat Sia - Beautiful Pain

    Gnash - I hate u, I love u ft. olivia o'brien

    Lana Del Rey – Mariners Apartment Complex

    LP – Girls Go Wild

    Civil Twilight – How'm I Supposed To Die

    Frida Sundemo – The Sun

    Kygo – This Town

    Jason Walker – Echo

    Paper Route – Dance on our graves

    Bat For Lashes - Siren Song

    The Replacements - Here Comes A Regular

    The Neighbourhood - Sweater Weather

    Florence + The Machine - Sky Full Of Song

    Leonard Cohen - In My Secret Life

  • Jafar

    This book was interesting, I guess. Lots of anecdotes about the effect of music on behavior and personality, but not enough analysis. Sacks usually is more of a story teller than a hardcore neuroscientist in his popular book – at least in the other two that I’ve read by him – but in this book he fails to be a good story teller too. Too many tidbits and little stories. I definitely recommend

    over this book if you’re interested in a real scientific analysis of music and

    This book was interesting, I guess. Lots of anecdotes about the effect of music on behavior and personality, but not enough analysis. Sacks usually is more of a story teller than a hardcore neuroscientist in his popular book – at least in the other two that I’ve read by him – but in this book he fails to be a good story teller too. Too many tidbits and little stories. I definitely recommend

    over this book if you’re interested in a real scientific analysis of music and our obsession with it.

    Every time that I read a book by Sacks or something similar I get a depressing feeling of being a slave to my brain. It just reinforces the idea that we are our brains. You don’t need to have any of the weird and often fascinating problems that Sacks’ patients have. Even in us “ordinary” people, our personality and behavior are governed by our brain chemistry and neural connectivity. Anatomy is destiny, as Freud said, if anatomy is to mean brain. The positive side is that this way of looking at people can lead to a better understanding and acceptance of others. Next time that you encounter someone with an unpleasant personality trait, or an annoying behavior, or a different outlook to life than yours, just remember that he has a different brain organization from yours. He’s just different from you. This helps to accept people and become less judgmental.

  • Huda Aweys

    في كتابي (الصوت روح) أشرت الى كوني مطمئنة ، و واثقة من أن الله عز و جل قد وفرّ للصم مداخل أخرى لأرواحهم (كوني عبرت عن نظريتي الروحانية حول السمع و عن كونه نافذة للروح و مدخل لها) ، .. و عن كوني لا املك فكرة حاليا عن تلك المداخل او الوسائل ، و ان كنت انوي بحثها مستقبلا

    ،،

    لأعثر الآن على سند (الى حد ما ، ليس سيئا كبداية لبحثي على الأقل ! ) لما قلت ، في كتاب علمي بحت .. هو هذا الكتاب الذي بين يدي الآن :

    في كتابي (الصوت روح) أشرت الى كوني مطمئنة ، و واثقة من أن الله عز و جل قد وفرّ للصم مداخل أخرى لأرواحهم (كوني عبرت عن نظريتي الروحانية حول السمع و عن كونه نافذة للروح و مدخل لها) ، .. و عن كوني لا املك فكرة حاليا عن تلك المداخل او الوسائل ، و ان كنت انوي بحثها مستقبلا

    ،،

    لأعثر الآن على سند (الى حد ما ، ليس سيئا كبداية لبحثي على الأقل ! ) لما قلت ، في كتاب علمي بحت .. هو هذا الكتاب الذي بين يدي الآن :

    ****************************************

    و عودة الى الكتاب .. ، في حالة سيكوريا ، هو رجل اقترب جدا من الموت ، و ذاك الاقتراب هو ما كان العامل المشترك فيما بينه و بين هؤلاء ممن لم يصعقهم البرق ! او يعانوا من امراض فيزيائية او سيكولوجية ، و الذي اشار الكاتب الى كونهم شعروا بالتحول الى الموسيقى في عقدهم الخامس و السادس و السابع .. وحتى التاسع ، ففي تلك السن يهدأ الانسان عن ذي قبل .. و يركز على جوهر الحياة اكثر من ذي قبل كذلك .. فهي سن منبهه للموت كالأمراض و الصواعق و التجارب الروحانية تماما

    !

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