Book review: Musicophilia

Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, by Oliver Sacks.
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007

The latest book of essays on neuroscience by Oliver Sacks looks at various aspects of brain function as they relate to music. He focuses not just on how the brain processes and understands music but what music means to us and how it makes us who we are. I admire the compassion and humanity that always seem to fill Sacks’s writing, and this book illustrates those qualities beautifully.

Sacks often writes about people who have suffered an injury or illness or congenital condition that in some way limits their ability to live a normal life. You would think that reading a series of essays about such people would be depressing, leading as it does to a horrified realization of the fragility of our brains and the frightening possibilities for the loss of mental faculties that we rely on and that in some cases even seem to define us. Sacks has the gift of somehow making this material uplifting, of emphasizing the joys of being human even as he shows us the hazards.

Partway through this book, it’s true, I started to wonder about the strength of the thread that tied together these tales of loss and the ways they illuminate brain functions. But as I continued to read, I saw that the theme of the book was indeed strong enough to tie together the stories and make the book seem like more than the sum of its parts–and that the theme is not just music, but identity.

The book contains four sections, each covering some facet of music and the brain. The first section examines cases of music taking over the brain in one way or another: musical hallucinations, earworms (tunes that you can’t get out of your head), epilepsy that is triggered by music, and an astonishing case of a man’s life being utterly transformed by an intense passion for music that developed after he was struck by lightning. The second section looks at different aspects of musical ability, where they arise and how they vary from person to person. The stories here are not all about disabilities; Sacks also discusses people with synesthesia, a sensory blending in which input from one sense bleeds over into the perception of another. Sometimes I feel envious of synesthetes, and the associations some of them have between, for example, musical pitches or keys or timbres and colors are fascinating.

In the third section, Sacks looks at the connections between music, memory, and movement–this is where he tells the story of Clive Wearing, whose severe amnesia dissects his life into seconds-long fragments of consciousness unconnected with each other–except when he’s playing or conducting music, which provides a thread that links his moments. He also tells of people with Parkinson’s, Tourette’s, and other movement disorders, and how music can help them regain fluidity, focus, and control.

The last section makes explicit the connection between music and identity that is also explored elsewhere in the book. This was in some ways the most moving section of all for me. In fact, when I first brought the book home, I turned immediately to the essay on music and depression. As is the case throughout the book, Sacks weaves his own experiences into the stories he’s telling, and I found so much that rang true from my own experiences of depression. It feels very good to see someone else articulate something that you have felt but haven’t been able to put into words, and this chapter was full of moments like that for me. I was particularly struck by his observation that while sad music “makes one experience pain and grief more intensely, it brings solace and consolation at the same time.” This paradox explains why listening to recordings of the Requiems by Mozart or Brahms or Fauré can make me feel so much better. When you tell someone that you’re listening to a Requiem to make yourself feel better, it can sounds like a perverse undertaking, but it does work. The final chapter of the book is about music and dementias like Alzheimer’s. I was surprised to learn about the ways that music therapy can help people with dementia, and touched by the observation that music can still reach people after most of their other connections to who they were have gone. For some reason the closing of the book called to mind some lines from a Wendell Berry poem: “Only music keeps us here, each by all the others held.”

If you’ve read the book (or even if you haven’t), you might enjoy this article from Seed Magazine about Oliver Sacks. It is partly about the book, but it also describes how he came to be the scientist and writer he is today. I was astonished to learn that someone who looked at a journal Sacks kept about his travels when he was young commented on the lack of humanity and compassion in his writing. Those are exactly the qualities that have always most struck me in his work. The article describes what happened in Sack’s life to fill his work with grace. It’s a beautiful read.