August 3, 2008 at 8:54 pm | Posted in Nonfiction | 1 Comment

You probably recognize Oliver Sacks through two of his earlier works, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Awakenings, which was made into a film with Robin Williams.  If you haven’t read any of his stuff, give it a try, because he’s that rara avis, a brilliant scientific mind who writes well for a popular audience.

Sacks is a neurologist.  He’s also a writer, a swimmer, a mountain climber, and a musician.  Come on, man, do you have to be good at everything??  In Musicophilia, he discusses how music affects the brain, and brings together stories about how different types of psychiatric anomalies revolve around music.  These are some fascinating tales.  You know what it’s like to have a song stuck in your head – well, that’s nothing compared to what some of these patients face every day.

An intriguing question lurking in this book is what role music plays in our basic humanity.  There is a theory that music and language somehow evolved together.  It appears that our brains are designed to appreciate music.  And when something goes wrong there, watch out!  This book is hard to put down, but doubly so for anyone with a musical background or an interest in clinical psychiatry.

I was surprised to find that Sacks mentions other people like me.  I have musical training and a good ear, but I can’t stand to listen to music if I have to try to concentrate on anything else.  I don’t like to play it in the car, I don’t like it on in the background, I can’t work when it’s playing, and there’s no hope of sleep if I can hear it anywhere.  It’s painful to listen to music I don’t like.  Yet I really love music, and nothing is finer than to be lost in the notes.  You’d just never know it to look at me.

My grandmother was lost to Alzheimer’s last year.  She couldn’t remember her own children’s names, had no idea what year it was, and could no longer read.  We would entertain her by playing videos of her favorite old musicals.  Every single time, she would claim she’d never seen the movie before.  But she would warble along with every song, from My Fair Lady to South Pacific to Oklahoma!.  One night she managed to change the channel away from her usual station.  I came in to find her watching gangsta rap videos, tapping her toes like it was Glen Miller.  It definitely seems true that musical memory resides in a different place than the rest of our memory.

Musicophilia brought these stories to mind, as well as many others.  Reading it is bound to have you examining the music in your life in a different way.  Just be careful that all the mentions of folk songs and commercial jingles don’t get stuck in your head while you read.


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  1. I am really curious to read this book. I’ve read a few others by Sacks, and they were very interesting.

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