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Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain

by

Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain Cover

 

 

Reading Group Guide

Reader's Guide

1. In the preface Sacks presents differing views on the origins and evolution of the music instinct [p. x]. On first reading, which explanation is the most persuasive? Did the book change or confirm your opinion?

2. Discuss the style and structure of Musicophilia. How does Sacks blend personal anecdotes, case histories, theories, and empirical research into an engaging narrative? How does he bring out the humanity of the patients he describes? What do the explanations of complex brain functions add to the portraits of each individual?

3. Tony Cicoria “grew to think [that he] . . . had been transformed and given a special gift, a mission, to 'tune in' to the music that he called, half metaphorically, 'the music from heaven'”[p. 7]. Is art by its very nature a “spiritual” endeavor? Does Sacks's conclusion that “even the most exalted states of mind, the most astounding transformations, must have some physical basis or at least some physiological correlate in neural activity” [p. 12] belittle the value of artistic expression?

4. In chapter four (Music on the Brain: Imagery and Imagination) and chapter five (Brainworms, Sticky Music, and Catchy Tunes), Sacks explores normal musical imagery, which almost everyone experiences, and the pathological version, when “music repeats itself incessantly, sometimes maddeningly, for days on end” [p. 44]. Do his explanations of the psychological and neurological components of these phenomena support his suggestion that people are more susceptible to brainworms today because of the pervasiveness of music in our lives [p. 53]? Does Anthony Storr's theory that even unwanted music has a positive effect [p. 42] mitigate Sacks's darker outlook?

5. The stories of musical hallucinations demonstrate the disruptive power of music [pp. 54-92]. Using these stories as a starting point, discuss the distinction between the “brain” and the “mind.” What accounts for the different ways people react to involuntary mental intrusions? What do the various coping mechanisms people employ reveal about biological determination and the exercise of choice and free will?

6. “Musicality comprises a great range of skills and receptivities, from the most elementary perceptions of pitch and tempo to the highest aspects of musical intelligence and sensibility…” [p. 104]. What do Sacks's descriptions of extreme conditions like amusia and disharmonia show about the many factors—neurological, cultural, and experiential—that shape an individual's response to music?

7. Sacks also introduces people who represent the “highest aspects of musical intelligence and sensibility.” What insights do these examples of extraordinary or unusual gifts offer into average musical sensibilities? What do his examinations of absolute pitch and synesthesia, as well as his stories about musical savants and the high level of musicality among blind people, reveal about the brain's innate strengths and weaknesses?

8. The story of Clive Wearing is one of the most memorable tales in Musicophilia. While it illustrates the persistence of musical memory with clarity and precision, it is much more than a well-written “case history.” How does Sacks capture the emotional impact of Wearing's devastating amnesia without descending into melodrama or sentimentality? What details help create a sense of Wearing as a distinct and sympathetic individual? What is the significance of Deborah's description of Clive's “at-homeness in music” and their continuing love for one another [p. 228]?

9. Music therapy is used to treat conditions ranging from Parkinson's and other movement disorders to Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia. In what ways does music therapy represent the perfect intersection of scientific knowledge and deep-seated personality traits like intuition, creativity, and compassion?

10. The relationship between music and universal human activities is a central theme in Musicophilia. Sacks writes, for instance, “The embedding of words, skills, or sequences in melody and meter is uniquely human. The usefulness of such an ability to recall large amounts of information, particularly in preliterate culture, is surely one reason why musical abilities have flourished in our species” [p. 260]. Drawing on the stories and studies presented in Musicophilia and on your own experiences, discuss the roles music plays in human society. Talk about its importance in creating a sense of community, evoking spiritual or religious feelings, and stimulating sexual desire, for example.

11. In a review for The New York Review of Books [March 6, 2008] Colin McGinn noted “Sacks generally confines himself to classical music, saying little specifically about jazz and rock music.” How do the emotional, psychological, and physical reactions to popular music differ from those elicited by classical music? Do you think a familiarity with or preference for certain kinds of music might influence a reader's reaction to Musicophilia?

12. What does Musicophilia show about science's ability to resolve intriguing quirks and mysteries? What do the new technology Sacks describes portend for future discoveries about how the brain works?

13. Does Musicophilia offer a new way of understanding what makes us human? Which facts, theories, or speculations did you find particularly compelling?

What Our Readers Are Saying

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Average customer rating based on 5 comments:

Lindsay Waite, December 8, 2013 (view all comments by Lindsay Waite)
I am always intrigued by music and how it originates in people. Musicians like Mozart seemed to have a muse feeding them notes, chord patterns, melodies, and beauty. I read this book also to see what parts of the brain are involved in the creation of music. It is interesting - filled with anecdotes on prodigies, how people with certain ailments (like Parkinson's) are helped with music, the result of brain injuries with respect to musical skills, and so forth. I'm not sure I came away with anything to answer my query other than some knowledge of the parts of the brain involved, but nevertheless it's a book that was worthy of my time.
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Anne Pardington, September 1, 2011 (view all comments by Anne Pardington)
I have always been fascinated by the insights of Oliver Sacks, and this book was most meaningful because I have a hearing loss and have never been able to carry a tune. I didn't follow all the info about the brain, but now I know my problem is related to the loss. I was especially delighted, again, by his writing style, and by the real life stories of people affected by music, even if they had lost the ability to speak.
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Virginia LaBrie, January 26, 2011 (view all comments by Virginia LaBrie)
As a follower of Dr Sacks, all his books are fascinating! This one in particular takes the reader along on an adventure of discovery from those persons who are totally tone deaf, can't bear hearing music, struck by lightening and become composers and concert pianists to those who hear music in their brains, and are not mentally ill. It shows how the people afflicted with degenerative disorders such as Parkinsons and Alzimers can participate in the rhythm of music when hearing it and move as though these disorders were not a part of their daily lives. All in all, an eye opener which increases the appreciation of all the ways music can be different, healing and necessary for total health.
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Product Details

ISBN:
9781400033539
Author:
Sacks, Oliver
Publisher:
Vintage Books USA
Subject:
Creative Ability
Subject:
Neurology - General
Subject:
Instruction & Study - Appreciation
Subject:
Music
Subject:
Psychological aspects
Subject:
Music -- Psychological aspects.
Subject:
Music -- Physiological aspects.
Subject:
Neurology
Subject:
Neuropsychology
Subject:
Psychology : General
Copyright:
Edition Description:
Trade paper
Series:
Vintage
Publication Date:
20080931
Binding:
TRADE PAPER
Grade Level:
General/trade
Language:
English
Pages:
448
Dimensions:
7.93 x 5.19 x 1.23 in 1 lb

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Related Subjects

Arts and Entertainment » Music » General History
Arts and Entertainment » Music » History and Criticism
Arts and Entertainment » Music » Instruction and Study » Music Appreciation
Arts and Entertainment » Music » Psychology of Music
Arts and Entertainment » Music » Reference
Health and Self-Help » Health and Medicine » Brain
Health and Self-Help » Health and Medicine » Essays
Health and Self-Help » Health and Medicine » Medical Specialties
Health and Self-Help » Psychology » Cognitive Science
Health and Self-Help » Psychology » General
Health and Self-Help » Psychology » Mind and Consciousness
Reference » Science Reference » General
Science and Mathematics » Biology » Neurobiology
Science and Mathematics » Featured Titles in Tech » General

Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain Used Trade Paper
0 stars - 0 reviews
$10.95 In Stock
Product details 448 pages Vintage Books USA - English 9781400033539 Reviews:
"Review A Day" by , "Despite the repetition of quotes and the overall 'theme and variations' feel to each section, Musicophilia is an intriguing book for anyone interested in music and brain function." (read the entire Powells.com review)
"Review" by , Readers will be grateful that Sacks . . . is happy to revel in phenomena that he cannot yet explain.
"Review" by , A gifted writer and a neurologist, Sacks spins one fascinating tale after another to show what happens when music and the brain mix it up.
"Review" by , Powerful and compassionate. . . . A book that not only contributes to our understanding of the elusive magic of music but also illuminates the strange workings, and misfirings, of the human mind.
"Review" by , Sacks has an expert bedside manner: informed but humble, self-questioning, literary without being self-conscious.
"Review" by , Sacks once again examines the many mysteries of a fascinating subject.
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