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Saturday, January 3rd, 2009
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Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain

by Oliver Sacks

This Is Your Disordered Brain on Music

A review by Doug Brown

Oliver Sacks has been a working neurologist for over 40 years. Thus, when he wants to use specific examples to illustrate a point, he has many at the tip of his pen to choose from. Note the subtitle: Tales of Music and the Brain. This is not a traditional nonfiction book about music and the brain like Levitin's This is Your Brain on Music; it is largely stories about people. The majority of the book consists of case histories of various patients Sacks has seen over the decades. Thus, Musicophilia is more about how the brain doesn't perceive music than about how it does; but often we learn how the brain does things by seeing how it fails.

The first section concerns musical hallucinations. While this might seem a pleasant delusion, many of Sacks's patients have endured deafening music, or had the experience of hearing music converted into unbearable noise. Here is where Sacks's wealth of experience can work against him; the section is over 50 pages of a similar story told with subtle differences. Patient X heard music, thought someone had a radio on, realized the music followed them around and was actually in their head; tests revealed no brain damage; certain drugs helped the patient cope, and after a while they just learned to live with it. If you like reading about other people's problems, there's enough schadenfreude here for a lifetime.

I suspect some of the chapters were originally separate articles, as information repeats through the book. Twice we are told Nabokov's quote about music (“Music, I regret to say, affects me merely as an arbitrary succession of more or less irritating sounds”). We are also twice given in footnotes the same Anthony Storr excerpt about listening to Mozart on mescaline (“Each time a theme repeated, it came as a surprise”). In neither case is it acknowledged we have already been told this; both times it is as if new data is being presented. Sacks also acknowledges that many of the case histories given here have already been given in his previous books.

These petty criticisms aside, Sacks is an engaging writer and tells stories well. The section on absolute pitch was particularly fascinating for me, as it was the subject of an argument between my mother and a piano tuner. The tuner argued there is no such thing, that all pitch is relative. Sacks shows it is an actual phenomenon, and there is even a part of the brain that is more developed in people with absolute pitch. Score one for my mom. Other sections cover such diverse topics as rhythmic movement and music, musical dreams, and musical savants.

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. Just don't come to it expecting to be told how the brain functions; that is for other books. Sacks is more interested in people and their personal experiences than in giving lectures. One theme that comes out through the various case histories is there are no magic cures, nor are there universal treatments. A drug or therapy that works wonders for patient A will have little effect on patient B, even though both have the same symptoms. We are all individuals, and Sacks revels in this fact. His humanity shines through in all his works, and Musicophilia is no exception. And along the way, by studying how the brain fails to perceive music, we gain fascinating hints about how it does.

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