Jeff's Reviews > Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain

Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks
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's review
Sep 13, 2011

it was amazing
Read from August 13 to September 12, 2011

I've been a musician for most of my life. When I saw this book the first time (several years ago), I really wanted to read it, but didn't buy it at the time. A month or so ago, I saw it again in a Barnes & Noble store. This time I bought it. This book is amazing. And while Oliver Sachs goes way over my head frequently (there are a number of medical terms in the book), most of what is written in this book goes straight to the heart. In fact, I found myself either terrified or depressed much of the time that I was reading.
Let me explain that. The first section is called "Haunted by Music." In this part, he writes about people who have musical hallucinations, people who get music stuck in their heads, and even "musical seizures." Most of us get songs stuck in our heads sometimes. These are people who get music stuck in their head to the point that it disables them! Some of them even physically hear music, when there is none playing anywhere.
The second part dealt with conditions such as "amusia" and "dysharmonia." These are conditions in which music becomes unpleasant, even to the point of being just noise. People who previously enjoyed music developed conditions where they couldn't stand it because it did not sound like music any more. This terrifies me, because most of the examples occurred later in life. There was also a chapter about absolute pitch, which I don't have, but certainly could understand how it could be both wonderful and maddening all at the same time. There was also a chapter about "synesthesia." This is the correlation between two unrelated things, like, for example, music and color. One example was a person who insisted that D major was blue. There was a chapter on music and blindness. I guess I never thought about how many great musicians were blind!
Part 3 had to do with "Memory, MOvement, and Music." There was a section on music and amnesia, which probably contained the most beautifully tragic story I have ever heard. Clive Wearing developed one of the most severe cases of amnesia ever recorded after being struck by an encephalitis infection. He had a memory span of a few seconds. By some miracle (and this has been documented in other cases, especially Alzheimer's cases), he retained musical memory. He could still play piano beautifully. He could be shown a book of music, say he had never seen or played them before, and then sit down and play it perfectly. His relationship with his wife, Deborah, was amazing. He somehow remembered that she was his wife, but ever time she came home, he greeted her as though she had been gone for months. She has written a book called Forever Today. There are other chapters in this section about music and Tourette's Syndrome, Parkinson's Disease, and even a condition known as Dystonia, in which a musician loses control of a muscle used to play the instrument.
The final section, called "Emotion, Identity, and Music" gets into musical dreams, madness and melancholia, a condition I had never heard of before, called Williams Syndrome, and ends up with a tragic section on Dementia and music.
One result of reading this book was a definite interest in music therapy. There seem to be great benefits in dealing with patients of dementia and Alzheimer's with music therapy, although the method differs with each condition.
I would recommend this book to anyone who truly loves music, but even more so to anyone who loves music and is interested in brain studies.

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