Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain

( 44 )

Overview

Revised and Expanded

With the same trademark compassion and erudition he brought to The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Oliver Sacks explores the place music occupies in the brain and how it affects the human condition. In Musicophilia, he shows us a variety of what he calls “musical misalignments.” Among them: a man struck by lightning who suddenly desires to become a pianist at the age of forty-two; an entire group of children with Williams syndrome, who are hypermusical ...

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Overview

Revised and Expanded

With the same trademark compassion and erudition he brought to The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Oliver Sacks explores the place music occupies in the brain and how it affects the human condition. In Musicophilia, he shows us a variety of what he calls “musical misalignments.” Among them: a man struck by lightning who suddenly desires to become a pianist at the age of forty-two; an entire group of children with Williams syndrome, who are hypermusical from birth; people with “amusia,” to whom a symphony sounds like the clattering of pots and pans; and a man whose memory spans only seven seconds-for everything but music. Illuminating, inspiring, and utterly unforgettable, Musicophilia is Oliver Sacks' latest masterpiece.

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Editorial Reviews

Michiko Kakutani
Dr. Sacks writes not just as a doctor and a scientist but also as a humanist with a philosophical and literary bent, and he's able in these pages to convey both the fathomless mysteries of the human brain and the equally profound mysteries of music…
—The New York Times
Anthony Gottlieb
Freud, despite being both Viennese and a medical man, said he was almost incapable of obtaining any pleasure from music: "Some rationalistic, or perhaps analytic, turn of mind in me rebels against being moved by a thing without knowing why I am thus affected and what it is that affects me." In the end, Sacks's catalog of oddities sheds little systematic light on the mystery of music. He cannot be blamed for this—the science of music is still in its early days. Readers will probably be grateful that Sacks, unlike Freud, is happy to revel in phenomena that he cannot yet explain.
—The New York Times Book Review
Peter D. Kramer
What makes Musicophilia cohere is Sacks himself. He is the book's moral argument. Curious, cultured, caring, in his person Sacks justifies the medical profession and, one is tempted to say, the human race. Nothing is alien to him. If he has been saved by music, he also has been briefly afflicted by amusia, an inability to hear music as music, rather than "toneless banging." In his daily consciousness, Sacks embraces music at an extraordinary level. He writes in passing, "I have lately been enjoying mental replays of Beethoven's Third and Fourth Piano Concertos, as recorded by Leon Fleisher in the 1960s. These 'replays' tend to last ten or fifteen minutes and to consist of entire movements." Sacks is, in short, the ideal exponent of the view that responsiveness to music is intrinsic to our makeup. He is also the ideal guide to the territory he covers. Musicophilia allows readers to join Sacks where he is most alive, amid melodies and with his patients.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

Sacks is an unparalleled chronicler of modern medicine, and fans of his work will find much to enjoy when he turns his prodigious talent for observation to music and its relationship to the brain. The subtitle aptly frames the book as a series of medical case studies-some in-depth, some abruptly short. The tales themselves range from the relatively mundane (a song that gets stuck on a continuing loop in one's mind) through the uncommon (Tourette's or Parkinson's patients whose symptoms are calmed by particular kinds of music) to the outright startling (a man struck by lightning subsequently developed a newfound passion and talent for the concert piano). In this latest collection, Sacks introduces new and fascinating characters, while also touching on the role of music in some of his classic cases (the man who mistook his wife for a hat makes a brief appearance). Though at times the narrative meanders, drawing connections through juxtaposition while leaving broader theories to be inferred by the reader, the result is greater than the sum of its parts. This book leaves one a little more attuned to the remarkable complexity of human beings, and a bit more conscious of the role of music in our lives. (Oct.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Kirkus Reviews
The gentle doctor turns his pen to another set of mental anomalies that can be viewed as either affliction or gift. If we could prescribe what our physicians would be like, a good number of us would probably choose somebody like Sacks (Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood, 2001, etc.). Learned, endlessly inquisitive and seemingly possessed of a bottomless store of human compassion, the neurologist's authorial personality both reassures and arouses curiosity. Here, Sacks tackles the whole spectrum of the human body's experience of music by studying it from the aesthetic as well as medical viewpoint. Fantastical case studies include a young boy assaulted by musical hallucinations who would shout "Take it out of my head! Take it away!" when music only he could hear became unbearably loud. Less frightening are stories about people like Martin, a severely disabled man who committed some 2,000 operas to memory, or ruminations on the linkage between perfect pitch and language: Young children learning music are vastly more likely to have perfect pitch if they speak Mandarin than almost any other language. A gadfly and storyteller as well as a scientist, the author can't resist a good yarn even when it's not likely to be true, such as the anecdote about Shostakovich claiming that he heard beautiful new melodies every time he tilted his head to one side, due to a piece of German shrapnel lodged in his brain. Sacks is as good a guide to this mysterious and barely understood world as one could ask for, mixing serious case studies with personal takes on music and what its ultimate uses could possibly be. As the book wears on, however, his loose approach makes some later chapters more workthan they should be. Pleasantly rollicking, but with a definite hint that the grand old man is taking it easy. First printing of 100,000
From the Publisher
“Dr. Sacks writes not just as a doctor and a scientist but also as a humanist with a philosophical and literary bent. . . [his] book not only contributes to our understanding of the elusive magic of music but also illuminates the strange workings, and misfirings, of the human mind.”
–Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
“Oliver Sacks turns his formidable attention to music and the brain . . . He doesn’t stint on the science . . . but the underlying authority of Musicophilia lies in the warmth and easy command of the author’s voice.”
–Mark Coleman, Los Angeles Times
“His work is luminous, original, and indispensable . . . Musicophilia is a Chopin mazurka recital of a book, fast, inventive and weirdly beautiful . . . Yet what is most awe-inspiring is his observational empathy.”
American Scholar

“Curious, cultured, caring, in his person Sacks justifies the medical profession and, one is tempted to say, the human race . . . Sacks is, in short, the ideal exponent of the view that responsiveness to music is intrinsic to our makeup. He is also the ideal guide to the territory he covers. Musicophilia allows readers to join Sacks where he is most alive, amid melodies and with his patients.”
–Peter D. Kramer, The Washington Post

“Readers will be grateful that Sacks . . . is happy to revel in phenomena that he cannot yet explain.”
The New York Times Book Review

“The persuasive essays about composers, patients, savants, and ordinary people . . . offer captivating variations on the central premise that human beings are ‘exquisitely tuned’ to the illuminating yet ultimately mysterious powers of music.”
Elle

“With the exception of Lewis Thomas, no physician has ever written better about his trade.”
Salon

“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.”
–Newsweek

The Barnes & Noble Review
When I told my parents that I was pregnant with their first grandchild, my father said, almost sternly, "Well, dear, I do hope you're singing to the baby." I don't know if encouraging an ear for music is an optional stage of fetal development -- it just might be inevitable. The neurologist and essayist Oliver Sacks, in his book of essays entitled Musicophilia, takes on the mysterious internal human drives towards music, often against tough odds. Almost everyone possesses the "neural apparatus" for appreciating music -- Sacks will go on to tell us about some people who, through various neurological accidents, have lost it -- but the sheer human fact of appreciating music at all, he points out, is a very weird thing. "[I]t has no concepts, makes no propositions; it lacks images, symbols, the stuff of language. It has no power of representation. It has no necessary relation to the world."

As a largely internal and nonverbal experience, music can lead to thoughts of solipsism -- perhaps especially in the age of the iPod. What is it other people hear when they listen? And yet we seem to have proof in normal contexts that we are not locked in our own experience of music. We can play and sing and dance in concert with one another, share a smile over a remembered phrase, and so forth. Sacks' job, in his office and this book, is more difficult. He must try "to imagine and enter" into the experiences of people who have had highly anomalous things happen to them.

He considers, for instance, the extreme case of musicophilia -- a sudden onrush of love for, even obsession with, music. Take the orthopedic surgeon who listened, in a casual sort of way, to rock music. Then he was struck by lightning. He survived to find himself consumed with a passion for classical piano music -- he even began to compose it -- that fundamentally altered the course of his life. Synesthesia -- one sense fused to another -- is slightly more common; while some people seem to be born experiencing sound in terms of color, others develop the condition as they age. Still, synesthesia seems to be highly individualized, so that the composer Michael Torke, for example, experiences G Major as bright yellow and D Minor as "like flint, graphite," while for the composer David Caldwell it is the key of B-flat that is "clear and golden." One musician tastes intervals -- minor seconds and major sevenths are sour, a fifth is pure water. The romantic fantasist and composer E.T.A. Hoffmann even describes a character as "a little man in a coat the color of C sharp minor with an E major colored collar." Where in the range of debility and blessing should we put people with Williams syndrome? Their chromosomal glitch debilitates them severely in some areas -- leaving them with an inability to recognize spatial relations, for instance -- and yet grants them extraordinary joy in music.

Hypersensitivity to music can bring with it irritations -- surely we all know the maddening mental repetitions of a jingle or fragmentary snatches from some tune we never liked much to begin with and certainly won't after being possessed by it. Borrowing the German word Ohrwurm, English now has the useful word "earworm" to describe these "cognitively infectious musical agents." Considering the ubiquity of Muzak and iPods, Sacks wonders if such earworms are "to some extent, a modern phenomenon." I suspect he's partly right -- we're all exposed willy-nilly to more music now than ever before -- but English already had its own evocative term for a piece of music that won't let you go: maggot. Plenty of 17th- and 18th-century dance tunes were even called -- whether descriptively or hopefully -- things like "Mr. Isaac's Maggot" (Mr. Isaac was the dancing master to the Stuart court, so a successful maggot could even then bring financial reward).

Worse than temporary earworms and maggots are permanent conditions or alterations such as amusia, in which music makes no sense but sounds discordant, sometimes to the point of nausea. As a lifelong lover of counterpoint, I had never before contemplated the horrifying possibility of having too much of an ear for polyphony. One composer who had been in a coma after a car accident now experiences music as completely discrete lines of sound, "thin, sharp laser beams"; she suffers the agony of life without harmony, without the integrations of disparate voices into a meaningful beauty.

The most painful case to read, I found, is of the English musician Clive Wearing, who more than 20 years ago lost all but the shortest-term memory. Locked outside the flow of time -- like Zeno's stop-motion arrow, never reaching the target -- he has found himself close to despair. But music still possesses the power to tie all his discrete "nows" together, so that, even if only temporarily, he can feel himself move forward through time. His wife, the sole other aspect of his past he remembers, describes him playing: "The momentum of the music carried Clive from bar to bar. Within the structure of the piece, he was held, as if the staves were tramlines and there was only one way to go. He knew exactly where he was because in every phrase there is context implied, by rhythm, key, melody. It was marvelous to be free. When the music stopped Clive fell through to the lost place. But for those moments he was playing he seemed normal."

Tales like this remind us not to underrate the normal. "What then is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is," sighs St. Augustine plaintively. When Augustine tried to figure out this big abstraction, it is partly to music that he turned: "A person singing or listening to a song he knows well undergoes a distension or stretching in feeling because he is partly anticipating words still to come and partly remembering words already sung." God, in Augustine's view, might be the only being who can simultaneously know and experience the totality of time, but music gives us a glimpse of that freedom to feel both the momentary and the eternal.

In works like Awakenings and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Oliver Sacks has proven to be beautifully tuned to both the calibrations of the brain and the appearances -- sometimes mere traces -- of personality in the cases brought before his clinical attention. That is, while he is obviously fascinated by the mechanics -- the physical causes behind why someone is experiencing life differently -- he doesn't reduce the people before him to bundles of medical happenstance but always also seeks the particularities of that self. Many of the lives in Sacks' book are so distorted by severe neurological traumas that it would be easy to classify them as monstrous mistakes of nature from which a human -- all-too-human -- reaction is to avert our eyes with a shudder. We would be wrong. That arch-antisentimentalist Nietzsche asserted, "Without music, life would be a mistake." Sacks, equally unsentimental, amends Nietzsche. Conceiving of life without music is, at some fundamental level, a human impossibility. --Alexandra Mullen

Alexandra Mullen left a life as an academic in Victorian literature to return to her roots as a general reader. She now writes for The Hudson Review (where she is also an Advisory Editor), The New Criterion, and The Wall Street Journal.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781400033539
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 9/23/2008
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 425
  • Sales rank: 66,715
  • Product dimensions: 8.04 (w) x 5.28 (h) x 1.18 (d)

Meet the Author

Oliver Sacks

Oliver Sacks is the author of Awakenings, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, and many other books, for which he has received numerous awards, including the Hawthornden Prize, a Polk Award, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and lives in New York City, where he is a practicing neurologist. He recently accepted a new position at Columbia University.

www.oliversacks.com

Biography

"I think writing and language are not just to articulate or communicate, but they are also to investigate," the writer and neurologist Oliver Sacks once said. "For me, writing and medicine, writing and science, are not separate: they entail each other." Sacks grew up in a large and prodigiously gifted family of scientists; with their encouragement, he set up his own chemistry lab and spent his days in a swirl of sulfurous fumes and smoke. He was also fascinated by biographies, and spent hours poring over the lives of great scientists like Dmitri Mendeleev, Humphrey Davy,and Marie Curie. When the chaos of World War II and traumatic experiences at boarding school intruded on the "lyrical, mystical perceptions" of Sacks' childhood, he clung to scientific knowledge as a means of ordering and understanding the universe.

After his medical training at Oxford, Sacks migrated to the States to pursue a career in neurology research. But he made a clumsy lab researcher. "I was always dropping things or breaking things," he explained in a lecture, "and eventually they said: 'Get out! Go work with patients. They're less important.'" Sacks went to work at Beth Abraham Hospital in the Bronx, where he was struck by the sight of patients who had survived encephalitis lethargica, the "sleeping sickness." The patients were nearly immobile, but the nurses who cared for them insisted that there were living personalities behind the frozen masks, and Sacks believed the nurses. The story of his work with these patients is told in Sacks' 1973 book Awakenings, which inspired a movie starring Robin Williams and Robert DeNiro and also formed the basis of a play by Harold Pinter.

But Sacks is perhaps best known for his collections of case histories (The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, An Anthropologist on Mars et al.), which probe the experiences of people with disorders and rare neurological conditions. In telling their stories, he often questions our assumptions about the nature of human consciousness. Part what distinguishes Sacks' work from the traditional case study is his interest in how a patient functions with a disorder, not just how he or she is impaired by it.

Sacks has also drawn on personal experience for wonderfully resonant scientific memoirs that recall his remarkable family, people who have influenced and inspired him, and his lifelong love of medicine and physical science. Meanwhile, he continues to work with patients, to understand them through writing about them, and to point his readers toward new ways of understanding themselves. As Thomas P. Sakmar, interim president of Rockefeller University, said in awarding Sacks the Lewis Thomas Prize: "Sacks presses us to follow him into uncharted regions of human experience -- and compels us to realize, once there, that we are confronting only ourselves."

Good To Know

As a child, Sacks was fascinated by the periodic table of the elements at the Science Museum in London. His boyhood love of chemistry hasn't waned: according to an article in Wired, Sacks owns half a dozen T-shirts with the periodic table printed on them, along with periodic-table coffee mugs, tote bags and mousepads.

Sacks's memoir Uncle Tungsten inspired the creation of Theodore Gray's Periodic Table Table, a wooden table representing Mendeleev's table of the elements and containing samples of each element. Sacks later paid a visit to see the Periodic Table Table -- wearing, of course, one of his periodic-table T-shirts.

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    1. Hometown:
      New York, New York
    1. Date of Birth:
      1933
    2. Place of Birth:
      London, England
    1. Education:
      B.M., B.Ch., Queen's College, Oxford, 1958

Read an Excerpt

A Bolt from the Blue: Sudden Musicophilia

Tony Cicoria was forty-two, very fit and robust, a former college football player who had become a well-regarded orthopedic surgeon in a small city in upstate New York. He was at a lakeside pavilion for a family gathering one fall afternoon. It was pleasant and breezy, but he noticed a few storm clouds in the distance; it looked like rain.

He went to a pay phone outside the pavilion to make a quick call to his mother (this was in 1994, before the age of cell phones). He still remembers every single second of what happened next: "I was talking to my mother on the phone. There was a little bit of rain, thunder in the distance. My mother hung up. The phone was a foot away from where I was standing when I got struck. I remember a flash of light coming out of the phone. It hit me in the face. Next thing I remember, I was flying backwards."

Then—he seemed to hesitate before telling me this—"I was flying forwards. Bewildered. I looked around. I saw my own body on the ground. I said to myself, 'Oh shit, I'm dead.' I saw people converging on the body. I saw a woman—she had been standing waiting to use the phone right behind me—position herself over my body, give it CPR. . . . I floated up the stairs—my consciousness came with me. I saw my kids, had the realization that they would be okay. Then I was surrounded by a bluish-white light . . . an enormous feeling of well-being and peace. The highest and lowest points of my life raced by me. No emotion associated with these . . . pure thought, pure ecstasy. I had the perception of accelerating, being drawn up . . . there was speed and direction. Then, as I was saying to myself, 'This is the most glorious feeling I have ever had'—SLAM! I was back."

Dr. Cicoria knew he was back in his own body because he had pain—pain from the burns on his face and his left foot, where the electrical charge had entered and exited his body—and, he realized, "only bodies have pain." He wanted to go back, he wanted to tell the woman to stop giving him CPR, to let him go; but it was too late—he was firmly back among the living. After a minute or two, when he could speak, he said, "It's okay—I'm a doctor!" The woman (she turned out to be an intensive-care-unit nurse) replied, "A few minutes ago, you weren't."

The police came and wanted to call an ambulance, but Cicoria refused, delirious. They took him home instead ("it seemed to take hours"), where he called his own doctor, a cardiologist. The cardiologist, when he saw him, thought Cicoria must have had a brief cardiac arrest, but could find nothing amiss with examination or EKG. "With these things, you're alive or dead," the cardiologist remarked. He did not feel that Dr. Cicoria would suffer any further consequences of this bizarre accident.

Cicoria also consulted a neurologist—he was feeling sluggish (most unusual for him) and having some difficulties with his memory. He found himself forgetting the names of people he knew well. He was examined neurologically, had an EEG and an MRI. Again, nothing seemed amiss.

A couple of weeks later, when his energy returned, Dr. Cicoria went back to work. There were still some lingering memory problems—he occasionally forgot the names of rare diseases or surgical procedures—but all his surgical skills were unimpaired. In another two weeks, his memory problems disappeared, and that, he thought, was the end of the matter.

What then happened still fills Cicoria with amazement, even now, a dozen years later. Life had returned to normal, seemingly, when "suddenly, over two or three days, there was this insatiable desire to listen to piano music." This was completely out of keeping with anything in his past. He had had a few piano lessons as a boy, he said, "but no real interest." He did not have a piano in his house. What music he did listen to tended to be rock music.

With this sudden onset of craving for piano music, he began to buy recordings and became especially enamored of a Vladimir Ashkenazy recording of Chopin favorites—the Military Polonaise, the Winter Wind Étude, the Black Key Étude, the A-flat Polonaise, the B-flat Minor Scherzo. "I loved them all," Tony said. "I had the desire to play them. I ordered all the sheet music. At this point, one of our babysitters asked if she could store her piano in our house—so now, just when I craved one, a piano arrived, a nice little upright. It suited me fine. I could hardly read the music, could barely play, but I started to teach myself." It had been more than thirty years since the few piano lessons of his boyhood, and his fingers seemed stiff and awkward.

And then, on the heels of this sudden desire for piano music, Cicoria started to hear music in his head. "The first time," he said, "it was in a dream. I was in a tux, onstage; I was playing something I had written. I woke up, startled, and the music was still in my head. I jumped out of bed, started trying to write down as much of it as I could remember. But I hardly knew how to notate what I heard." This was not too successful—he had never tried to write or notate music before. But whenever he sat down at the piano to work on the Chopin, his own music "would come and take me over. It had a very powerful presence."

I was not quite sure what to make of this peremptory music, which would intrude almost irresistibly and overwhelm him. Was he having musical hallucinations? No, Dr. Cicoria said, they were not hallucinations—"inspiration" was a more apt word. The music was there, deep inside him—or somewhere—and all he had to do was let it come to him. "It's like a frequency, a radio band. If I open myself up, it comes. I want to say, 'It comes from heaven,' as Mozart said."

His music is ceaseless. "It never runs dry," he continued. "If anything, I have to turn it off."

Now he had to wrestle not just with learning to play the Chopin, but to give form to the music continually running in his head, to try it out on the piano, to get it on manuscript paper. "It was a terrible struggle," he said. "I would get up at four in the morning and play till I went to work, and when I got home from work I was at the piano all evening. My wife was not really pleased. I was possessed."

In the third month after being struck by lightning, then, Cicoria—once an easygoing, genial family man, almost indifferent to music—was inspired, even possessed, by music, and scarcely had time for anything else. It began to dawn on him that perhaps he had been "saved" for a special reason. "I came to think," he said, "that the only reason I had been allowed to survive was the music." I asked him whether he had been a religious man before the lightning. He had been raised Catholic, he said, but had never been particularly observant; he had some "unorthodox" beliefs, too, such as in reincarnation.

He himself, he grew to think, had had a sort of reincarnation, 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." This came, often, in "an absolute torrent" of notes with no breaks, no rests, between them, and he would have to give it shape and form. (As he said this, I thought of Caedmon, the seventh-century Anglo-Saxon poet, an illiterate goatherd who, it was said, had received the "art of song" in a dream one night, and spent the rest of his life praising God and creation in hymns and poems.)

Cicoria continued to work on his piano playing and his compositions. He got books on notation, and soon realized that he needed a music teacher. He would travel to concerts by his favorite performers but had nothing to do with musical friends in his own town or musical activities there. This was a solitary pursuit, between himself and his muse.

I asked whether he had experienced other changes since the lightning strike—a new appreciation of art, perhaps, different taste in reading, new beliefs? Cicoria said he had become "very spiritual" since his near-death experience. He had started to read every book he could find about near-death experiences and about lightning strikes. And he had got "a whole library on Tesla," as well as anything on the terrible and beautiful power of high-voltage electricity. He felt he could sometimes see "auras" of light or energy around people's bodies—he had never seen this before the lightning bolt.

Some years passed, and Cicoria's new life, his inspiration, never deserted him for a moment. He continued to work full-time as a surgeon, but his heart and mind now centered on music. He got divorced in 2004, and the same year had a fearful motorcycle accident. He had no memory of this, but his Harley was struck by another vehicle, and he was found in a ditch, unconscious and badly injured, with broken bones, a ruptured spleen, a perforated lung, cardiac contusions, and, despite his helmet, head injuries. In spite of all this, he made a complete recovery and was back at work in two months. Neither the accident nor his head injury nor his divorce seemed to have made any difference to his passion for playing and composing music.

I have never met another person with a story like Tony Cicoria's, but I have occasionally had patients with a similar sudden onset of musical or artistic interests—including Salimah M., a research chemist. In her early forties, Salimah started to have brief periods, lasting a minute or less, in which she would get "a strange feeling"—sometimes a sense that she was on a beach that she had once known, while at the same time being perfectly conscious of her current surroundings and able to continue a conversation, or drive a car, or do whatever she had been doing. Occasionally these episodes were accompanied by a "sour taste" in the mouth. She noticed these strange occurrences, but did not think of them as having any neurological significance. It was only when she had a grand mal seizure in the summer of 2003 that she went to a neurologist and was given brain scans, which revealed a large tumor in her right temporal lobe. This had been the cause of her strange episodes, which were now realized to be temporal lobe seizures. The tumor, her doctors felt, was malignant (though it was probably an oligodendroglioma, of relatively low malignancy) and needed to be removed. Salimah wondered if she had been given a death sentence and was fearful of the operation and its possible consequences; she and her husband had been told that there might be some "personality changes" following it. But in the event, the surgery went well, most of the tumor was removed, and after a period of convalescence, Salimah was able to return to her work as a chemist.

She had been a fairly reserved woman before the surgery, who would occasionally be annoyed or preoccupied by small things like dust or untidiness; her husband said she was sometimes "obsessive" about jobs that needed to be done around the house. But now, after the surgery, Salimah seemed unperturbed by such domestic matters. She had become, in the idiosyncratic words of her husband (English was not their first language), "a happy cat." She was, he declared, "a joyologist."

Salimah's new cheerfulness was apparent at work. She had worked in the same laboratory for fifteen years and had always been admired for her intelligence and dedication. But now, while losing none of this professional competence, she seemed a much warmer person, keenly sympathetic and interested in the lives and feelings of her co-workers. Where before, in a colleague's words, she had been "much more into herself," she now became the confidante and social center of the entire lab.

At home, too, she shed some of her Marie Curie-like, work-oriented personality. She permitted herself time off from her thinking, her equations, and became more interested in going to movies or parties, living it up a bit. And a new love, a new passion, entered her life. She had been "vaguely musical," in her own words, as a girl, had played the piano a little, but music had never played any great part in her life. Now it was different. She longed to hear music, to go to concerts, to listen to classical music on the radio or on CDs. She could be moved to rapture or tears by music which had carried "no special feeling" for her before. She became "addicted" to her car radio, which she would listen to while driving to work. A colleague who happened to pass her on the road to the lab said that the music on her radio was "incredibly loud"—he could hear it a quarter of a mile away. Salimah, in her convertible, was "entertaining the whole freeway."

Like Tony Cicoria, Salimah showed a drastic transformation from being only vaguely interested in music to being passionately excited by music and in continual need of it. And with both of them, there were other, more general changes, too—a surge of emotionality, as if emotions of every sort were being stimulated or released. In Salimah's words, "What happened after the surgery—I felt reborn. That changed my outlook on life and made me appreciate every minute of it."

From the Hardcover edition.

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Table of Contents

Preface

Part I: Haunted by Music
1. A Bolt from the Blue: Sudden Musicophilia
2. A Strangely Familiar Feeling: Musical Seizures
3. Fear of Music: Musicogenic Epilepsy
4. Music on the Brain: Imagery and Imagination
5. Brainworms, Sticky Music, and Catchy Tunes
6. Musical Hallucinations

Part II: A Range of Musicality
7. Sense and Sensibility: A Range of Musicality
8. Things Fall Apart: Amusia and Dysharmonia
9. Papa Blows His Nose in G: Absolute Pitch
10. Pitch Imperfect: Cochlear Amusia
11. In Living Stereo: Why We Have Two Ears
12. Two Thousand Operas: Musical Savants
13. An Auditory World: Music and Blindness
14. The Key of Clear Green: Synesthesia and Music

Part III: Memory, Movement, and Music
15. In the Moment: Music and Amnesia
16. Speech and Song: Aphasia and Music Therapy
17. Accidental Davening: Dyskinesia and Cantillation
18. Come Together: Music and Tourette’s Syndrome
19. Keeping Time: Rhythm and Movement
20. Kinetic Melody: Parkinson’s Disease and Music Therapy
21. Phantom Fingers: The Case of the One-Armed Pianist
22. Athletes of the Small Muscles: Musician’s Dystonia

Part IV: Emotion, Identity, and Music
23. Awake and Asleep: Musical Dreams
24. Seduction and Indifference
25. Lamentations: Music and Depression
26. The Case of Harry S.: Music and Emotion
27. Irrepressible: Music and the Temporal Lobes
28. A Hypermusical Species: Williams Syndrome
29. Music and Identity: Dementia and Music Therapy

Acknowledgments
Bibliography
Index

Read More Show Less

Reading Group 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?

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Customer Reviews

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 46 Customer Reviews
  • Posted November 4, 2008

    I Also Recommend:

    Truth is stranger than fiction

    Sacks relays some very interesting stories of the strange neurological cases that he has come across in his practice. The disorders sound like they were pulled straight from a science fiction book. It was a delight to read about the many tricks that the mind can play on our perceptions.<BR/><BR/>However, I was hoping for a bit more technical explanation as to why these disorder occur. I am unsure if much of this was left out because the book was meant for a general audience or if the reason is that it is not yet understood. Lacking this technical aspect, I have to admit that I eventually dulled to the novelty of the stories and found myself getting slightly bored in the second half of the book. Nonetheless, the stories are told with genuine interest and passion, making for a both interesting and enlightening read.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 12, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    This really helps me

    Musicophilia is a great book that really helps me because I am a singer with autism. I read some stories in the book that captivates for the musically active person in anyone. This is really helpful

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 20, 2013

    Musicophilia is not a single story, but a collection of differen

    Musicophilia is not a single story, but a collection of different short stories about music and the brain. The tales range from experiences we commonly have, such as songs stuck in our heads, to other less known conditions such as musical hallucinations. Oliver Sacks is not only an author, but a professor of neurology at the New York University School of Medicine as well. His expertise allows for professional input that ties the book together. The overarching message that music is a uniquely human trait is apparent throughout the book. 




    The organization of the book is excellent. Each chapter has a several stories that all revolve around a common theme such as absolute pitch or synesthesia. The stories are dissimilar enough to maintain interest rather than repeat each other, yet they all demonstrate his point. The main thing I like about this book is I can make several connections to it even though I've never been struck by lightning followed by a sudden case of musical genius or had an epileptic fit over music. Instead of only considering rare cases of music and the brain, Sacks also included cases involving songs that get stuck in your head, times when music just becomes a bunch of indiscernible noises, and the emotions that come along with playing or listening to music. Perhaps, I enjoyed this book because music has played such a large part in my life.




    While I appreciated that the book was relatively easy to understand, there could have been a deeper analysis. Sacks usually switched topics before the analysis could get too far. That being said, you don't need a background of psychology, neurology, nor music to understand this book. There are few words such as “magnetoencephalography” that might trip you up. However, taking anatomy did a fine job with preparing me to break down these kind of words. That was probably the longest word in the book anyways.




    If you have any interest in music and how it affects you on the level of your brain, then by all means, read this book. It's interesting to say the least and will provide excellent topics of conversation if nothing else. I would recommend other books by Oliver Sacks such as An Anthropologist on Mars, Seeing Voices, or  The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. These books are also collections of stories of people with different neurological disorders. Some of the stories from these books briefly appeared in Musicophilia. 

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 2, 2007

    Many detailed stories, but not much in overarching analysis...

    I did enjoy this book but had hoped that it would conclude or be laced with a bit more analysis and theory rather than just being a litany of case histories, however interesting and unusual. I managed to glean my own conclusions from the stories within without much synthesis from the author. He approaches the subject as a musician and neurologist and provides very factual accounts of some rare cases of musical disfunction and aptitude. Perhaps an social anthropologist, a linguist or a behavioral psychologist might have put his findings in more of a cultural context. As it is, his observations are confined to the physiological and symptomatic rather than addressing the deeper questions of the origins of music and it's function for our species. All in all, a great read. Maybe my expectations were a bit out of tune.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted December 25, 2012

      

      

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 30, 2009

    Interesting information

    I'm generally a fan of Oliver Sacks books. This was very interesting, although I would have to say not as compelling reading as some of his earlier books.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 9, 2008

    nice psychology based book.

    lots of kinda disorder cases.. he organized so well and easy to read. this book reminds me a mitch's book...

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