Top positive review
Reviewed in the United States on November 12, 2020
The late Oliver Sacks (1933-2015) was a gentle man of insatiable curiosity. The British neurologist, naturalist, and historian of science had the knack for explaining the mysteries of the human brain for even simpletons like me. He never claims to know all the answers. In fact, much of what is presented in ‘Musicophilia’ remains perplexing to researchers today. The book was published in 2007. Dr. Sacks cites many stories of people he’s interviewed who have had remarkable transformations involving music. As the author states in his introduction, “… (music) is central to human life. Yet, it has no concepts, makes no propositions; it lacks images, symbols, and the stuff of language. It has no power of representation. It has no necessary relation to the world… This propensity to music – this “musicophilia”- shows itself in infancy, is manifest and central in every culture, and probably goes back to the very beginning of our species.”
The book begins with Dr. Sacks retelling an extraordinary story of a man who was hit by lightening, had a near-death experience, and became obsessed with the original musical scores his mind was constantly and uncontrollably creating. Much of ‘Musicophilia’ is about recalling people’s stories and hypothesizing what the person’s brain is doing. It’s what makes his books so intriguing. He addresses such conditions as music triggering epileptic seizures; how people have varying abilities to imagine complex original music compositions without writing them down; having absolute pitch; the association between music and speech; blindness and music; musical savants; synesthesia (a fusion of different senses such as seeing colors when listening to music); how music can help improve movement and memory; the interaction between the brain and ears; auditory hallucinations; musical dreams; the unique phenomenon of being in a crowd listening to music such as a concert; and music’s interaction with our emotions. It also describes the salutary results from incorporating music into the lives of people with such illnesses as Williams Syndrome and various forms of dementia. Dr. Sacks does use medical terms but the reader will not be overwhelmed by them. Just keep a dictionary handy.
Many of the human studies in ‘Musicophilia’ struggle with conditions I would not wish on anyone. Everything in the book was interesting to me, which says a lot. Because of my sensitivity to sounds and the stress it can induce, music or any noise for that matter plays only a minuscule part in my daily life. I’m much less stressed when my environment is quiet. However, the author’s focus on the brain’s mechanics when music is introduced was too intriguing for me to pass up. I learned a great deal from the book and it clarified many instances where I was perplexed by friends’ reaction to music. Clearly, music has a complex and varied relationship with people. In some cases music can heal while in the others it can cause a great deal of pain and confusion. I would be stunned if even accomplished musicians did not learn a thing or two from reading ‘Musicophilia.’