Thursday, February 10, 2011

Nonfiction Review: Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain

My neighborhood book group finally met last night, after a two-week storm delay, to discuss Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain by Oliver Sacks.  I’ve long been intrigued by Sacks’ other books, including the renowned The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, but this is the first one I’ve read (though I did see the movie adaptation of Awakenings).

At the start of the meeting, everyone in my book group was complaining about various aspects of the book – that it’s sometimes overly technical, a bit repetitive and disjointed, and at times simply over our heads – but once we got further into the discussion, we found plenty to talk about and realized it was also quite fascinating.

Sacks, as is his standard approach, presents various anecdotes of neurological injuries or illnesses that cause some very strange phenomena; in this particular book, those anecdotes all have something to do with music.  I struggled with the first part of the book, where the stories focus mainly on people who suddenly developed (or lost) extraordinary musical talents.  The problem was that I have no musical background at all, so much of the terminology used in these early chapters – minor and major keys, chords, perfect pitch, etc. – was completely meaningless to me, though I was still impressed by the wonder of these incidents (for instance, the man who, when struck by lightning, suddenly developed an amazing talent to play piano).

I was more interested, and more able to understand, some of the later chapters.  Everyone in my book group agreed that some of these stories were fascinating, such as the effects of music therapy on those with severe dementia, Parkinson’s Disease, and Tourette’s Syndrome or the extreme cases of amnesia that responded to music or the people that see colors when they hear music.

Overall, most of us agreed it wasn’t an easy book to read, but it was intriguing.  I wish I has read this book years ago, when my mother-in-law was struggling with the earlier stages of Parkinson’s (she died this past June) – maybe music therapy could have helped improve her quality of life back then.  Anyone interested in neurological disorders or with a strong musical background would probably enjoy this book.

347 pages, Alfred A. Knopf

(Where Are You Reading 2011 - unfortunately, I don't think there's any location associated with this book to add to my map since it includes hundreds of anecdotes from lots of different places - bummer.)


  1. I think there is something to be said about music helping with CFS. I know it's helped me to move when I didn't think it was possible to move. Also, when I try to learn the words to songs it helps with my short term memory which has been a problem (still is somewhat) during this illness. (I have mold related problems and that's where the short-term memory can be affected maybe more than in regular CFS? And also, music helps in just overall well being for anyone suffering a chronic illness. I would be much worse off without it. I might have to read this book. Thanks, Sue!

  2. Interesting thoughts, Sherry. The funny thing is that I never really considered the applications to CFS while I read this book!


  3. Interesting thoughts, Sherry. The funny thing is that I never really considered the applications to CFS while I read this book!


  4. Georgina10:21 AM

    Sherry - that's really interesting. I used to listen to music all the time before I got ill with CFS/ME (I'm English so I doggedly refer to it as ME!) It used to regulate my mood and I just loved to have music on. Now I find it difficult to listen to music and am quickly overwhelmed. It was one of the saddest things to lose to the ME. Some music is ok but I have to be in a good state to listen. I can still play clarinet & guitar occasionally but had to give up my saxophone as it's just too heavy for me. I also had to give up cello lessons as I wasn't always well enough to get there :-(

    I really believe that music therapy can help. I think that I've just become over-sensitized to sound in general. Also, hearing an 'off' note causes pain in my body (my arms, usually). I can't listen to anything that isn't pitch perfect! It makes me flinch (I'm sure that Oliver Sacks would have an explanation for that).

    Sue - I only read the beginning of Musicophilia but I'll dig my copy out and carry on (I was enjoying the book but hit a bad patch where reading wasn't really 'working' either). It didn't occur to me that Sacks was assuming technical musical knowledge in this book but you're quite right! I can see how that could be frustrating.

  5. Anonymous7:18 PM

    Sue, you might be interested in Michael Ballam's "Music and the Mind." You'll have to find it used unfortunately. He talks about music's influence for good and ill. Interesting stuff!