Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain by Oliver Sacks

Everyone in my family is ready with book suggestions. My daughter Laura, who is studying music therapy at the University of Iowa, was deeply impressed with Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain by Oliver Sacks. She told me over a year ago that I would enjoy it, so when I saw the audiobook available at the Downers Grove Public Library two weeks ago, I checked it out. I'm glad that I did, for I now understand much more about the mysteries of mental music and the promise of music therapy, an obviously important topic to Laura.

Many readers already know Oliver Sacks as the psychiatrist author of Awakenings, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, and seven other books drawn from his clinical studies. Many of these books have been best sellers and the two that I named inspired films.

In Musicophilia, Sacks tells many stories about the profound effects of music on people with varying brain conditions. Some involve genetic abnormalities, while others reveal of the effects of brain injuries. At the center of each story is a real person whose life is shaped by the music in their heads and in the environment around them. Some have unwanted music that plays constantly, rendering sleep and daily life difficult. Others, including some musicians, have lost the ability to recognize music. Some with severe memory loss can only function with the aid of music. Constant music in retail stores makes shopping intolerable for some sensitive individuals. Throughout Sacks sympathetically describes diagnosis, treatment, and results of his cases. I particularly found the discussions of earworms (catchy melodies that you can't dislodge from your mind) instructive; calm surrender can be better than desperately fighting the tunes. I was also fascinated by the chapter on the patients with Williams Syndrome, which restricts scholastic learning but fosters great talent at musical composition; one young woman who could not count to eight wrote beautiful orchestral pieces easily.

Musicophilia is entertaining, and the warmth with which Sacks tells his stories will hook many readers. A few may find the amount of scientific detail tiresome, but I hope many take the time to read Sack's stories. John Lee's lively reading may help some enjoy this important book.

Sacks, Oliver. Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain. Alfred A. Knopf, 2007. ISBN 9781400040810.

Audiobook on compact discs: Books on Tape, 2007. 9 discs, 11 hours. ISBN 9781415942666.

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