Musicophilia – Oliver Sacks
Music seems to be a universal cultural phenomenon, but as with all things in life, it impacts each individual differently. Sacks, a neurologist who has spent several years working in a hospital for people with chronic illnesses, looks at a multitude of ways music impacts the individual, usually focusing on the abnormal, exceptional, and pathological. Although he focuses on abnormal musical conditions, that does not mean that all situations are negative. Such instances include the appearance of musical talent and intuition after a lifetime of only superficial appreciation, mysterious degenerative muscle conditions that derail professional performance careers, people born with prodigious musical talent but not the ability count, and many, many others. Sacks combines personal experience, case studies of patients, correspondence with others, and extensive scientific research into a study on how the brain processes music and what happens when that processing goes awry. Infused throughout is a deep appreciation of music, revealed in occasional side notes detailing a nuanced and thorough knowledge of composers and how their lives reflect those of Sack’s current study. The end result is not so much a book that addresses music, but one that looks at the wide variety of musical expression, impact, and understanding.
“Musicophilia” by Oliver Sacks offers an unexpected perspective on music because it focuses on everything beyond the realm of typical musical expression and appreciation. Sacks displays his expertise both as a neurologist and one who listens to music through incredibly thorough scientific research on the history of how musical abnormalities were first recognized and how treatment has progressed over the decades. As a neurologist, his writing centers on the neural processing of music, and he frequently references brain structures, neural and mental processes, and physiological and organic roots of the conditions he describes. He contextualizes these conditions at a personal level by sharing his personal experience and discussing case studies of unique conditions that reflect a range of severity and daily impairment. Sacks broadens the understanding of music beyond listening to songs by addressing atypical musical abilities and detailing a multitude of experiences, talents, and disorders to create an appreciation of music that encompasses basic and complex processing.
Although I learned a lot from this book and was often surprised by the conditions Sacks describes, I was generally less than enthralled while reading it. Sacks’ history as a neurologist shows through in his writing, and I felt that the book is almost inaccessible. His emphasis on brain structures recalled my days in psychology class, and while I distinctly remember Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas, I no longer remember the function of the basil ganglia or the temporal lobes, much less how a stroke impacts the neural abilities in those different sections. Additionally, his continual references to case studies and correspondence resulted in a mass of names that meant nothing to me as the reader and became one more detail to skim. Interesting, but not highly readable.