Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain

Article excerpt

Musicophilia: Tales of music and the brain Alfred A. Knopf Canada (2007) Author: Oliver Sacks ISBN: 9781400040810

Tony, an orthopedic surgeon with minimal interest in music, suddenly becomes obsessed with classical piano music, learns to play and eventually buys a Bösendorfer (a high quality piano that sells at around $60,000 Cdn); Clive, a classical musician, loses all recent memory but still can read and play music and conduct a chorus; Gloria can sing arias in 30 languages but cannot do simple additions. These are only a few of the medical histories Oliver Sacks, clinical neurologist and well-known writer, relates in his latest book. Dr. Sacks, an amateur musician himself, has long maintained a special interest in patients with neurological problems that affect musical ability, and has kept in touch with most of them, sometimes establishing long-lasting personal relationships. He has also worked extensively with music therapists.

Musicophilia is a collection of clinical episodes, loosely linked under four headings: Haunted by Music; A Range of Musicali ty; Memory, Movement, and Music; and Emotion, Identity, and Music. The author has chosen a technically correct vocabulary, and his reference list fills 13 pages, citing a number of classical and current scientific studies of brain function, as well as literary and biographic sources. Terms such as "planum temporale," "amygdala," and "hippocampus" appear and disappear throughout the book, but they will likely be a minor obstacle to the reader who is captivated by the authors clear writing and the fascination of the cases themselves. For the general reader, it is probably sufficient to keep in mind that the human brain is constructed thus: an elaborate widespread network of versatile nerve cells studded with specific function areas for sensory reception and initiation of activity (the cerebral cortex), superimposed on a more primitive hard-wired complex of less flexible structures (such as the hippocampus and the amygdala), which are involved in recording memory, expressing emotion, and encoding the reflexes necessary for survival. The main point is that while damage to, or rarely stimulation of, these vastly complex structures may affect musical appreciation or ability, "music" is not lodged in a single file folder in the brain, but scattered throughout both these great neural systems in a manner still largely unknown.

Musicophilia is not a systematic analysis of the impact of brain injury or defect on musical ability. With its conversational style and museum-collection structure it is closer to infotainment than to a textbook. At a few points the author delays presenting relevant clinical information, such as Clives retention of his musical skills, for rhetorical effect. Nevertheless, music therapists will enjoy picking through its chapters, seeking out the familiar - and the strange - from the chapter on music therapy for aphasia to discussions of cochlear amusia, dystimbria and amelodia. The index is well organized and complete, giving the reader interested in a specific topic rapid access. The citations on Sacks himself are interesting because they all proved to be temporary: the author suffered attacks of amusia, probably associated with a migraine aura, in which his beloved Chopin sounded dissonant, and during stressful periods, persistent involuntary mental replaying of unpleasant music, the worst of which turned out to be Mahler's Kinder to tenlieder, a composition he never liked. …


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