CBR12 BINGO: Music
A 42-year old orthopedic surgeon is hit by lightning and suddenly develops an insatiable passion for piano music. An elderly man with semantic amnesia bursts into song at the slightest provocation. An elderly woman has lived her life unable to “hear” music, which manifests itself to her mind as an intolerable cacophony. These are just a handful of the real individuals we meet in Musicopophilia, Oliver Sacks’s exploration of the interactions between music and the human brain.
Sacks was a renowned neurologist with whom readers may be familiar as the inspiration behind the 1990 film Awakenings, loosely based on his non-fiction work of the same title. Sacks grew up in a musical household and was himself an amateur pianist, so his interest in exploring the effects of music on the brain (and vice versa) is natural.
First published in 2007, the term “opus” seems a doubly appropriate way to describe Musicophilia, which addresses a broad collection of case studies and descriptions of patients whom Sacks has encountered during his career. The scope of the book is ambitious, comprising chapters that address glitches in the brain linked to music, to certain individuals’ uncanny ability to process music differently, to the use of music in therapy for conditions like autism.
As I’ve mentioned before (let’s face it, at every opportunity), I love reading about the brain, so I was excited when I heard about this book. It’s certainly filled with interesting tidbits and anecdotes: my copy is tagged with copious sticky-notes indicating a point I found worthy of revisiting, or noting in my review, or that was simply good for a chuckle (e.g., although the term “ear worm” was coined in the 1980s, the concept has been traced back as far as the early 18th century, in which early folk music has been described as a “piper’s maggot”).
Swear to God, if he plays Call Me Maybe one more time. . .
Yet the book’s scope is also its weakness, in that I never felt like I got a “deep dive” into any of these topics, which merely skimmed the surface of each of the conditions mentioned. It felt like a catalog of the “what can go in in the brain,” where I kept wanting to know more about the “why.”
Sure, the anecdotes are interesting in their own right. The unfortunate woman in my intro has what is known as “amusia,” the inability to recognize or reproduce musical tones. Even an oft-repeated song like “Happy birthday,” is unrecognizable to her, and if she goes to the opera, all she hears is screaming.
Well there’s your first mistake. Stop going to see Wagner.
In his chapter on rhythm and movement (in one of the extensive footnotes included in the expanded addition), Sacks even touches on Snowball, the Eleonora cockatoo and YouTube sensation who loves dancing to the Backstreet Boys.
Don’t judge. We all need our guilty pleasures.
Snowball only gets a footnote in Musicophilia, but you can read more about him in a number of other books, including Sy Montgomery’s wonderful Birdology. You can also watch some of his antics on Youtube.
Unfortunately, Musicophilia wasn’t exactly what I was hoping for but, to be fair, my expectations were skewed. Sacks isn’t a science writer, he’s a physician and a scientist sharing stories about the patients he has encountered. In that sense, it’s a worthwhile read and one that passionate music lovers are likely to enjoy.