By Oliver Sacks - Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain (12.2.2006)

by Oliver Sacks

Hardcover, 2006

Call number

781.11 SACKS



Knopf (2006), Edition: 12.2.2006


"Oliver Sacks explores the place music occupies in the brain and how it affects the human condition. In Musicophilia, he shows us a variety of what he calls "musical misalignments." Among them: a man struck by lightning who suddenly desires to become a pianist at the age of forty-two; an entire group of children with Williams syndrome, who are hypermusical from birth; people with "amusia," to whom a symphony sounds like the clattering of pots and pans; and a man whose memory spans only seven seconds - for everything but music. Dr. Sacks describes how music can animate people with Parkinson's disease who cannot otherwise move, give words to stroke patients who cannot otherwise speak, and calm and organize people who are deeply disoriented by Alzheimer's or schizophrenia." - Back cover.… (more)

Media reviews

The gentle doctor turns his pen to another set of mental anomalies that can be viewed as either affliction or gift. If we could prescribe what our physicians would be like, a good number of us would probably choose somebody like Sacks (Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood, 2001, etc.). Learned, endlessly inquisitive and seemingly possessed of a bottomless store of human compassion, the neurologist’s authorial personality both reassures and arouses curiosity. Here, Sacks tackles the whole spectrum of the human body’s experience of music by studying it from the aesthetic as well as medical viewpoint. Fantastical case studies include a young boy assaulted by musical hallucinations who would shout “Take it out of my head! Take it away!” when music only he could hear became unbearably loud. Less frightening are stories about people like Martin, a severely disabled man who committed some 2,000 operas to memory, or ruminations on the linkage between perfect pitch and language: Young children learning music are vastly more likely to have perfect pitch if they speak Mandarin than almost any other language. ..

User reviews

LibraryThing member ChocolateMuse
Fascinating anecdotes written by an eminent neurologist in an accessible and personal style about the amazing and unexpected ways that music works on people.

There's the man who got struck by lightning, and then a few weeks afterwards suddenly found that the creation of new music was flowing through his mind, "like turning a radio on". There are musical hallucinations; interesting stories about music and synesthesia (when one hears the key of D for instance, one sees a colour - plainly, not just in imagination); about how people trapped in parkinsonian spasms suddenly move freely and easily to music; about absolute pitch, the ability to hear a note and know exactly what it is, as plainly as we see green and know that it is green. Stuff like that, told with a human warmth and interest in the people being discussed.

I came away from the book with the sense that music is more than we think it is - far more than a series of sounds. It's something that different people understand on such different levels (regardless of education and training), and something of extraordinary power. It's as if music is already out there, existing on its own without human intervention, and it's only our own varying perception that enables us to access or understand it.
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LibraryThing member peacemover
I really wanted to like this book, but it did not fulfill my expectations. Sacks provides ample anecdotal and interesting case histories with some theory and basis for how the brain processes music weaved in. He does not 'connect the dots' very well as far as drawing out specific findings and specifics about the how, why, and what questions about music and the brain. As a musician and one interested in how the brain works, I hoped for more from such an eminent neurologist. Interesting stories, but nothing earth-shattering here.… (more)
LibraryThing member sarahlu82
I was disappointed in this book. Sacks describes the "what" of a host of music-related neurological conditions, but rarely delves into the "why" or "how." He gives snippets of information about a multitude of case studies but doesn't treat any of them with any kind of depth, which just ends up being dissatisfying. I abandoned the book halfway through, which I almost never do.… (more)
LibraryThing member blueslibrarian
This very interesting book examines how people perceive music. Dr. Sacks looks at how the human brain absorbs music, and he tells interesting tales about the musical abilities of people with perfect pitch and people who "see" musical notes and keys as colors in their own mind. Also fascinating are Sacks' stories of people who have suffered brain injuries and strokes and the effects these have on their ability to perceive music. One of the interesting bits of information is the research finding that upwards for 50 percent infants with a severe visual impairment compensate with extraordinary hearing and musical comprehension, including developing perfect pitch. Sacks' stories come from interviews with patients and with a wide range of musicians, and also with doctors and psychologists working on the cutting edge of neurological research. This book is full of interesting tidbits about music and science and is recommended to anyone interested in the science behind music.… (more)
LibraryThing member bnbooklady
4.5 out of 5. From the acclaimed neurologist and author of The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat, An Anthropologist on Mars, and Awakenings, comes a fascinating collection of essays about the complex relationship between music and the brain. Sacks explains that humans’ appreciation for music is scientifically mysterious because it serves no real evolutionary or biological purpose, yet it clearly has important effects on our functioning, our thoughts, and our emotions. Included are essays about an individual who, after being struck by lightning, develops a sudden and intense interest in music and ability to hear and compose music in his head; an individual who loses his ability to “see” music; and a woman who can no longer hear music because she is plagued by a loud and constant ringing in her ears. Sacks explains the neurological phenomena behind his patients’ symptoms and invites readers to examine their relationships with music and consider what would happen if that relationship underwent a sudden change.

I found Musicophilia interesting on many levels because music has played a profound role in my life and because my background in psychology allowed me to understand most of what Sacks writes about. A working knowledge of basic neurology would be useful but is not necessary to appreciate and enjoy this book. One could potentially skip over the scientific portions and focus on the patients’ emotional experiences and still get the “flavor” of what this book is all about, but instead, I’d recommend keeping a dictionary/intro neurology text/website close at hand…why not learn something new?
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LibraryThing member nevusmom
This was interesting to me on many levels. My daughter has aural "auras" prior to having a seizure, she and I have perfect pitch, I have worked with people struggling with amusia. The stories were well told.

One question I have that has never really been answered: why is there music? What drives people to create it, to perform it, to listen to it? I know that Dr. Sacks does not speculate, but reports what he sees. And I am grateful for the scientific approach. But every now and then I crave a philosophical discussion. Still looking...… (more)
LibraryThing member fundevogel
Note: I listened to this as an audiobook

Interesting book, though much of it is more strongly related to neuroscience than music. The thing is I was more interested in the sections where the connection to music was overshadowed by the neurology. The sections more strictly on topic had a tendency to be repetitive and somewhat banal. Sachs also had a somewhat irritating habit of over-referencing specific music. It made sense to do so with a lot of his patients' stories since often the type of music had a relationship to their case, but when Sachs tells his personal stories it comes off like he just wants to display how evolved his musical tastes are. By some amazing coincidence (maybe) almost everyone mentioned in the book seems to almost exclusively listen to classical music, invariably Bach or Chopin.

I probably would have liked this more if it was read by the author. Professional readers always sound clinical to me, like they're more interested in proper enunciation than what they're reading. When authors read their books they are much more engaged in the reading and the content comes more alive for me.
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LibraryThing member justmeRosalie
This is a fascinating study of the effect music can have on the brain's ability to adapt itself to trauma and loss using music. Sometimes it gets to be a bit tedius, yet it never fails to present something that is just awesome. Unless you are a neuroscientist, you would probably never imagine the things that can happen when the brain deals with music...very captivating.… (more)
LibraryThing member Scrabblenut
I found the first part of the book a bit boring and repetitive, but the latter part when Sacks talks about the role of music in therapy for Parkinson's patients and dementia patients or others with brain injuries was absolutely fascinating.
LibraryThing member Meggo
An entertaining read, in the typical Sacks style. Full of case histories of individuals, all of whom have conditions that involve music in some way - hearing music in their heads; being unable to listen to music; the impact of music on various conditions... All very interesting, but at times the book felt like a thesis in search of content. Still, it's a worthwhile read, especially for Sacks fans.… (more)
LibraryThing member gophergolfer
This is a very interesting book. The case studies he mentions are fascinating. The book will be hard going for those who have no knowledge at all of brain structure. Sacks is a very well read, musically trained neurologist, who writes well about difficult subjects. One of the stories is about a gifted musician, choral leader, who suffers a brain infection and loses his short term memory completely. One day his wife, also a musician, brings in a piece of music and starts to sing it, and he joins in, remembering the words completely. Able to conduct a chorale, although he would need help getting to the session, being unable to remember the time, date, or place.… (more)
LibraryThing member Esta1923
"Music was made for blind people," said one of Oliver Sacks patients. While we can understand the value of music for blind people, we know it reaches us all.

The case studies reported here describe how DIFFERENTLY music reaches us. (My husband and I hear music quite differently. He is a professional musician and I am not.) A person who uses music as a background is hearing the same piece differently from one who pauses and gives it full attention.

Readers of "A Leg to Stand On" will recall the value of music to Sacks during his ordeal, and many who have heard him speak know he swims to music. It's not surprising that this book came from him.
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LibraryThing member Niecierpek
It's exactly what the title promises- tales of music and the brain. Interesting how music can be a grounding experience for people with dementia, or almost like a religious experience for those with frontal lobes epilepsy. It was a good book in terms of raising questions, but not necessarily at providing answers. I have read about some cases described here before either in different books and publications, or in other Sachs books. Interesting enough though.… (more)
LibraryThing member mojomomma
Sacks discusses the power of music and its effect on the brain. Music can reach people with impaired brain function such as amnesia and dementia.
LibraryThing member scroeser
Enjoyable reading, and the case studies are fascinating. At times it felt like Sacks just flits from case study to case study, without really drawing out the deeper issues that tie them together.
LibraryThing member brakketh
I found this book less compelling than others of Sacks' I think that this is because the case studies included in this volume were a little too short/lacking in detail. I think that it was also due to the fact that for the phenomena of music I was more interested in the theory rather than the rather repetitive music case studies. I also found that Sacks introduced himself into too many of the stories,still a very interesting read that I would recommend to others.… (more)
LibraryThing member nopressure1
Long-time neurologist shares case studies of patients who have unique relationships with music.
LibraryThing member TheFlamingoReads
I have been a fan of Oliver Sacks for many years. His books are extremely well written, although they can be a little esoteric at times. His insights into the neurological aspects of mental deficits via injury, illness, or other circumstances really bring to light the reality of how incredible the human brain is. In Musicophilia, we learn how music really is the universal language and how our brain can use it in spite of debillitations such as Parkinson's. He introduces us to the phenomenom of synthesia, the remarkable story of Clive Wearing, and other instances of the incredible plasticity of the mind. I highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the relationship between music and the brain - I promise you'll find it fascinating.… (more)
LibraryThing member VictorVL
Largely skimmed. The title is very misleading, which led to my disappointment. The books is mostly case studies of people with brain problems who see the world (including music) differently than the rest of us. The highlights are: brainworms are catchy tunes that get into your head, some people can see colors in music (often having perfect pitch), Freud resisted hearing music because he couldn't explain to himself why it was so powerful, Tolstoy resisted music because it was so powerful (he wrote a story of a woman seduced by violin music).… (more)
LibraryThing member aliay
Love Oliver Sacks. Loved Uncle Tungsten.

I am finding this book an amusing read, if only for the fascinating case studies, but as a lay scientist I'm getting a little lost in the brain terminology and not coming away with satisfying hypotheses about why these phenomena occur. I guess that's sort of the point... this is not a science textbook or a regimented clinical study, but rather an exploration.… (more)
LibraryThing member datrappert
Fascinating for anyone interested in the brain and in music, particularly classical music. This book is like having a very smart friend sit down and tell you a wonderful story. Perhaps while having a couple of drinks. A bit uneven - some parts are more interesting than others, but highly memorable and educational.
LibraryThing member delphica
(#22 in the 2009 Book Challenge)

This was more alarming than I thought it would be. As a profoundly tone deaf person, sometimes I like reading things about music because it all seems so science fictiony to me. But when Oliver Sacks talks about it ... it's too weird having him describe ME in terms of a pathology. As we can all expect, the book's essay chapters deal with various ways that music issues -- usually either great musical talent or great musical defect -- intersect with the things we know about the workings of the human brain.
Grade: B
Recommended: I think more musical people might enjoy this, but overall, I don't think it's quite as successful as some of his other books, maybe because having perfect pitch doesn't seem as intriguing as mistaking your wife for a hat?
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LibraryThing member fnielsen
The remarkably knowledgeable neurologist can present no grand theory of the link between the brain and music and the book is much of one case after another. However, some of the cases are utterly fascinating and Sacks has persuasive accounts for music therapy.
LibraryThing member SwitchKnitter
Oliver Sacks writes books about odd neurological problems. This volume is on the brain and its relationship to music. Sacks talks about people who perceive music as cacophony; advanced dementia patients who still remember the words to dozen of songs; people who are hypermusical; differences in the brains of professional musicians compared to the rest of us; and more. It's quite interesting, although I don't think I'll pick up any of his other books. Reading case histories depresses me, especially when they involve dementia or a loss of some ability. Still -- good book. Worth reading.… (more)
LibraryThing member yeremenko
Not Sacks best work. This book is mostly a series of anecdotes about music and the brain. The first story is about a man struck by lightning that suddenly becaomes obsessed with music. That is the most interesting story and it seems each one is less interesting after that.
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