Review of Musicophilia, Tales of Music and the Brain by Oliver Sacks

Music has fascinated and entertained people across all cultures during all of history. But few of us stop to think, where did music come from? What is its purpose? Can such questions even be answered?

Dr Oliver Sacks, the brilliant neurologist, ambitiously tackles many neurological and experiential aspects of music in his book Musicophilia, Tales of Music and the Brain. Sacks is well known for his popular level collections of case studies of people with neurological disorders, such as The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.1 His 1973 book Awakenings2 was adapted into an Academy-Award-nominated film3 of the same name in 1990, starring Robin Williams (portraying Sacks) and Robert DeNiro. And his book An Anthropologist on Mars4 catapulted animal behavioral scientist Temple Grandin into fame by describing her case of high functioning autism. One of the stories in this book was the inspiration for the 1999 Val Kilmer film At First Sight, and also helps explain an otherwise puzzling miracle of Christ.5

In Musicophilia, Sacks addresses numerous categories of how the human brain processes music: extreme musical giftedness (and its opposite, amusia) as well as the loss thereof, musical seizures and hallucinations, the use of musical therapy in treating various neurological conditions, such as aphasia, dementia (like Alzheimer’s), Tourette’s syndrome, Parkinson’s disease, and depression. The sheer scope of Musicophilia is impressive, as is the way Sacks relates the case studies and the complex neurological concepts in his characteristically lucid and engaging style.

Music—uniquely and universally human

Throughout Musicophilia, Sacks repeatedly (and correctly) identifies music, like language, as an ability that has developed uniquely (and universally) in humans, as opposed to animals. The very word musicophilia refers to this human propensity for music. In describing the human ability of musical imagery, he writes

“Our susceptibility to musical imagery indeed requires exceedingly sensitive and refined systems for perceiving and remembering music, systems far beyond anything in any nonhuman primate” (p. 42).

Sacks continues by describing specific skills and linking of systems that show up solely and universally in humans:….

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