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Musciophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain by Oliver Sacks

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Imagine that music is considered a nuisance to someone instead of being something that gives off pleasure. Picture someone having a fear of music or getting prescribed music as a form of treatment. Truth be told, there are people in the world that fit these descriptions. Oliver Sacks, a professor of neurology and psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center, explores this vast topic in his book, “Musicophilia,” written in 2007. Sacks writes about the relationship that music and the brain have on each other in cases of an accidental, genetically influenced or natural event that causes trauma on the brain. Through case studies and his research, Sacks paints a picture for us of the infinite possibilities of music as an affliction and music as a treatment.

Sacks begins the book with an “outsider,” in this case “highly cerebral alien beings” (ix) called (?) the Overlords, observing people on earth trying to understand why billions of us find pleasure in “playing with, listening to, meaningless tonal patterns, occupied and preoccupied for much of their time by what they call ‘music’” (ix). The idea behind using the Overlords is to show a comparison between how some human beings have the rare condition of lacking “neural apparatus for appreciating tones and melodies” (ix).

Sacks became interested in the connection between music and the brain because music surrounds us. It is constantly forcing itself into our brains and affecting almost every aspect of our brain and our life as well. Whether people see, taste, smell or feel various sensations after listening to music depends on their susceptibility to it. Some people are particularly affected. Music can excite us, calm us, comfort us, scare us, or even annoy us. All of those possibilities are associated with neurological conditions such as, musical hallucinations, amusia and dysharmonia, musical dreams and many other different combinations mentioned in the book.

In order to get a better sense of what these neurological conditions are really like, Sacks relies heavily on case studies and letters. The book is filled with personal accounts of people who have suffer from these various types of conditions and sought out help from Sacks and his colleagues, as well as professionals from around the world, to better understand what is happening to them. In the chapter of Musical Hallucinations, the case studies presented all centered around patients who were hearing music constantly and continuously in their head. However, the way the music presented itself was different for each patient. Some only heard fragments of a piece, some only heard it when lying down, others heard is at various volumes, etc. The number of factors that falls under musical hallucinations are endless. One fascinating aspect of this condition is that the music that gets repeated over and over again in the patient’s head are all songs familiar to the patients, whether it was a piece they heard growing up or an action that triggered familiar music by association. For example a patient said, when she was approaching a church “she heard a huge rendering of “O Come, All Ye Faithful”” or that “after baking a French apple cake, she hallucinated bits of “Frere Jacques” the next day” (53). Basically what happens is that the brain gets turned into a radio that cannot be turned off or on but it does have the capability of changing tunes if the brain wills it to (79).

The rest of the book follows the same format of introducing cases with Sacks’s input as to what is going on physically in the brain by describing how different sections of the brain interact with each other and to music. It was interesting to see how music could be on opposite ends of the enjoyment spectrum for a range of people. For some it is something they fear and for others it is irritating. Take a patient named Mrs. L for example. She suffers from amusia, which is a musical disorder that appears predominately as a defect in processing pitch. But she can still “hear, recognize, remember and enjoy other sounds and speeches without difficulty” (103). However, the concept of “singing” and “music” was completely foreign to her. Everything just sounded like “noise” to her (103). She could not distinguish if one note was higher than another and that everything just jumbled up together for her (104, 105). When Sacks asked her what she heard instead of music, her reply was that it was like throwing all the pots and pans in her kitchen around (105). Again, amusia is different from person to person.

A quote that I read in the chapter, Papa Blows His Nose in G: Absolute Pitch, said that “native speakers of Vietnamese and Mandarin show very precise absolute pitch in reading list of words; most of these subjects showed variations of a quarter tone or less” (127). It caught my attention because I am a native speaker of mandarin and I come from a musical family. My dad and my brother play the piano and I play the violin and viola. I began learning when I was three years old. I am curious now whether I have the skill to identify absolute pitch. Growing up in an environment where no one suffered from neurological conditions associated with music, the only connection that I have ever made between music and the brain was that it has the potential to make someone more adept in a subject due to training that section of the brain. I never thought about people who suffer because of music. Then again, the brain does work in wondrous way. Many of the patient’s brain have learned to adapt to their neurological condition by compensating with other senses or by enhancing other established skills. In fact, some said that their specific conditions became a part of who they are and would be missed if it all of a sudden went away. On the other hand, having read this book, I have come to cherish my own ability to appreciate music.


Sacks, Oliver W. Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007. Print.