Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Book Commentary on Musicophilia: Tales of Music and The Brain

molivares's picture

Oliver Sacks, author of Musicophilia, is a distinguished best-selling author as well as physician and professor of neurology and psychiatry at the Columbia University Medical Center.  He has even been referred to as, “the poet laureate of medicine” by the New York Times.  His other works include Awakenings (1973), The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (1985), An Anthropologist on Mars (1885) amongst numerous others. All these publications have in common a particular style that Sacks incorporates and adapts.  He draws upon vignettes and non-fictional accounts of specific case studies that pertain to each book’s area of interest.  Musicophilia is no different.  A telltale account of music’s various roles in specific neurological cases, Musicophilia covers a great range of material in discussing the interaction between music and the brain.
    There is neither a single nor central theme that Sacks offers in Musicophilia.  In fact, the breadth of topics and anecdotes that he incorporates seem to highlight the versatility and malleability of neurobiological functioning.  Sacks discusses a story of musicogenic epilepsy in which certain melodies, pitches, or tones can trigger a site in the temporal lobe resulting in a seizure in certain individuals.  He illustrates the extensive musical ability of savants that are otherwise intellectually and physically limited. These musical savants may have a repertoire of a thousand operas that they can sing or hundreds of symphonies that they can play. He explains that brain damage that they musical savants have suffered has allowed the right side of their brains to become enhanced, bringing out these exceptional musical abilities.  But perhaps the stories that I found most interesting covered topics discussed in my last two web-papers: perfect/absolute pitch and synesthesia. Although much of the material that he discussed was literature I had already come across in doing research of my web-papers, it was refreshing to read his vignettes about an individual with perfect pitch and a synesthete.  While I took a much broader looks at absolute pitch and synesthesia, the anecdotes that Sacks’ included offered a more personal touch to neurobiological conditions that are often considered for their shock and awe value but rarely internalized.    
     Because Sacks covers such a range of neurobiological topics, the overall take-away message is lost in Musicophilia. As Paul Elie mentioned in his review of Musicophilia, the chapters and anecdotes of the book, “reveal surprisingly little about music or about the brain, other than that the mystery and vitality of music are useful correlatives to the brain’s mystery and vitality. In recounting the circumstances of individual patients, Sacks doesn’t evoke the sound of music or the ways sound takes shape as music in the brain. The case studies become examples of the gap between what happens in our brains and what even our most literate experts can say about it” (Elie). I would have to completely agree with Elie’s statement.  However, I do not feel that the overall worth of Sacks’ Musicophilia is reduced because it only exposes the gaps between what happens in our brains and our explanations for it instead of attempting to bridge that gap.  If anything, Sacks’ discussion of how music invades and involves us in so many realms of neurobiological functioning creates a curiosity in the reader that may direct them to do more research in one of the particular cases that Sacks brings up.  
    In fact, I feel that the layout of Sacks’ Musicophilia directly correlates with the outline of this course (Biology 202: Neurobiology and Behavior).  In Neurobiology and Behavior, one of the main points of thought that I have taken away, is how the field of neurobiology is still growing and how there is so much left to learn and discover.  I have come to realize the intricacies of neurobiology and have formed a framework of understanding that allows me to better synthesize science’s role in society. To an extent, that is what I think Oliver Sacks does in Musicophilia.  Just as we have mentioned how various life and human conditions can manifest into a variety of neurobiological phenomena, Sacks demonstrates how various neurobiological conditions can manifest into such a variety of musical phenomena.  The book Musicophilia itself provides a concrete context of understanding many of the concepts that we explored in class (e.g. synesthesia, the senses, phantom limbs) and on a personal level (e.g. web paper on absolute pitch). This book was our course synthesized through a musical framework.
    I thoroughly enjoyed reading Oliver Sacks’ Musicophilia because it interestingly illustrated a broad range of topics kept me from being bored.  It discussed old interests of mine but projected a new perspective onto them just as this course has done.  Musicophilia has also sparked new areas of interest, which this course has most certainly done as well.  I appreciate how both this book and this course exposed the gaps between the brain’s peculiar functioning and our lack of full and complete understanding of neural phenomena.  They both allow for individual intellectual expansion and curiosity that is an invaluable component in education and personal growth. Regarding this course alone, its non-traditional nature was a refreshing change to a very traditional science subject.  I particularly enjoyed how the course was built upon a specific philosophy of science that we discussed in the first few classes.  It was truly a pleasure to read this book.

Works Cited

Elie, Paul. "Slate." The Music Man: What Neuroscience Can't Tell us about Music. Slate,
8 Oct 2007. Web. 20 April 2010. <>.

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


Paul Grobstein's picture

Sachs and science

"The case studies become examples of the gap between what happens in our brains and what even our most literate experts can say about it"

Which in turn frustrates the reader or encourages the reader to .... ?  An interesting issue, re both Sachs and the course.