Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks

It may have been stretching it a bit to use this book for Annie's What's in a Name 2 Challenge for a "medical condition", but I did it anyway. I've read two of Oliver Sack's books and have been itching to read this one. I bought it shortly after it was published but it kept getting pushed down the to-read list.

The subtitle of this book says it all: Tales of music and the brain. Each chapter discusses a medical condition related to music. For example, there was a chapter on epilepsy and how certain people have seizures when listening to music. One of Dr. Sack's patients wore ear plugs for fear of hearing music on an elevator or in a store and having a seizure. One patient had seizures caused by Neopolitan music, but no other music. (Neopolitan music was her favorite).

One of the more dramatic tales from the book was of a cardiac surgeon who was talking on a pay phone during a thunderstorm and got a severe shock over the line. Upon recovery he became an extreme musicophile and spent every waking moment away from surgery playing the piano and composing. He had previously been a rather half-assed piano player, but had never written anything. He became so obsessed with music that he ignored his family. His wife left him for a less musicophilic man.

Another fascinating chapter was on music hallucinations. We all get songs stuck in our heads, but these people hear orchestras playing LOUD nonstop to them; it is as if they are really listening to a CD or the radio, but only they can hear it. Many of these patients can be helped somewhat with medicine, but many have to simply suck it up. The author described a time he thought he was enjoying one of his favorite pieces of music on a CD and was really rocking out. It was only after it was over that he realized he had never actually started the CD and must have "hallucinated" the entire piece.

I wish I could remember more of the strange stories at the moment, but you'll have to trust me when I say that there are plenty. It served to remind me of how tenuous our grasp on reality is and how one small blood clot or thwack on the head can change our personality dramatically...not a lovely thought. But a fascinating read.

This book is best enjoyed by those who know their music theory. Several times the author mentioned different types of scales or legato and staccato, etc. It wasn't essential that you understand these terms to get the gist, but it won't hurt.

I highly recommend this book and am anxious to read more of his books and to reread The man who mistook his wife for a hat.


Debi said...

Couple questions:

1. Are you sure I didn't get you this book?

2. What's Neopolitan music? (I'm only familiar with the ice cream.)

Debi said...

P.S. I really did enjoy the review!

Rich said...


You probably did get me the book. Can't recall for sure.

Speaking of brains, your dog needs a new one I think.

themusicophile said...

I've read bits of this book too (it inspired the name of my website/blog It's really strange to think how something like the appreciation of music can be affected by things like lightening strikes. Brains really are amazing, and music really is something that no-one actually understands, including those who dedicate their whole lives to it.

Care said...

I SO want to read this book! I have a few others already in line, though. I find all this brain stuff absolutely fascinating and horrifying and... amazing. I think it is a fine book to fit your challenge, too, btw.