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MUSICOPHILIA by Oliver Sacks


Tales of Music and the Brain

by Oliver Sacks

Pub Date: Oct. 22nd, 2007
ISBN: 978-1-4000-4081-0
Publisher: Knopf

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. A gadfly and storyteller as well as a scientist, the author can’t resist a good yarn even when it’s not likely to be true, such as the anecdote about Shostakovich claiming that he heard beautiful new melodies every time he tilted his head to one side, due to a piece of German shrapnel lodged in his brain. Sacks is as good a guide to this mysterious and barely understood world as one could ask for, mixing serious case studies with personal takes on music and what its ultimate uses could possibly be. As the book wears on, however, his loose approach makes some later chapters more work than they should be.

Pleasantly rollicking, but with a definite hint that the grand old man is taking it easy.