Oliver Sacks on Musicophilia

Oliver Sacks examines music and the brain in Musicophilia.

It’s been said many times that music is the universal language, yet it takes the unique combination of talents possessed by Oliver Sacks to show us some of its seemingly infinite variations.

In Musicophilia, his tenth book, Sacks brings his characteristic blend of literature, science, and correspondence with his patients and others to illuminate the different forms, meaning and neurological permutations music takes.

I’ve read Sacks’ classic work, The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat, have breezed through some of his New Yorker pieces and saw the film Awakenings that featured Robin Williams as him and Robert DeNiro as a patient who wakes and then goes back to sleep.

But it had been a long time since I had turned my attention to one of his books.  Musicophilia was a birthday gift to me from our dear friend Ava Kadishshon Schieber.

I’m about halfway through the work and enjoying it tremendously.

Simultaneously accessible and erudite, Sacks takes the reader on a journey through the mind viewed through the sounds, and in some cases, sights of music.  He has a remarkable ability to draw from literature and philosophy-in one chapter he quoted Schopenhauer and Nietzche before referring to Proust, all on the same page-while also showing us the evolution in scientific knowledge and study of the field.

The book is not filled with intellectual pirouettes strategically placed to impress the reader.  Musicophilia is grounded in the doctor’s gut-level concern for, and curiosity about, his patients.

They have widely diverse experiences of music.

Some are haunted by their inability to drown out a single musical phrase.  Others have, and then lose, perfect pitch.  Still others inherently see music in colors, and are distressed when they learn that other people either do not perceive music that way or have different color associations from their own.

After describing the patients’ lives and understanding of music, Sacks explores the neurological dimensions of their experience. This is fascinating material, as he looks at the impact of childhood exposure to music and of the adaptations the brain makes when presented with obstacles, among other topics.

In these explorations one feels Sacks’ humility as he attempts to approach comprehension while simultaneously understanding the limits of prediction or generalization from these individual cases.

The book itself has a musical quality.  Sacks is like a skillful conductor, now drawing in an historic reference, there including excerpts from a letter written by a “correspondent.”

The work also has fuguelike elements, as Sacks both weaves in recurring characters like his close friend Jerome Bruner in several chapters and includes excerpts from his earlier books.

The net effect is intoxicating, and I am glad that I have not wrung all the pleasure there is to be had from the work as I’ve not either finished it or given the lengthy and numerous footnotes a close read.

We are going tonight to dinner with friends and then to watch The Wiz, this year’s student-run production of Brillianteen in which Aidan plays a munchkin.

While I am sitting in the audience watching his last onstage performance before he leaves our home and heads off to college in the fall, I will, I imagine, have some bittersweet feelings and, thanks to Dr. Sacks, a slightly deeper and different appreciation of the music Aidan and his senior classmates are producing.




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