Cannonball Read #9 – Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks

This book was read and reviewed as part of the Cannonball Read, click through to read more reviews and help fight cancer!


I have been a musician for thirty years. I sing and play a variety of instruments. I’m the kind of person who can pick up just about any instrument and have a basic capability to play within a few minutes. I have never felt like less of a musician than when I read this book. It’s not that it shows me to be technically insufficient but that he tells of a world of music which I can never hope to experience.

As all of Sacks’ books do, Musicophilia consists of several case studies. In this particular instance, he focuses on patients whose pathology includes either the onset or loss of musical talent or perception, or the preservation of musical ability when seeming correlates like speech and memory are affected. His first chapter describes people who were hit by lightning and subsequently became obsessed with music, even becoming talented performers and changing their lives to pursue it. Subsequent chapters explore those who have perfect pitch, those who lose the ability to perceive music, and those who are tortured by unceasing music that only they can hear.

Sacks’ tales of music and the brain incited in me equal measures of jealousy and pity. There are people in the book who describe particular tones and notes having correlations to color. That an “E” is a particular shade of blue, for example.  No matter how long and hard I practice, I will never perceive music with such depth and completeness. The idea of having “Perfect Pitch” or the ability to simply hear a note and know exactly what note it is spoken of is musical circles but I am well beyond the age when I could develop it. Reading the description  of how pitch is perceived by those with the talent, I’m now certain that it is a double edged sword in a world of increasing noise to be bombarded with stimulus to which one is extraordinarily attuned.

Most affecting to me were the chapters on how the brain’s structures for perceiving and creating music are a parallel system to speech systems. Through case studies on patients with Parkinsonism, Alzheimer’s, and amnesia, Sacks demonstrates that music is so fundamental to humans that even in the throes of the severest amnesia ever recorded the ability to play and the memory of pieces learned remains. The ability to recognize, appreciate, and perform music to a high level can survive degradation of the brain that impairs all other functions.

The greatest message of this work is that we are all of us musicians, before speakers or dancers, runners or writers. We are made for music. It made me sad to think of all the aspects of music that are not accessible to me. It gladdened me to know that my love of music and my joy in making it is an expression of my essential human-ness.


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