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Musicophilia made me realize how others perceive music. It was a shock. I assumed that everyone experienced music the same way. Wrong!

Do you ever ask anyone what happens when they hear music? I didn't before I read this book. Now I plan to ask everyone.

Dr. Sacks has the kind of fine writing style and awareness of music that makes his tales seem as appealing as the cases that Dr. Sigmund Freud wrote about. As Dr. Sacks pointed out, Dr. Freud didn't care for music so that gentleman failed to investigate and report on many of the phenomena in this book.

We don't exactly know why the mind and body interact with music in the ways that they do. Part is undoubtedly heredity. Part is undoubtedly due to exposure to musical influences. Some may relate to the language spoken in the home. Difficulties with seeing may also be an influence. Injuries to the body and brain can play a large role. Dr. Sacks does a masterly job of using case after case to explore one aspect or another of these dimensions so that a complex picture emerges that's even more remarkable than the brain processes involved in reading.

One of the biggest surprises in the book is that musical talent seems to be inhibited by some parts of the brain. In similar way, music can also inhibit some other brain functions that we would like to get rid of.

I had always wondered about those with perfect pitch, and the book explores that. There are also wonderful sections on other seemingly inherited musical abilities.

Dr. Sacks adds a lot of perspective to the history of music by making observations about various composers and the way that their compositions reflect certain musical abilities than others while explaining how the mental processes are different. Today, we can map the brain's activation in order to get clues about why certain behaviors are possible. That final perspective adds a lot to the case histories.

If you are like me, you'll find some of the cases to be heart-wrenching. I was comforted a bit to realize that music made those sad lives better so there's reason to rejoice in that sense.

So what was my big personal discovery? When I listen to classical music of any kind, I can choreograph a ballet along with costumes, sets, and props to go along with the music that I see in color when I close my eyes . . . even if the music has never been used for ballet. I didn't realize that others usually don't do that. What a wonder!
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By now, it's a given that an Oliver Sacks' book is worth your time and close attention. His particular talent lies in making the science interesting without becoming a "pop-science" writer. This is not an easy achievement, but Sacks manages it with facility. He can explain the science in terms of case studies - many of which have claimed his medical attention. He does this while mixing in experiences of his own and some personal reflections which are anything but intrusions. While some of his books are essays on selected individuals ["An Anthropologist on Mars" is an example], this one has a very special focus: the minds that make music unbidden.

Music arising in the mind without prompting may seem a common enough occurence. The advertising industry has demonstated fully music as an uncontrollable meme. The cases Sacks portrays here are of another sort. In some cases the music has taken over - sometimes supplanting other thinking processes and reducing the victim to near helplessness. The chief problem is often a lack of variety. More than the adverts' jingles, particular tunes may emerge from the distant past to occupy the sufferer's waking hours. A well-disciplined mind, such as Doctor P's, may be able to use the uncalled for music in ways that get them through daily tasks. Others don't have that ability and the music proves a terrible distraction. The music renders them "incapable of hearing themselves think".

Therapy for such conditions is in its infancy and may actually be subverted by the deluge of music impinging our ears daily. Sacks notes the proliferation of the iPod devices bringing music to listeners who seem to pass the day in another realm. This, however, is not relieving a condition, but may be generating a new one. Some music therapy has been in use to overcome coordination disorders, but this is limited and selective in effectiveness. Even "classical" music, which is known to "draw the mind" into it is not innocent in causing disorders. One of the more captivating classical pieces, Ravel's "Bolero" may be both the product of "musicophilia" in an aging composer and the source of endless reptition in the mind of the listener. The tendency of the mind to retain music is demonstrated in those with advanced Alzheimer's, who lose other facilities but retain a sense for music. Is music thus something the brain holds on to as something reliable in an otherwise confusing world? Brain scans have demonstrated that professional musicians have certain areas of the brain larger than the rest of us, but as a path to therapy, this situation has offered little up to now.

The author's avoidance of simply presenting a string of clinical studies is a testament to his humanitarian approach to the various conditions he lists here. In a sense, this book is a catalog of distortions the mind may be subject to relating to music. In one case, a lightning strike turns an orthopaedic surgeon into a classical pianist. Another suffers massive brain damage, yet continues a relatively normal life so long as he can arrange things in musical forms. Others may respond positively to prompts of classical themes, while becoming emotionally distraught at modern forms. Listing the cases in such a way leaves the impression that one might as well be perusing a medical journal. In Sacks' hands, nothing could be further from the truth. He is passionate in his relating these conditions, his feelings permeating every page. A book well worth your time, whether you are intersted in music, the mind or how they combine in the minds of people you may know. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa]
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on May 23, 2008
Although this admission may make me a "bad" psychology student, it has to be said: I previously gave up on Oliver Sacks because I found his writing style boring, self-involved, and far too crammed with technical neurological terminology that lacked the detailed explanation that would allow those unfamiliar with brain physiology to follow. I generally prefer, for example, the work of Dawkins and Ramachandran, who always seemed to me to be able to balance the perfect ratio of the subjective and the objective, even when discussing phenomena that most humans would find surreal or supernatural. Despite my hesitations, I decided to read Musicophilia because its content deeply interested me, and I'm glad I did.

Although Sacks again re-uses many of his old case studies, now relating them to music, and still cites his own books and experiences more than anyone else's, he finally struck that chord of interest in me that had been strangely absent when reading his other work. Musicophilia is a highly intriguing exploration of how and why humans experience the many strange phenomena associated with what we call music, from the perspectives of both clinically normal and brain-damaged individuals. For example, where do auditory hallucinations come from and what do they mean? What occurs when we cannot get a song "out of our heads"? How is it that the most severely amnesic man in the world cannot even remember that he had been conscious one minute before, but can play from memory complicated piano pieces or conduct an orchestra? The relatively few of the case studies that are actually new Sacks material are fascinating and insightfully penned, offering incredible stories of how music can temporarily "cure" incurable brain damage (like Parkinson's, for example), or how deeply technical talents like absolute pitch are entirely dissociable from, and actually use different brain areas from, a more creative musical passion.
Even in light of such astounding subject material, my main problem with Oliver Sacks stands: he ultimately spins things in a very subjective manner, making speculations based on personal experience without much discussing the more interesting objective reality of what these case studies say about the brain's experience of music. In short, he simply doesn't take the scientific side of his musings nearly far enough for an author who starts every case study with a description of the damaged brain areas responsible. Regardless, it was a cut above the usual experience I have with Sacks books, and the handful of extraordinary questions it did raise easily made up for its short-fallings.
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on February 3, 2013
I originally decided to give this book as a gift to a colleague who is very involved with teaching music and singing in choirs. I ordered another copy for myself, mainly because the author is the same doctor who wrote the true story that became the movie, "Awakenings". The book is very detailed and fascinating in a scientific sense, but I suppose I was expecting a less strenuous read. It feels like a textbook in several places and focuses heavily on how music is interpreted by patients with various types of brain injuries or neurological conditions. Nevertheless, some intriguing stories about unusual situations are told.
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on November 17, 2010
A very interesting book, at times hard to read as it is more scientific than it is entertaining. However, the findings, the facts, and the stories of the relationship between the music and the human brains are remarkable! It is really worth reading all the details and following the long unveiling of the marvels of the nature. Who could imagine that music, like love, could come into your life at any time, any age and transform you so radically in ways you couldn't have even thought of...
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on January 21, 2012
I used sections of this book in discussion with my students about music's importance to humanity. I enjoyed reading this book and I shared stories from it with students to exemplify how music is part of our biology, it's part of our history and evolution, and despite being elusive and mysterious, we all understand the power of music.
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on February 24, 2016
Purchased for my father, who is a real music appreciator. I am a professional musician and just finished my musical training, so he found this book a really wonderful insight into the brain of his daughter! He was very happy.
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on November 2, 2015
Music as is revealed in this book is not for listening enjoyment but can be of help to those who are mentally challenged. It can obviously be a tool in the medical realm.
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on July 28, 2016
Peeks through the keyhole at brain damaged patients.
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