Book Review: Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, by Oliver Sacks

Rating: 5/5

An eminently readable and informative anthology of case studies ranging from the terrifying to the sublime, Musicophilia explores the varying neurological effects of music through the eyes of Dr. Oliver Sacks and his patients. Dr. Sacks has devoted a large part of his career to bringing the relationship between music and the brain into the public consciousness, and this book is a distillation of his core message: music is not simply an aesthetic pastime; it is essential to the human experience, down to the very physical structure of our brains.

Musicophilia is an organized compilation of personal narratives and case studies spanning a large spectrum of neurological conditions — from epilepsy to synesthesia to Alzheimer’s disease — and tracking music’s impact on each. The sheer volume of cases is sometimes overwhelming, but it’s also a testament to music’s very real power to heal — or, rarely, to destroy.

Dr. Sacks’s writing sparkles with eloquence and clarity, and he makes two extremely specialized subjects — music and neurology — not only accessible but also understandable. I did need help with some of the anatomical terminology, and I found that having a basic diagram of the human brain on hand was extremely helpful (tip: print out an anatomically labelled image and fold it into a bookmark!). Aside from scientifically communicating the immense complexity and potential of the human brain, Musicophilia also reminds us that in addition to being thinking creatures, we are feeling creatures, and that these two “sides” of ourselves come together in the process of making and listening to music.

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