Musicophilia (Oliver Sacks)

October 16, 2007 at 04:27 PM · British neurologist Oliver Sacks (The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Awakenings) published his new work Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, Revised and Expanded Edition. So far I read just some chapters, but since some of the topics were discussed here recently (Synaesthesia, Perfect Pitch etc.) it might be a great read for some others here as well. To give you an impression of it, here is its table of contents:

Part I:

Haunted By Music

1. A Bolt From The Blue: Sudden Musicophilia

2. A Strangely Familiar Feeling: Musical Seizures

3. Fear Of Music: Musicogenic Epilepsy

4. Music On The Brain: Imagery And Imagination

5. Brain Worms, Sticky Music And Catchy Tunes

6. Musical Hallucinations

Part II:

A Range Of Musicality

7. Sense And Sensibility: A Range Of Musicality

8. Things Fall Apart: Amusia And Dysharmonia

9. Papa Blows His Nose In G: Absolute Pitch

10. Pitch Imperfect: Cochlear Amusia

11. In Living Stereo: Why We Have Two Ears

12. Two Thousand Operas: Musical Savants

13. An Auditory World: Musicality And Blindness

14. The Key Of Clear Green: Synaesthesia And Music

Part III:

Memory, Movement And Music

15. In The Moment: Music And Amnesia

16. Speech And Song: Music Therapy And Aphasia

17. Accidental Davening: Dyskinesia And Cantillation

18. Touch Heaven: Music And Tourette's Syndrome

19. Keeping Time: Rhythm And Movement

20. Kinetic Melody: Music Therapy And Parkinson's Disease

21. Phantom Fingers: The Case Of The One-Armed Pianist

22. Athletes Of The Small Muscles: Musician's Dystonia

Part IV:

Emotion, Identity And Music

23. Awake And Asleep: Musical Dreams

24. Seduction: Indifference To Music

25. Lamentations: Music And Depression

26. The Case Of Harry S.: Music And Emotion

27. Irrepressible: Music And The Temporal Lobes

28. A Hypermusical Species: Williams Syndrome

29. Music And Identity: Music Therapy And Dementia.

You can find the PR-text of Musicophilia and an audio excerpt of the preface here as well as an interview with Oliver Sacks.

Replies (10)

October 16, 2007 at 05:28 PM · His writing is very essayistic (evil scientists might say just essayistic), but always a pleasure to be read. Here're two PR-videos, one about a surgeon, who (struck by lightning) starts being obsessed by piano playing, and the other one about Music and Parkinson.

October 16, 2007 at 11:45 PM · Interesting Note: I just read a text book about autism and learned that documented cases of savant syndrome where the savants abilities are extraordinary are aproximately 100 in the last 100 years. Very often autsim has the characteristic of extra ordinary memorization skills, which are often confused with true savante syndrome. When a individual with autism improves their verbal skills, the savante or memorization skills often decrease proportionately.

I guess it is just hard work for everyone else!

October 17, 2007 at 05:42 PM · There is an excerpt from Dr. Sacks work (must be 21 from the above list) in this month's Reader's Digest on Leon Fleischer and focal dystonia. It is well worth every violinist's time.

Fleischer had to give up playing with the right hand for nearly thirty years. He had a career conducting and playing concertos written for the left hand.

October 20, 2007 at 04:46 AM · Thanks for posting this. Oliver Sacks is a thoughtful and entertaining writer, but I didn't know he had written about music.

Maybe he can explain the (sometimes annoying) persistence of certain melodies...I am often involuntarily haunted by tunes (seemingly the more inane the more persistent, as in advertising jingles, etc). I'm sure this is common among musicians although it would be nice to know how to redirect, for example, the McDonald's commercial to Beethoven...

Re: previous post, Leon Fleisher's story is inspiring for anyone who has ever had to take a break from practicing (whatever the reason) and tried to make a comeback. In addition his depth of musicality is evident on his new CD "Two Hands"...

October 20, 2007 at 05:35 AM · This might be a bit off topic, but does anyone know if music is helpful to autistic children (learning or listening to music). Have any of you taught violin music to an autistic child?

October 20, 2007 at 07:33 AM · Hi Barbara,

the earworm issue is addressed in a smaller chapter (Brain Worms, Sticky Music And Catchy Tunes), he describes it as a kind of musical Tourette’s syndrom:


* no Shakespeare, but names, derogatory remarks or obscene words

* fragments of exclamations

* you dont say it deliberately


* no Mahler, but snippets from TV-spots for toothpaste or the title melody of „Married... with children“ (what a punishment!)

* fragments (some repetive bars)

* you don’t hear it deliberately, it’s often music you even hate

It’s not the best chapter in the book (here‘s a little video of it), to be honest even this Guardian article provides more information. I read another theory about earworms of an anthropologist (very simplified): in the very early phase of human’s evolution, imitation was one of the keys to develop, humans had to imitate to survive (e. g. tools, strategies, providing food), so the brain was more and more aligned to imitate, some processes started gaining momentum, so concerning earworms: the less nerve cells are necessary to identify the accords in a melody, the easier it’s its imitation. Some melodies are simply irresistably well-defined for the brain, so it’s imitating it nolens volens over and over again in certain situations (with subconscious causes like symbols in dreams). It’s a bug.

Of course I’ve no idea whether it’s true or not.

(Just in case you’re currently earwormfree – eat this: some years ago this foolish Finnish song was sent around in mails, it became one of my companions for a fairly long time.)

Hi Catherine,

I’m neither psychologist nor music therapist, but music therapy plays a key role to help autistic people. Jaap van Zweden is very active in a foundation for this (Papageno Foundation), where they tour with a bus through the Netherlands and make music with autistic children. If you write them a mail, they can provide you with all materials you need, I bet.

October 20, 2007 at 04:14 PM · Hi Mischa,

Well, I coudn't resist...I watched the Loituma video clip (and another, and another, and another)!

Now I have a strange compulsion to sing nonsense whilst swinging a leek in circles. Quick, some Mahler (or anything) PLEASE...!

October 20, 2007 at 04:29 PM · Fabulous topics! Mischa-- some of your links scare me, and so far I've resisted. :-) "Earworms" or "virus melodies"-- I called them that long before computer viruses-- are constantly present for me, often my own improvised musical thinking, often pieces I've performed or heard, more rarely (fortunately!) the classic jingle, silly tune, or dis-liked tune... The most sticky melodies have changed my life in profound and unexpected and thorough ways...

About autism... it is a wide spectrum. I taught a student diagnosed as high-functioning autistic for a couple years. Extraordinarily pleasant kid. Also another with some similar presentation but no clear diagnosis. In both cases we made slow steady progress-- like the stock market: surprising up and down better and worse weeks, but with patient, steady investment, overall rewarding growth.

During lessons, I had to be unusually aware of all my motions, noises, words, and interruptions of music, and vastly reduce all of the above. Constantly creative different modelling, exampling, explaining. Works out. Fun. Got some good performances, which-- whatever the repertoire-- really impress audiences, who know and feel what's up in the community music school recital context these students played in.

The more I've learned about autism, the more I get spooked by how much it's me. Maybe, in some non-clinical tiny margin of the spectrum.

Slightly different angle on the whole brain and music topic: Asperger's syndrome (which may or may not be somewhere in the autism spectrum). Maybe that's what violinists have a touch of...

A friend just passed me a great article about living and working with Asperger's syndrome. The article is "Parallel Play" by Tim Page-- a reasonably successful music advocate, critic, and book writer-- from the New Yorker (20 August 2007, pp. 36-41). It's a really touching, candid personal history, with some very revealing anecdotes and factoids thrown in. Page quotes Hans Asperger himself, a Viennese (are we surprised?) pediatrician who identified the diagnostic pattern of the syndrome named for him, as saying "For success in science or art, a dash of autism is essential."

[Hmmm.... I got an honorable biochemistry degree before my violin performance degree, and I have six or seven years of lab research work under my belt.]

November 27, 2007 at 03:56 AM · i love this book, I just got it and it's pretty cool, i like knowing more about my perfect pitch :)

November 27, 2007 at 01:09 PM · Mischa, this sounded so good, I just requested a copy at the library I work at. (I'm #53 on the hold list. Think I get to queue-jump, though, as an employee. Tee hee!)

Thanks for posting this. I've been meaning to read his writing for some time now.

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