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Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain
Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain
Oliver Sacks
Knopf, 2007
400 pp., $26.00

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Jeremy Begbie


Music on the Brain

Oliver Sacks investigates.

I write this just after another season awash with familiar carols and hymns—what would Christmas be without music? Yet it is worth stopping to reflect that all the well-known music we use to adore the newborn King only comes round once a year. The rest of the time it sits in our brains, dormant until activated by the next round of midwinter festivities.

We all have music on the brain. And not just in the sense that it is lodged in our memories, but in the sense that we seem to be hard-wired for it. The vast majority of humans have a capacity for music. We can feel it in our bones from our earliest years: we tap to it, dance to it, sway with it, cry with it. On this built-in competence, music's legendary powers depend: music can send armies into battle, get us to buy this or that product, calm us in a traffic jam—and, indeed, direct us to the Almighty.

Quite how music interacts with our brains to achieve these effects is far from clear. Therapists have long recognized that music can, for example, relieve the symptoms of dementia, aphasia, and Parkinson's disease, but the processes involved have remained something of a mystery. However, in recent years, rapid progress has been made in bringing them to light. Most important, sophisticated imaging techniques have enabled neurologists to study brain activity while music is being produced and heard. In his latest book, neurologist Oliver Sacks, perhaps best known for The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, leads us into this rich and complex territory. With almost breathless excitement the dust-jacket declares: "Music is irresistible, haunting, and unforgettable, and in Musicophilia, Oliver Sacks tells us why."

Well … not really. Fascinating, readable, and accessible the book may be, but it delivers considerably less than the blurb promises. And, as I shall suggest, this may be no bad thing.

Sacks' method is unusual. For much of the book, he operates via negativa, by showing what happens when the brain misbehaves ...

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