Music in Your Brain

Book Review: "Musicophilia" by Oliver Sacks

Volume CIX, No. 4April, 2009

Sue Terry

Dr. Oliver Sacks has been fascinating readers for decades with vivid descriptions of his patients’ ailments.

The eminent neurologist is the author of several books, including “The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat” and “Awakenings.” (The latter was made into a 1990 film starring Robert de Niro, Robin Williams and Julie Kavner.)

His latest book, titled “Musicophilia,” has just come out in paperback.

It concerns patients suffering from neurological disorders relating to music and sound.

As Dr. Sacks is not only a neurologist but also a music lover and amateur pianist, he is the ideal observer to report on the bizarre musical phenomena that can result when the brain decides to have a mind of its own.

In an illuminating preface, Dr. Sacks reveals his longstanding fascination with the “distortions, excesses and breakdowns” of brain function in regard to perception of music and sound.

The first chapter opens with a non-musical surgeon who, after being struck by lightning, develops an obsession for classical piano music. Not only does he acquire a collection of recordings to which he listens constantly, he also obtains a piano and begins to study and practice for hours each day.

The disorders described in the book happen to both musicians and non-musicians, though the case studies of musicians will be of particular interest to this readership.

In the chapter “Papa Blows His Nose in G: Absolute Pitch,” we read an account by Diana Deutsch describing her discovery, at age four, that other people could not recognize notes by their names as she could.

“Suppose I hear an F-sharp sounded on the piano,” recalls Diana. “I obtain a strong sense of familiarity for ‘F-sharpness’ — like the sense one gets when one recognizes a familiar face.”

The phenomenon of perfect pitch is dealt with at length. Using one of his patients as an example, Sacks puts forth the observation that possessing absolute pitch does not necessarily guarantee musical sensibility and taste.

I urge you not to skip over the footnotes, as they are filled with all sorts of relevant anecdotes and insights.

One footnote, for instance, mentions that Shostakovitch had a piece of shrapnel embedded in his head that he declined to have surgically removed because when he tilted his head, he heard melodies that he used in his compositions.

Also of interest are the many reference books mentioned throughout, and the extensive bibliography at the end.

Musician readers may, at times, feel like they’re reading a Stephen King horror novel.

In one chapter, a professional composer develops an abnormality in his hearing that de-tunes the upper register of the piano, sometimes by as much as a major third. Further complicating the situation, each ear de-tunes it by a different amount! The composer gets around it by working out passages in a lower octave, and transposing them to the correct octave when writing the score.

Sacks has his share of celebrity patients, including the renowned pianist Leon Fleisher who suffers from a condition known as “dystonia.” At one decades-long point in his career, Fleisher could only play repertoire for one-handed piano.

Though a successful course of treatment eventually restored ability to his other hand, Fleisher describes a personal revelation that resulted from his impairment.

“Suddenly I realized that the most important thing in my life was not playing with two hands; it was music,” says Fleisher. “In order to be able to make it across these last 30 or 40 years, I’ve had to somehow de-emphasize the number of hands or the number of fingers and go back to the concept of music as music.”

Fleisher adds, “The instrumentation becomes unimportant, and it’s the substance and content that take over.”

After putting down this book and retiring for the evening, you may find yourself humming the old song “Count Your Blessings.”

How often do we take our abilities for granted, and assume they will always be part of us?

Besides being a really good read, “Musicophilia” is a reminder of the delicate balance that exists between our minds, our bodies, and our craft. 

Sue Terry is a saxophonist and Local 802 member. Her Web site is