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This book was chosen because my world revolves around music, whether that be through participating in show choir or needing my pre-game playlist; music has the power to alter my mood and resurface memories I thought were lost. I have yet to meet someone who has not experienced music, though I have observed the different degrees to which someone is ‘musical.’ This leads me to wonder the reason why that happens and what happens in our brain that causes us to like and dislike certain music styles.
Oliver Sacks, the author of Musicophilia, earned his medical degree at Oxford University and continued his residency and fellowship at Mt. Zion Hospital in San Francisco and became a neurologist. Toward the end of his life, he served as a Professor of Neurology and Psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center.
How it works
Though we may never know the true origin of music, the impact it has on humanity is unimaginable, music seems to be so deeply rooted in human nature one must think it’s innate. The question that continually arises in regard to music is in which ways do we apprehend music? How does the complexity of music involve different parts of the brain because music is not solely auditory? Music can stir emotions, surface memories, trigger sensory responses, and control muscular movement.
In Musicophilia, Sacks does not tackle the question of our brains breaking down music directly. Rather, the subtitle of his book indicates how he approached the complex idea of music. He records narratives of cases that he has experienced as a neurologist that demonstrate varying aspects of the effects of music on the brain. His style of writing both aids and hinders the execution of his thesis.
One way it helped the progression of the thesis is that, unlike other books in which neuroscience takes center stage with illustrative case examples, Sacks is able to bring a human face to the sometimes covert neurobiology of music. Indeed, many of the people that the reader meets through Sacks’s stories have inspiring tales of the power of music to relieve suffering and to help overcome disabilities. An example of this is through the anecdote of Samuel S. suffered from severe expressive aphasia, a type of aphasia characterized by partial loss of the ability to produce language (spoken, manual, or written) until music therapy was introduced. Before implementing this therapy strategy, the doctors tried intensive speech therapy, but for 2 years, he was totally speechless and unable to retrieve a single word which led doctors to declare him “hopeless.” However, one day the music therapist suggested music therapy as a last-ditch effort, “within two months, he was making short but appropriate responses to questions” (232). On the other hand, disadvantages include fragmentary organization and lack of a broader analytical perspective. For this chapter and many of his later chapters, Sacks strengthens his thesis and aids the reader’s understanding of the impact of music.
Sacks present his material in twenty-nine chapters. Most of the chapters address a topic with several cases illustrating the individual variations on the basic theme. For example, in “Part II: A Range of Musicality,” Sacks uses a single chapter to investigate the phenomenon of synesthesia and music. Synesthesia refers to a true mixing of the senses. With music, one manifestation of synesthesia is the way some people see or perceive color as integral to the experience of music. Thus, one musician specifically associates a color with a musical key. Another person who is not a musician associates color with light, shape, and position. Christine Leahy does not have absolute pitch and cannot perceive any intrinsic difference between different keys. However, he has strong color synesthesia for music. She was asked about what happens visually with each key being played; she explains, “knows that a particular note is D, it will elicit a sensation of greenness as vivid as that of the letter D” (187). Sacks also discusses scientific work on synesthesia but reaches no conclusions. Rather, he leaves the chapter open-ended about the neurobiology of synesthesia and the varying attitudes of synesthetes toward the role of this phenomenon in their lives. Overall, Sack enhances his thesis of music involving multiple parts of the brain and completely transforming society with his utilization of these case-specific case studies.
Although none of the chapters are lengthy, most of them leave the reader with some food for thought. Some of the chapters are less satisfying, and a few are so brief that one wonders about the reason for their inclusion. For example, chapter 17, “Accidental Davening: Dyskinesia and Cantillation,” is only two pages in length. Sacks do not explain what dyskinesia and cantillation are. The example goes nowhere. This interlude seems puzzling and discordant. Because of this, the thesis starts to get cloudy, and the purpose starts to become unclear. There are many other chapters that result in the same unclear and puzzling conclusions. However, with that being said, because of the other richly packed chapters, his thesis still remains well-built and solid.
The advantages of music therapy in suffering patients are monumental. However, music can have just about the opposite effect on other patients. Oliver Sacks tackles the paradox music creates in his book Musicophilia. He effectively proposes his thesis that music seems to be so deeply rooted in human nature one must think it’s innate. Through his application of case studies, he effectively supported and developed this claim.
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