Books of 2007: Musicophilia–Sarah Coley

Friends of The Reader write about their books of 2007

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Oliver Sacks. Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain

By Sarah Coley

This book is a wonderful thing. It is hard to imagine a better subject for Oliver Sacks to probe than music and the brain. With descriptions of people’s experiences – in the style of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat – Sacks looks at the ways music is entwined in our lives, and simultaneously lights up brain and music. There is an unpredictable excitement in reading it because he deals with conditions that are emphatic and yet perhaps still in flux as the brain adapts to meet the challenge of injury or decline. You have the possibility of recovery or a new accommodation in a book that also gives you glimpses of ancient forms of the brain. Does the survival of absolute pitch in a few individuals point to a time when pitch was part of human communication? Intriguingly in China with its tonal languages, a higher percentage of the population has a sense of absolute pitch.

What does music do? What meets (or creates) music in us? Sacks looks for answers both in the deficits or disorders of sense (being tone deaf, for example, or suffering musical hallucinations) and the extraordinary powers some have to remember music or create it out of nothing. There’s often a feeling of double perspective. You have the individual bearing day-to-day whatever their condition brings them as well as the slower sight of what this means neurologically and what it shows of the brain’s scope and history. There’s a great deal here.

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Sarah Coley is Deputy Editor of The Reader magazine.