Musicophilia Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks
Publisher: Knopf
Year: 2007
Pages: 400

I have read Oliver Sacks before. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat was a fascinating book, but it could get a bit dry at times, consisting as it did of short, informal case histories without much in the way of frame narrative or Bryson-esque exposition. I picked up Musicophilia both because I still like Sacks and his writing, but also because the book’s subject—music and music therapy—is very much a part of my life: my longtime girlfriend, Allison, is studying to become a music therapist, and while I’ve never had the disposition for such a line of work, I’ve always been fascinated by the potential neurological effects of it.

I rather enjoyed this book; I would say I enjoyed it even more than The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat; to start, I think Sacks writing has improved in 20+ years. Second, it seemed more focused, tied as it did around music rather than various and sundry neurological disorders common only by virtue of their disorderly nature.

Sacks covers a lot of different neurological disorders: the book ranges from people stricken with amusia, or have in some way are bereft of the ability to either enjoy music emotionally or even hear music as music, to those who suddenly gained an undying passion for music after being struck by lightning. These are all fascinating, and Sacks spends quite a bit of time talking introducing these case histories, and exploring the possible neurological reasons for these things; there is, too, a certain tawdry fascination with the broken—or sometimes enhanced—minds of other people: we can suddenly feel glad that a symphony doesn’t sound to us like the clanging of pots and pans.

But I think the most endearing thing about the book, and what I had hoped it would cover, is the rehabilitative effects of music for those suffering from debilitating diseases. It’s truly a remarkable thing, the way that music in the brain is both an entirely separate entity from speech and motor ability, and yet it manages to have an effect on both. Parkinsonian patients who can barely move are suddenly graceful when dancing to a rhythm; patients with severe aphasia1 can still sing lyrics, and in doing so eventually rehabilitate their ability to speak without singing.

Another very interesting thing I learned is that I have a common and relatively mild form of synesthesia. This neurological syndrome was the primary plot device in a book I read last year called The Beautiful Miscellaneous. Looking back at my review, I was so underwhelmed that I never even mentioned the word; I was, however, fascinated by the condition. The most famous cases of synesthesia are those synesthetes who can taste music, or whose perfect pitch is due in part to the precise color associations they make with musical pitches.

I don’t have anything that dramatic, but according to Sacks, grapheme-color synesthesia is the most common kind, and among the possible symptoms—letter-color association, number-color-association, and day/month-color association, the link between days of the week and color is even more common yet2. I definitely have that, and discovered that my mother and brother both do, as well. We all, perhaps to a letter degree, have letter-color synesthesia, as well.

So, the book happened to shed light upon a curious little fact about myself I had long ago stopped thinking about, assuming everyone else thought that Tuesdays were green days, too, or that the letter S is blue.

Every time Sacks puts pen to paper (or finger to keyboard, now), he manages to be insightful and informative. That he doesn’t have the narrative genius of a Steven Jay Gould or a Bill Bryson is easily forgiven in the face of how damned interesting his books are anyway. Musicophilia may just be his best yet.

  1. the inability to speak[]
  2. c.f. Simner J, Mulvenna C, Sagiv N, et al (2006). “Synaesthesia: the prevalence of atypical cross-modal experiences”. Perception 35 (8): 1024:33.[]
§2079 · June 24, 2008 · Tags: , , , , , , ·

7 Comments to “Musicophilia”

  1. Conor says:

    I’ll have to ask around, but I thought everyone had what’s here described as “Grapheme-color synesthesia.” Just finished a Nabakov book in which he used the term “pale green 18th century.” Days of the week are definitely colored for me, but not nearly as boldly and richly as are the months or decades or centuries.

    I don’t think this is a rare thing at all.

    A few years ago I read a somewhat splendid book on this whole “music is weird for the brain” subject. The title escapes me now (oddly I vividly remember the purple and maroon hues on the cover!), and my internet connection is too shoddy to chase after the scant verbal clues I’ve gathered together in my mind, but it was a good read.

    Yeah. Take my word for it.

  2. Conor says:

    Ah-ha! Music, The Brain, And Ecstasy it was called. And I was right about the colors.

  3. Ben says:

    It wouldn’t surprise me. The latest estimates for synesthesia are 1 in 23. But it’s not universal, no.

  4. Conor says:

    Last night at the bar I got close to 70% agreement. But maybe I just rock at persuading people. I shall press onward in my non-scientific querying.

    Why can’t I subscribe to comments anymore?

  5. Ben says:

    Hmm, how late in the night did you ask around? After enough beer, anyone can see music and taste color.

    I wonder, too, if w.r.t. grapheme-color synesthesia there aren’t two different phenomenons: simple association (i.e., think of the letter ‘p’ and think of purple, ‘b’ is blue, and other more common intellectual associations) and synesthesia, which is, remember, an entirely involuntary perception of color concomitant to thought of day/letter/number.

    As I mentioned before, I’m not at all surprised if the existence is the new “1 in 23” figure, though I think I’d be very surprised if it was closer to 70% as your informal survey seems to suggest.

    (Aside: apparently my “Subscribe to Comments” plugin got deleted somehow. It’s back now.)

  6. Conor says:

    Thanks for the plugin fix. You’re right about the simple versus complex type of color association… I’ll have to ask more about that.

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