Sacks Discovers Harmony In Music and Mind

"Musicophilia" - By Oliver Sacks (Knopf) - Out Now

You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to know that music is a wonderful thing. But being a neuroscientist might help, at least according to Oliver Sacks. Sacks, it’s true, is no ordinary scientist, and his latest collection of essays, “Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain,” is not simply a dry scientific exploration of the connection between neurology and music, as we might expect from other scientists-turned-writers. Rather, it is an original, elegantly crafted, and inspiring investigation of the distinctly human obsession with all things musical.

“What an odd thing it is,” Sacks writes, “to see an entire species—billions of people—playing with, listening to, meaningless tonal patterns, occupied and preoccupied for much of their time by what they call ‘music.’” Sacks tries to get to the root of this peculiarity by bringing us into the eccentric, sometimes tragic, and sometimes moving world that he first introduced in books like “Awakenings” and “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat,” a world populated by Sacks’s patients, many of whom have neurological disorders like amnesia, Parkinson’s, Tourette’s, aphasia, and autism. Sacks believes that through the experience of these patients we can witness, in its most basic forms, the “wonderful machinery” that gives rise to human beings’ love of music.

Over the course of the essays, Sacks introduces a range of bizarre and captivating characters. For example, there is the former college football player who, after getting hit by lightning (literally), becomes possessed with an “insatiable desire” to listen to and compose classical music; the elderly woman haunted by vivid “musical hallucinations” of lullabies from her childhood; the Tourette’s patient who finds an outlet for his tics by playing the piano; and the severely amnesiac musician who, despite having only a seven-second memory, can still find peace of mind by playing music. Sacks treats all these cases with a mixture of compassion, humor, and curiosity. He is especially careful not to turn his patients into objects of detached scientific study, always emphasizing their humanity and his own emotional investment in their cases.

The essays are filled with easily understandable background scientific information as well as fascinating anecdotes about writers, philosophers, musicians, and composers. It might strike you to learn that John Stuart Mill, for example, turned to music to help ease his chronic depression, or that Ravel, Stravinsky, and Berlioz all composed original music in their dreams. Sacks also includes anecdotes about his family, childhood, and personal love of music throughout the book. His own “musicophilia” is always apparent, as are his curiosity and personal investment in the subject.

Still, some of the scientific discussions can become tedious, especially in the more medically complex cases. And not all of the essays rise to the level of the true gems of the collection—though such a goal might be impossible in a book of 29 essays. But Sacks maintains such a consistently fluid and engaging writing style that even the weaker essays are still enjoyable to read.

In any book that blends art and science, there is always a danger that the discussion will fall into the could-a-monkey-and-a-typewriter-reproduce-Shakespeare trap, that the author will try to quantify artistic expression into a set of scientific facts and data. But Sacks is not interested in reducing musical creativity to the firing of neurons or the flowing of hormones. He has a deep sense of respect for the unique possibilities of artistic expression and claims, quoting Schopenhauer’s assertion that “the inexpressible depth of music [is] so easy to understand yet so inexplicable.”

Indeed, Sacks never really provides a scientific answer to the question of what draws human beings to the “odd thing” that is music. Instead, he uses his knowledge of science and medicine to chronicle the many ways music, with all its ambiguities, can influence our lives. It may be telling that Columbia University, in addition to giving Sacks a professorship in clinical neurology and clinical psychiatry, recently appointed him to the newly created position of “Columbia artist.” Perhaps, though we’re often taught to believe otherwise, it does take a scientist to provide new depth to one of the oldest forms of artistic expression.

—Staff writer Jacob M. Victor can be reached at