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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

cover of Oliver Sack's 'Musicophilia'

A fascinating compendium of a variety of case studies and stories relating music and the brain--

  • perfect pitch and why we don't all have it (and how some people associate tones with colors)
  • musical hallucinations (losing hearing & hallucinating songs from years before)
  • "amusia" - an inability to perceive one of the many components of music, the absence of which makes it impossible to appreciate music (there are so many things going on when we listen to music that we tend to just take for granted! rhythm, timbre, pitch, harmony)
  • musical savantism
  • people with severe amnesia or aphasia where music can be a tool to recover some of that lost function
  • even brain damage that frees up musical creativity
The stories are fascinating and interesting for what they say about the complexity of music, as well as the brain and what it means to be human. I was a little disappointed that Sacks didn't make a stronger argument or concluding summary at the end about what all of these stories and details means, what it all adds up to; he basically concludes that all human cultures have some form of music and that some relation to music is intrinsically part of being human. Perhaps this was cut from the audiobook, but it seems unlikely they would cut something as crucial as that, which would tie things together a bit more, and try to make sense of the whole picture.

In any case, there are any number of fascinating stories here, and listening to them reminded me how we all have those "touches of madness," little bits or traits of these much stranger and more extreme cases that we start to notice in ourselves after reading or hearing about them. For instance, it never occurred to me that we have "auditory imagery," and that some people have much better musical imaginations than others-- to the point that some people can look at a musical score and hear the whole orchestra in their head. Another familiar experience is the auditory "afterimage", or the "earworm," the song that gets stuck in your head. Or the notion that there is latent musical ability in many of us, but it is inhibited because so much of our brain is taken up with sight and visual processing.

The fact that our culture is so saturated with music and noise all the time, and that so many of us pipe it directly into our ears makes me wonder what we are doing to ourselves, what long-term effects there will be, on our brains and our hearing and our sensitivity to music.

Listened to the audiobook.

Title:Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain
Author:Oliver Sacks
Date published:2007
Genre:Nonfiction / Science
Number of pages:400
Notes:listened to audiobook


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