Book Club: December

One of the books put forward for discussion in recent times was “Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain by Oliver W Sacks (Picador)”.  It is a substantial tome and densely written with case study after case study, and is compelling reading.  I wouldn’t recommend it as a book that you can read quickly, but rather one that you can keep coming back to from time to time and rereading some of the stories that interest you.

Oliver Sacks is a famous neurologist that wrote the book “Awakenings” which became a movie starring Robert de Niro.  He is considered to be afflicted with Asperger’s but I find his displays of compassion for his patients in his writings to indicate that he doesn’t have it too severely.  Other people disagree and find him too detached from his patients, so I will leave it up to the individual to decide.  Irrespective of your views on the author, the subjects are incredibly fascinating, and his writing is clear and crisp.

One of the case studies I found interesting was the engineering business owner struck by lightning and after recovering in hospital came home wanting to play the piano.  He had never shown any interest in or aptitude for music, but after the shock of the lightning couldn’t stop playing.  He gave up his business and bought a piano and played all day, started composing music, and at the time of the book being printed was touring the concert halls of America.  I should add here that his wife left him because he was no longer the man she married, but he kept playing the piano.  Sack’s theory is that the lightning affected the chemistry of his brain in such a way that it unleashed his creative side. 

Sack’s overriding theory in all of this is that everyone’s brain has the creative capacity to be a Mozart or a Beethoven, but we have dampers that keep that part of the brain under control.  Perhaps this explains why some very creative people have difficulty coping with everyday life.

On the other hand, he uses the case of a woman in Ireland who could never understand why she didn’t advance in Irish dancing classes.  She started when she was very young and after more than a decade had not progressed in the levels very far, and younger dancers were much further advanced.  When tested by Sacks it was clear that she didn’t really hear the music, she had no feeling for the melody and couldn’t pick up the beat.  To her it was just noise, so her dancing was never in the rhythm.

Other subjects of his case studies, when hearing music could actually feel it and see it as colours or forms, and they thought everyone could do the same, and were amazed that others were different.  Some were savants that could remember long and complicated pieces of music and play them from memory perfectly.

The case studies were so numerous that it is impossible to detail them all here, but I refer back to this book often when discussing musical tastes and differences, and highly recommend it to anyone interested in the workings of the brain, music, or neurology.