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Oliver Sacks‘ newest book is, like many of his best, more a collection of vignettes and essays than a single cohesive narrative. Given the breadth of the subject matter — how the brain reacts to music in different situations — had he gone the other route, it’d most likely be dry and clinical. As it is, however, it combines the most amazing aspects of the subject with his readable, friendly, anecdotal style (though, of course, unlike real anecdotes, his stories are backed with real data).
Sacks has long been interested in music, both as an aficionado and as a neurologist, though, as he points out, until recently, very little research had been done on how the brain absorbs it. Some of the most interesting aspects are in the newish (since the ’60s or so) field of music therapy. He describes Parkinson’s patients who, when certain music is playing lose all symptoms of their disease. He tells of patients unable to speak who can sing songs — and even one who has used music to be able to speak normally, albeit in short — though coherent — bursts. Sacks also revisits certain patients from previous books (including “Witty Ticcy Ray” from The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat, the jazz drummer with Tourette’s and himself from A Leg to Stand On).
The chapters on synesthesia are also incredibly interesting. It’s a phenomenon (like the few tetrachromats in the world — women who see FOUR primary colors rather than three) which has long fascinated me — most likely because that is an experience that I not only will never be able to have but even FATHOM what it is like. People with perfect pitch who can tell the key of a piece by the color they see — it’s just so interesting what they must see when they listen to music. Of course, it can have its downside — Sacks mentions Jacques Lusseyran who after losing his sight was stricken with a synesthesia so profound and overpowering that he could no longer create or enjoy music — the visuals were just too much for him.
Sacks doesn’t only write about rare conditions — the first part of the book is about perhaps the most common musical affliction: The earworm, or as he argues they could better be called, brainworms. Music that gets stuck in your head and can’t come out. It’s something we’ve all experienced, although some people have it much worse than others. Some of Sacks’ patients have had it for years, going constantly, sometimes dampened by drugs or even sometimes sheer will. Sometimes it works out — there are composers, like Tchaikovsky, who were able to use the constant stream of music to compose. I recently read an interview with Kristin Hersh of Throwing Muses where she mentioned the same affliction.
Perhaps the only complaint I have with the book is a minor one that only applies to one chapter; in it, Sacks talks about Williams Syndrome, without really going too much into what it is — odd, since it’s a particularly strange disorder that couples mental retardation with very high linguistic skills, social skills and musical skills. He talks mostly about the outward symptoms without really going too much into what it IS exactly, which was a little frustrating. But I suppose that’s what’s Google’s for. And, really — with such a minor complaint that only applies to 18 pages of a 347 page book? That’s pretty dang good.
This is definitely worth checking out, if you’re a music fan, a fan of Oliver Sacks’ other books, or, well, both. My copy was a gift from Aila, who is also both, so, thank you very much! This was outstanding!