Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Book Review: Musicophilia

I have always been fascinated by the power of music. Indeed, music has significantly enriched my life. I grew up in a very musical family. Both of my parents sing and play instruments. My father insisted that each of his five children learn to play an instrument at the age of 7. He started all of us on the slide trumpet, so we could learn the trombone positions, and then moved us to the cornet. By the time we were 10 or 11, the choice was ours as to whether we would continue or not. I chose to continue and have never felt regret (except, perhaps, that music doesn't play as significant a part in my life now as it did in the past).

Thus, I was eager to read Oliver Sacks newest book, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain. Oliver Sacks is a physician and author, whose most recognized book would probably be Awakenings, which was made into a movie starring Robin Williams. Although his subject matter is rather heady (dealing with the brain - ha!), he manages to pepper the neurological information he provides with compelling stories of various patients and other individuals.

The book is tightly structured into four parts. The first part, called "Haunted by Music," discusses ways music can take hold of the brain. He tells of a doctor who, after he is struck by lightening, becomes obsessed with music. He talks of musical seizures and hallucinations. He discusses brainworms (tunes our brains latch onto and cannot seem to stop repeating).

Personally, my brainworms are usually annoying Barney tunes or ditties from commercials. However, the whole time I was reading this book, I had a new brainworm take hold. It was a song I have listened to on numerous occasions, sung by The Salvation Army's Chicago Staff Band, called "The Rhythm of Life." Just as the book described, I could actually hear the music in my mind as if being performed right in front of me . I even heard it right down to the nuances of the individual voices of people I know who were singing on the recording.

The words are an entirely fitting accompaniment to Sack's book:

The rhythm of life is a powerful beat,
Puts a tingle in your fingers and a tingle in your feet,
Rhythm on the inside, rhythm on the street,
And the rhythm of life is a powerful beat.

The second section of the book is called, "A Range of Musicality." Here, Sacks discusses individuals who cannot appreciate music, those who appreciate it, but are not musical, those with absolute pitch, savants, blind musicians whose auditory abilities are enhanced, and synesthetes (individuals who actually see colors with each pitch). Each individual has differing strengths and weaknesses when it comes to musical abilities. Did you know that half of children who are born blind have absolute pitch?

In the third section, Sacks deals with "Memory, Movement, and Music." He tells absorbing stories of individuals who overcame various medical disabilities, like amnesia, Alzheimer's, Tourette's, Parkinson's, autism and amputation through forms of music therapy. I found myself, time and again, sharing bits and pieces with my husband. The tale of the severe amnesiac who couldn't remember time from one moment to the next, yet could play his music and conduct without difficulty. Individuals with Tourette's, whose thousands of tics virtually disappear while playing music. Parkinson's and Alzheimer's patients who come alive only to music. The tale of the one-armed pianist.

The final section discusses "Emotion, Identity, and Music." Different people have differing susceptibilities to music. Individuals with Aspergers may have intricate knowledge of many subjects, yet experience difficulty feeling an emotional response to music, while a whole group of individuals with Williams Syndrome can spend every waking moment engrossed in music yet be unable to tie a shoe or add 3 + 5.

This book will certainly be one of my favorite reads for the year. It reminded me of Dr. Paul Brand's books, Fearfully and Wonderfully Made and The Gift Nobody Wants. Each of these books wrought in me a surge of gratitude to God for the incredible intricacy of the human body and for the marvelous gifts He has given us through creative use of the body.


Bia said...

I think I may just have to read this one, too! The sub-title of my "to-read" list should be: "Wendy's recommendations"!

Thanks for the review.

Wishing you and your family a blessed Easter.

Anonymous said...

Sounds great, Wendy, so I'll have to get it on my 'to read' list. But if Paul Brand's: Fearfully and Wonderfully Made, is anything to go by, then it will have to become a must.
Paul du P

Wendy said...

Bia - Thanks for enjoying my book reviews. I enjoy writing them, but don't know if people really want to read them.

Paul - Sack's book was a great read, but Brand's books are definitely MUST reads! The end result was the same, though - awe and wonder and gratitude to God.