Musicophilia approaches music and the brain in a very unique manner. The author, Oliver Sacks, is a renowned neurologist. He served as a physician, a best selling author, and professor of neurology at the NYU School of Medicine. When this book was first suggested to me I was immediately intrigued by the title, Musicophilia. What exactly is musicophilia? Oliver Sacks relates biophilia, the love of life and the living world, with music. The combination of these two words, into one unknown one, insinuates that music is a living thing. Being a lover of music, not so much of science (in any way), I was unsure that I would enjoy reading this. Yes, the title is impactful but I was afraid that I would have to read of a vast array of scientific terms I would not understand. That was not the case.
Each chapter of this book relates music to the brain differently through unrelated incidents. He tells the stories of many people struggling with neurological conditions and their experiences with music and how it has affected them. I particularly enjoy how Sacks writes with empathy. By that I mean he writes less scientific and more human. He writes so that someone who does not understand the scientific aspect of the brain can still understand how music has impacted it. His love for music shows deeply through the way he writes. In reference to Musicophilia, Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times writes, “Dr. Sacks writes not just as a doctor and a scientist but also as a humanist with a philosophical and literary bent. . . [his] book not only contributes to our understanding of the elusive magic of music but also illuminates the strange workings, and misfirings, of the human mind.”
As I read this book, I read it less as if I was just reading words on a page and more as though Sacks was speaking to me. To me it felt as if he and I were sitting at the dinner table and he was telling me stories of patients and of incidents he found to be inspiring and unique. His voice as a writer is clear and concise and makes the content more enjoyable to read. His writing seems to leave the reader wanting more. He speaks of individuals and their experiences, and some of them are so interesting that you wish he wrote the whole book on just that one person. Not only is the book as a whole interesting, but so is each chapter and that is mostly due to Sacks’ choices in stories to tell.
Even though Sacks is obviously very educated, he quotes other pieces of writing throughout his book. He references these other works in a manner that shows other views on the subject he is writing about. I believe that this was beneficial to his writing because it gave the reader a greater understanding of music and how it’s views have evolved. For example, Sacks writes,
“Given the obvious similarities between music and language, it is not surprising that there has been a running debate for more than two hundred years as to whether they evolved in tandem or independently- and, if the latter, which came first. Darwin speculated that “musical tones and rhythms were used by our half-human ancestors, during the season of courtship, when animals of all kinds are excited not only by love, but by strong passions of jealousy, rivalry, and triumph” and that speech arose, secondarily, from this primal music. His contemporary Herbert Spencer held the opposite view, conceiving that music arose from the cadences of emotional speech. Rousseau, a composer no less than a writer, felt that both had emerged together, as a singsong speech, and only later diverged. William James saw music as an “accidental genesis…a pure incident of having a hearing organ.” Steven Pinker, in our own time, has expressed himself even more forcibly: “What benefit could there be [he asks, echoing the Overlords] to diverting time and energy to making plinking noises?… As far as biological cause and effect are concerned music is useless… It could vanish from our species and the rest of our lifestyle would be virtually unchanged.” There is nonetheless, much evidence that humans have music instinct no less than a language instinct, however this evolved.”
Although Sacks book recounts multiple personal experiences, of his own and of others, it still has a table of contents. His book is comprised of four parts but each chapter is slightly unrelated, I think this was a great choice as a writer. This book is able to be read as reference or as a whole. If someone wanted to just read his takes on Music and Depression they could go to the table of contents and be directed to page 295.
Overall I think Sacks is a very unique writer, he takes two topics he is very passionate and knowledgeable about and writes of them. His takes on different instances and his warmth as a writer and person make the book an enjoyable read.