By Oliver Sacks. Knopf, $25.
From the beginning of his writing career, Sacks has shown a childlike fascination with how our brains perceive music, so an entire book devoted to the subject was to be expected. But these 29 essays still cover a wide range of conditions, including synesthesia, the ability to see colors related to musical scales, and amusia, when one has no reaction to any type of music. The trademark empathy and concern of Sacks, author of Awakenings and many more volumes about neurologically afflicted people, is never far away. Musicophilia, by the way, is the human “propensity to music.”
“I think an orderly piece of music is the antithesis of confusion,” Sacks said at a talk on music and the brain at Columbia University recently. “It can lend its order to someone.” That statement is the nutshell synopsis of this book, in which Sacks tells countless stories of patients with dementia, aphasia (a speech disorder), or amnesia who function more easily when singing or playing an instrument.
The story of Clive Wearing—an English music scholar, pianist and conductor who’s the subject of one of the longest essays—proves the hypothesis. He was left virtually without a memory after contracting herpes encephalitis in 1985, and forgets the present in a matter of seconds. Still, he appears “normal” when conducting a choir or playing Bach on the piano. The music unlocks a part of his brain.
The essays, loaded with musical and neuroscientific terms, are a bit much to take in at one sitting, and if neither is your field, you might feel yourself overwhelmed. Taken one at a time, however, the individual stories fit together as seamlessly as one of Bach’s fugues.—Marc Geelhoed