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Music is Cure and Curse

Originally in: San Francisco Chronicle

November 5, 2007

Tales of Music and the Brain. By Oliver Sacks. Knopf; 381 pages.

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Who is the most important person in your local hospital? Seek – or, rather, listen – and ye shall find, according to Oliver Sacks.

Leading a documentary crew through his Bronx psychiatric hospital posting in 1973, as the distinguished psychiatrist-author recalls in his new study, “Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain,” the film’s director declared, “Can I meet the music therapist? She seems to be the most important person around here.”

Sacks has long acknowledged the influence of music in his work and life, and in “Musicophilia” – alongside a cast of characters like the Beth Abraham music therapist, Kitty Stiles – music receives its due. The case studies of “Musicophilia,” many of them revisitations of his thick patient file, recapitulate a career-defining focus of the scientist as witness: human resilience glimpsed through the prism of mental health.

In the view of psychology, which this book takes as its scenic vantage point, music is variably balm and blessing, cure and curse. “Musicophilia” lends credence to the aphorism Sacks reports the poet W.H. Auden (quoting German Romantic writer Novalis) presented him upon reviewing one of Stiles’ music therapy sessions with patients: “Every disease is a musical problem; every cure is a musical solution.”

Music is a touchstone in the author’s life and practice, and longtime Sacks readers will recognize cameos by many past patients, among welcome asides into his own life experience, too. Dr. P., immortalized by Sacks’ namesake account of him in “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat,” was, after all, prescribed “a life that consisted entirely of music and singing.” Among other things, “Musicophilia” is a bow to this salvational power of music.

Yet, to his great credit, Sacks may surprise pop science readers of “Musicophilia” by transcending a kumbaya call for “singing cures” to all the world’s maladies. Alongside remarkable portraits of musical giftedness – jolts of genius set off by lightning, in one instance, or the statistically proof-positive composing chops of idiot savants and those born blind- are numerous examples of those losing musical appetites or appreciation, or unable to shut off the blaring symphonies in their subconscious.

Breadth is “Musicophilia’s” great asset, the one that recommends it as a commanding contribution to the field of understanding music’s influence on the human mind. Among the many other conditions and incidents Sacks treats in detail here are synesthesia, hearing aids, musical hallucinations and seizures, amnesia, catchy tunes, absolute pitch, amusia and dysharmonia, savantism, aphasia, dreams and depression. Music is also studied in relationship to epilepsy, dementia, Tourette’s, Parkinson’s, dementia and Williams syndrome. The author’s impressive feat is to encyclopedically argue for music’s pervasive influence in human life.

Sacks also recruits a dose of predictably startling fresh neuroscience. His considerations of the visibility through multiple resonance imaging of innate musical talent versus training are particularly provocative. Attesting to its particular value for further study, he notes: “Anatomists today would be hard put to identify the brain of a visual artist, a writer, or a mathematician – but they could recognize the brain of a professional musician without a moment’s hesitation.”

“Musicophilia” is structured as a series of psychiatric inquiries: into musical hauntings, good and bad; into musicality; into memory and movement; and finally, into emotion and identity. This approach is clean and doubtless helpful to readers coming with a particular or academic focus to the material, but it hinders a wider synthesis of connections and questions laying, presumably, inches beyond the source material. More engaging are Sacks’ faithful toasts to fellow leading thinkers in this field, such as Daniel Levitin, upon whose work he carefully expands. But there are no connective essays, reflective passages or even linking epigraphs. The author’s clinical voice verges on tourism, at times traveling through the material, repeatedly leaving stranded those readers hungry for a deft handling of the cui bono (or so what?) of music and the mind.

Like music, the sphinx of consciousness continues to bedevil our best minds. And like the mind, our relationship to music deepens its essential mystery: the riddle of knowing, as the author observes of dementia patients, “that there is still a self to be called upon, even if music, and only music, can do the calling.” If music therapy is, in one practitioner’s words, “a can opener,” we still do not know, scientifically, how or what will be revealed. But we do know the why: Music is an indisputable cornerstone of human expression.

“Musicophilia” does not open new frontiers in Sacks’ work, but it may represent a fresh trailhead in the neuroscience of the creative arts. As a far-ranging survey of existing data, and directions to future clinical study, this book suggests a fresh, flourishing avenue for scientific and artistic inquiry may be little more than a whistle away.

Jeff MacIntyre, who writes widely on culture and science, is a Canadian freelance writer in New York.

This article appeared on page E – 2 of the San Francisco Chronicle

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