Neurologist Oliver Sacks, described as the poet laureate of medicine, has had his greatest literary successes when detailing cases of patients stricken with uncommon disorders and deconstructing the pathologies of the brain that cause them.
In his latest book, he takes on a more difficult endeavor: deconstructing the brain’s reaction to listening to music, an act all of his readers will be familiar with. Sacks does examine neurological oddities related to music in several patients, but he spends a lot of time trodding less exotic ground, like music’s impact on the depressed and on patients with speech impairments and how having two ears allows us to hear music in three dimensions. Lost here for the most part is the novelty of learning about patients like the one with the unusual disorder that inspired the title of one of Sacks’ most well-known books, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.
At times, Sacks’ clinical dissection of the way the brain experiences the joy and rapture of music can leave one feeling cold. It’s not that his explanations don’t fascinate or that they aren’t written in his usual clear and engaging style. But at the end of some of the 29 essays, you’re left feeling like what Sacks is doing is akin to sucking the glee out of a magic trick by explaining the science of the illusion.
If you don’t mind that, you’ll enjoy Musicophilia. The most satisfying essays find Sacks, who has written nine books including Awakenings, doing what he does best: presenting cases of uncommon neurological conditions that alter a patient’s relationship to music.
Sometimes the syndromes are tame, such as the “brainworms” we’ve all experienced that cause an invariably annoying tune to get stuck in our heads. Other syndromes are oppressive or frightening, such as musical hallucinations and a condition called “amusia,” which turns listening to music into a painful experience that can cause a symphony to sound “like the clattering of pots and pans.”
In “A Bolt From the Blue: Sudden Musicophilia,” Sacks tells the story of Tony Cicoria, a 42-year-old orthopedic surgeon in upstate New York who had little interest in music until one day in 1994 when he was struck by lightning. After a few weeks of recuperation, Cicoria found he had an “insatiable desire to listen to piano music.” He compulsively bought and listened to recordings. Then he began playing the piano and composing music. Family members eventually described him as possessed. Cicoria preferred to think the near-death experience had left him with “a special gift, a mission to tune into the music that he called, half metaphorically, the music from heaven.”
Sacks asks if a dozen years beyond the lightning strike, Cicoria would be willing to undergo newly discovered tests of brain function to find the precise neurological cause of his musicophilia.
“He agreed that it would be interesting to investigate,” Sacks writes of Cicoria’s reaction to the proposition. “But after a moment, he reconsidered, and said that perhaps it was best to let things be. His was a lucky strike, and the music, however it had come, was a blessing, a grace—not to be questioned.”
That might be a bit of an overgeneralization, but it does point to an inherent problem with Musicophilia that makes it less appealing than Sacks’ other hard-to-put-down books. Music is grace and joy and not easily subjected to cold clinical analysis, not even when the writer is someone as gifted as Oliver Sacks.