Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks


          The relationship between music and the human brain is an exciting and fascinating topic, generally difficult to measure, quantify and scientifically classify. Important discoveries have been made in the last few years, that show how the human brain responds to music and interacts with it. Where does Oliver Sacks’ book, Musicophilia, published in 2007, translated into Romanian by Anca Bărbulescu and printed by Humanitas Publishing House in 2009, stand among all these studies? It may not be a great novelty for the specialized fields, but it is an interesting manner to inform the public about the latest researches concerning the impact held by music on human brain and the tight relationship between them. Oliver Sacks can take credit for being able to write down his theoretical studies, from an empathic humanistic perspective. Although he may be accused of theoretical inconsistancy and his result may be regarded as shallow, the book certainly has a bigger and more efficient impact on the largest part of the public. Thus Musicophilia is a book that can awake the interest of both musicians and of those preoccupied by science, because Oliver Sacks is interested in deepening the interferences between scientifical studies and domains that are not necesarily connected to them. In the past three decades, music has been studied in an evermore larger cultural, social, psychological and anthropological context. Putting the music into a neurological context, renders Oliver Sack’s contribution even more interesting for a musician, especially because the author belongs to another domain.
          Presented with impressive narrative skills, Musicophilia is, as its subtitle shows it, a collection of stories that reveals a great amount of medical and human details about the effect held by music on humans and especially about its „enslaving” caracter. Having both positive and negative implications in our existence, producing simultaneously as much extraordinary as abnormal effects, music turns out to be essential to our existence. The cases chosen as examples present a great diversity of typologies, not always brightly illustrated, but certainly interesting. Using these examples as pretexts, Sacks introduces, beside the specialized considerations, important aspects relating to the musical perception, learning, memory, the connections between rhythm and body, between music and colour (synesthesis), to the efficiency of the musical exercise. These information prove to be interesting both for the readers interested in the subject itself and for professionnal musicians. However, the book is not exempt of certain ingenuousness (perhaps inevitable for someone not connected to the musical domain). Its causes are the sometimes forced connections between musical data and certain mental diseases. Two such examples might be considered the anecdote about the metal fragment contained by Dmitri Shostakovich’s brain, that is said to have stimulated his creativity (Sacks himself admits this is an invention, but stil mentions it for its delight). The second example refers to the speculations that have been made on the supposed pathological reasons that could stay behind the composition of Maurice Ravel`s Bolero.
          There are plenty of information that ensure the book’s scientifical character: such as the ones about the technology of magnetic resonance imaging that identifies the parts of the brain involved in certain musical processes, the difference between the brain of people who detain the absolute pitch and the other ones, or about the sizes of different parts of the brain observed at music lovers. Equally relevant can be considered the pages exposing the benefits of practising music since a very tender age which leads to a more harmonious development of the brain, due to the music’s ability to stimulate a great variety of brain functions.  Music’s power to transform is in fact the central idea on which the book is based, while the chapters dedicated to the moving case of Clive Wearing`s amnesis, or to the people affected by various forms of insanity, Parkinson`s or those suffering from Williams syndrome are edifying when it comes to underline the efficiency of melotherapy. Sacks does not provide however an explanation on how the neurological mechanisms make the therapy through music possible, but this is probably due to the fact that these researches are stil in a pioneering state. 
          Even if Oliver Sacks does not formulate some clear conclusions and even if the answer to the question „Why do we love music so much?” remains scientifically unsolved, Musicophilia represents a worthwhile travel that deserves to be made by any music lover, and not only. However, we need not be concerned: despite all the researches, the human knowledge will never exaust the mystery and the not definable surrounding music.

Ioana Marghita