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4.3 out of 5 stars
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on 15 August 2009
I think whether one enjoys this book or not probably depends on the things one is interested in - other reviewers have complained about everything from the book being too introspective to being too much a list of Sacks' patients.

In part, it is both these things - as a book of case studies it cannot help being the latter, as a book written by someone who is himself an amateur musician as well as being knowledgeable about and intrigued by the neuroscience behind our musical brain, it is necessarily the former. However, neither of these things, for me, detracts in any way from the book.

If you have an interest in both science and music and enjoy books that are absorbing, sometimes densely written, very informative, and written by someone with both a wide knowledge of the subject and a keen curiosity about the whys and wherefores then you will probably enjoy this book just as much as I have, which is a great deal.

Not all of the cases have explanations, which sometimes makes them more intriguing - other, apparently stranger, cases, turn out to have fairly logical reasons. Sacks explores everything from the healing power of music to its capability of irritating or even tormenting those whose brains cannot control it, and the whole thing is intensely interesting for a musician with any interest in the science behind music.
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on 10 November 2008
This is a pretty good book, of interest to anyone who feels themselves somewhat musicophiliac and wants to know more about how music has the effect it does. Musicophilia isn't particularly focused and doesn't really go too deep into how music works on the brain, it's mostly just a string of case studies of people and conditions involving strange and intense relationships with music. It's well-written and accessible, and worth a read, though it doesn't attempt to give any major insights into why music is so important to people in general.

"Musicophilia" is preferable to "This is your Brain on Music" by Daniel Levitin, which was released around the same time and deals with somewhat similar themes, though Levitin's book includes much more technical info on music and neurology. This info is presented in a style that is dry, unengaging and lacking in clarity. Sacks on the other hand is an effortlessly good writer. For that reason, this book is worth reading, though it would have benefitted from greater cohesion, a more focused approach and some general theorizing along with the case studies.
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By now, it's a given that an Oliver Sacks' book is worth your time and close attention. His particular talent lies in making the science interesting without becoming a "pop-science" writer. This is not an easy achievement, but Sacks manages it with facility. He can explain the science in terms of case studies - many of which have claimed his medical attention. He does this while mixing in experiences of his own and some personal reflections which are anything but intrusions. While some of his books are essays on selected individuals ["An Anthropologist on Mars" is an example], this one has a very special focus: the minds that make music unbidden.

Music arising in the mind without prompting may seem a common enough occurence. The advertising industry has demonstated fully music as an uncontrollable meme. The cases Sacks portrays here are of another sort. In some cases the music has taken over - sometimes supplanting other thinking processes and reducing the victim to near helplessness. The chief problem is often a lack of variety. More than the adverts' jingles, particular tunes may emerge from the distant past to occupy the sufferer's waking hours. A well-disciplined mind, such as Doctor P's, may be able to use the uncalled for music in ways that get them through daily tasks. Others don't have that ability and the music proves a terrible distraction. The music renders them "incapable of hearing themselves think".

Therapy for such conditions is in its infancy and may actually be subverted by the deluge of music impinging our ears daily. Sacks notes the proliferation of the iPod devices bringing music to listeners who seem to pass the day in another realm. This, however, is not relieving a condition, but may be generating a new one. Some music therapy has been in use to overcome coordination disorders, but this is limited and selective in effectiveness. Even "classical" music, which is known to "draw the mind" into it is not innocent in causing disorders. One of the more captivating classical pieces, Ravel's "Bolero" may be both the product of "musicophilia" in an aging composer and the source of endless reptition in the mind of the listener. The tendency of the mind to retain music is demonstrated in those with advanced Alzheimer's, who lose other facilities but retain a sense for music. Is music thus something the brain holds on to as something reliable in an otherwise confusing world? Brain scans have demonstrated that professional musicians have certain areas of the brain larger than the rest of us, but as a path to therapy, this situation has offered little up to now.

The author's avoidance of simply presenting a string of clinical studies is a testament to his humanitarian approach to the various conditions he lists here. In a sense, this book is a catalog of distortions the mind may be subject to relating to music. In one case, a lightning strike turns an orthopaedic surgeon into a classical pianist. Another suffers massive brain damage, yet continues a relatively normal life so long as he can arrange things in musical forms. Others may respond positively to prompts of classical themes, while becoming emotionally distraught at modern forms. Listing the cases in such a way leaves the impression that one might as well be perusing a medical journal. In Sacks' hands, nothing could be further from the truth. He is passionate in his relating these conditions, his feelings permeating every page. A book well worth your time, whether you are intersted in music, the mind or how they combine in the minds of people you may know. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
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on 29 January 2008
While I have been a fan of Oliver Sacks, I am beginning to realise that a lot of his books seem to be constructed so that they can be easily divided into magazine articles (or they at least appear that way). I have read the first few chapters of Musicophilia only so far and to be totally honest, as a musician with training in the neurosciences, I found it interesting as a subject. However, the book is not well written. It has long segments of rather egocentric introspection and navel gazing. I wish it would focus more on the case studies and have a much more consistent approach to the subject. It is convoluted in parts and much of it seems to lose it's thread and drift into talking about other things, especially at the end of chapters. While Oliver Sacks is undoubtedly an intelligent man, I think that maybe he has neglected the advice of editors and been allowed to do so because he has sold so many books in the past. I bought the book in hardback and actually regret spending so much on it.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 10 February 2008
I got quite excited when I read articles about this book. It has not really lived up to my expectations.

It tells you about people who hear music in their heads, people with perfect pitch who lose it and vice versa, people with tinnitus and so on. The trouble for me was that in the end it becomes just a big long list of notes on the patients Sachs has treated. I could have used a bit more context, or even philosophical speculation and wonder. But the author is a medical man so he confines himself pretty much to the facts. And he reams them out - the patient experienced this, the patient reacted like that....

Its fascinating material but in all honesty the book is not well written. It is more academic than I had expected. Of course some people will prefer that. I didn't.

Some of the snippets I read in reviews and magazine articles were quite intriguing, but when I got to the full book I found that many of them remained snippets - a footnote about a piece of shrapnel in Shostakovich's head is a good example. Its just a couple of sentences and you want to know more about it but you are left unfulfilled.

Maybe I had too high expectations of this book. I don't want to be too negative as its a perfectly OK book. Its just not anything like as interesting as it appears.
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`Musicophilia' is a readable book from Oliver sacks that explores the brain in relation to music.

A lot of the book looks at neurological issues where the brain stops working as it should and highlights specific idiosyncrasies of music in the brain. Things like musical hallucinations after a stroke etc. But it also looks at synaesthesia and perfect pitch as well. One minor niggle is that this book is very classical music orientated, which isn't a bad thing necessarily, but there are other forms of music that aren`t covered in any great depth.

This has lots of case studies and first person accounts to help clarify points raised and this also adds a human elements to what could otherwise be a very clinical look at music from a neurological point of view. I particularly enjoyed the chapter on Williams syndrome and found the case studies recounted both fascinating and endearing.

If you are heavily into music then this book should have plenty to fascinate you, but if you have only a passing interest then there is still enough information in the science aspects of the book to keep you engrossed. This is a nice blend of the personal and the scientific and makes for a few days informative reading.

Feel free to check out my blog which can be found on my profile page.
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on 19 July 2009
Oliver Sacks writes with obvious passion for his subject and tender empathy for his patients. Despite having no more than a listener's appreciation for music and little grasp of matters neurological, I found Musicophilia fascinating and accessible. The case histories described in this book illustrate the extraordinary way that music effects the brain and how it can both soothe and stimulate people with brain damage. I finished the book feeling frustrated that I wasn't taught more about music at an early age, but reassured that music may prove comforting to me in my dotage.
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There is much to admire here. The book is full of intriguing stories of individuals who have suffered some sort of brain damage or abnormality, and how this is manifested in their response to music.

The stories are interesting for what they tell us about all humans, rather than what they tell us about the suffering individuals themselves.

Sacks makes an excellent case for the argument that music is very deeply embedded in our psyche, and against the 'auditory cheesecake' theory of Steven Pinker. I was especially impressed by the passages describing how humans better store data when it is attached to a melody, and how singing can help people speak, overcome stutters or movement disabilities.

The book was very well written and easy to read. It kept the interest throughout.

The only negative I see is that the entire book consists of a continual flow of case studies. Sacks never rises above these to put together his own arguments in a fully coherent way.

Nonethless, recommended.
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on 2 December 2010
This book had sat on my shelf, waiting to be read for a couple of years before I decided to pick it up. I was eventually persuaded to give it a go having read a memoir of the musician Edwyn Collins' struggle back to health following two near fatal strokes. (Falling and Laughing, Grace Maxwell) I had felt a bit intimidated by the density of the book, indeed it took me a month to read. But I need not have worried. It is accessible with truly remarkable stories of human strength and dignity and the awesome power of music. He writes movingly and with clarity, about his patients and correspondents. Many suffering from dementia or temporary conditions including musical halucinations. It made me feel justified in my spending too much time listening to and buying music - it is bolstering my brain! It has also made me reflect on the sophistication of the brain and perhaps how much we are yet to discover about our grey cells.
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on 29 October 2010
Oliver Sacks successfully tackles a range of challenging music-related neurological topics in a case-by-case fashion. This fascinating subject matter, covering absolute pitch, musical savantism, musical synesthesia (seeing colours associated with keys), and musical dystonia, in combination with the author's engaging, easy-to-read writing style makes this book incredibly hard to put down. Oliver Sacks' intellectual curiosity and immense enthusiasm shine through in his writing, perhaps especially in the wealth of extra information provided in the not-to-be-missed footnotes. I would thoroughly recommend this book to anybody. Note: Musical ability is not a prerequisite for reading or for enjoyment of this book!
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