A young woman answers questions on an exam with direct quotes from lectures and textbooks, but she doesn’t have a photographic memory; she can remember passages of incredible lengths if she puts them to music. A composer advises the owner of a piano that its upper register is out of tune, only to be informed that it is perfectly in tune, having been tuned only the previous week. A seventy year old woman has musical hallucinations at quiet moments, the playlist of which includes ‘a really dreary version of We Three Kings of Orient Are’.
Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain documents Oliver Sacks’ continued study of diverse psychological aberrations with typical respect for the dignity, and evocation of the effulgency of his subjects. The four parts of Musicophilia each consider a different category of musical anomaly: some of his patients and correspondents are ‘haunted by music’; other stories illustrate points on the spectrum of ‘a range of musicality’; later, Sacks describes psychological deviations which combine and affect ‘memory, movement and music’ as well as ‘emotion, identity and music’.
As the title indicates, those expecting an Idiot’s Guide to music will be left scratching their heads. Musicophilia‘s methodology, if it has one, is Sacks’ willingness to be led by the fascinating serendipities, and sometimes tragedies, of his subjects’ lives. Yet the strange territory covered by the books, interspersed with accounts detailing more well-known phenomena such as synaesthesia, will no doubt serve to put fire in the bellies of readers already interested in the workings of the mind, and in addition to his previous publications, Sacks readily cites other authors and texts to which a hungry mind might turn.
While wide-ranging within its musical theme, Musicophilia is yet another example of Sacks’ gift for explaining the intricacies of the mind and the body in accessible prose. He tells stories about musicians with Tourette’s Syndrome with deft and compassionate expertise, and reports previously unknown and therefore unnamed dis/abilities so as to leave no reader in doubt, nor simply in the wake, of his enthrallment by the fruits and the foibles of the mind.