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November 20, 2007

Books of The Times

Power to Soothe the Savage Breast

and Animate the Hemispheres

Tales of Music and the Brain

By Oliver Sacks

381 pages. Alfred A. Knopf. $26.

In books like “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat” and “An Anthropologist on Mars,” the
physician Oliver Sacks has given us some compelling and deeply moving portraits of patients
in predicaments so odd, so vexing, so metaphysically curious that they read like something out
of a tale by Borges or Calvino.

In his latest book, “Musicophilia,” Dr. Sacks focuses on people afflicted with strange musical
disorders or powers — “musical misalignments” that affect their professional and daily lives. A
composer of atonal music starts having musical hallucinations that are “tonal” and “corny”:
irritating Christmas songs and lullabies that play endlessly in his head. A musical savant with a
“phonographic” memory learns the melodies to hundreds of operas, as well as what every
instrument plays and what every voice sings. A composer with synesthesia sees specific colors
when he hears music in different musical keys: G minor, for instance, is not just “yellow” but
“ocher”; D minor is “like flint, graphite”; and F minor is “earthy, ashy.” A virtuosic pianist who
for many years bizarrely lost the use of his right hand, finds at the age of 36 that the fourth
and fifth fingers of his right hand have started to curl uncontrollably under his palm when he

Dr. Sacks writes not just as a doctor and a scientist but also as a humanist with a philosophical
and literary bent, and he’s able in these pages to convey both the fathomless mysteries of the
human brain and the equally profound mysteries of music: an art that is “completely abstract
and profoundly emotional,” devoid of the power to “represent anything particular or external,”
but endowed with the capacity to express powerful, inchoate moods and feelings.

He muses upon the unequal distribution of musical gifts among the human population: Che
Guevara, he tells us, was “rhythm deaf,” capable of dancing a mambo while an orchestra was
playing a tango, whereas Freud and Nabokov seemed incapable of receiving any pleasure from
music at all. He writes about the “narrative or mnemonic power of music,” its ability to help a
person follow intricate sequences or retain great volumes of information — a power that
explains why music can help someone with autism perform procedures he or she might
otherwise be incapable of.

And he writes about the power of rhythm to help coordinate and energize basic locomotive
movement, a power that explains why music can help push athletes to new levels and why the
right sort of music (generally, legato with a well-defined rhythm) can help liberate some
parkinsonian patients from “their frozenness.”

Indeed, this volume makes a powerful case for the benefits of music therapy. In Dr. Sacks’
view, music can aid aphasics and patients with parkinsonism, and it can help orient and anchor
patients with advanced dementia because “musical perception, musical sensibility, musical
emotion and musical memory can survive long after other forms of memory have

Music, he says, can act as a “Proustian mnemonic, eliciting emotions and associations that had
been long forgotten, giving the patient access once again to mood and memories, thoughts
and worlds that had seemingly been completely lost.”

As he’s done in his earlier books, Dr. Sacks underscores the resilience of the human mind, the
capacity of some people to find art in affliction, and to adapt to loss and deprivation. Among
the people who appear in this book are children with Williams syndrome, who have low I.Q.’s
and extraordinary musical and narrative gifts (one young woman learns to sing operatic arias
in more than 30 languages), and elderly dementia patients who develop unexpected musical

Dr. Sacks notes that there are stories in medical literature about people who develop artistic
gifts after left-hemisphere strokes, and he suggests that “there may be a variety of inhibitions
— psychological, neurological and social — which may, for one reason or another, relax in
one’s later years and allow a creativity as surprising to oneself as to others.”

The composer Tobias Picker, who has Tourette’s, tells Dr. Sacks that the syndrome has shaped
his imagination: “I live my life controlled by Tourette’s but use music to control it. I have
harnessed its energy — I play with it, manipulate it, trick it, mimic it, taunt it, explore it,
exploit it, in every possible way.”

Dr. Sacks notes that while the composer’s newest piano concerto “is full of turbulent, agitated
whirls and twirls” in sections, Mr. Picker is able to write in every mode — “the dreamy and
tranquil no less than the violent and stormy” — and can move “from one mood to another with
consummate ease.”

Although this book could have benefited from some heavy-duty editing that would have
removed repetitions and occasional patches of technical jargon, these lapses are easily
overlooked by the reader, so powerful and compassionate are Dr. Sacks’ accounts of his
patients’ dilemmas. He has written a book that not only contributes to our understanding of
the elusive magic of music but also illuminates the strange workings, and misfirings, of the
human mind.

Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company