"Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain" by Oliver Sacks

Title - Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain

Author - Oliver Sacks

In this book Oliver Sacks weaves a collection of tales of people’s experience of music, tales that range from the sub-normal to the paranormal.

We read of ordinary people, who are haunted by music. They would give anything for the music to stop “playing” in their heads. But it will not go.

We read the story of a man struck by lightning, who develops an obsession with playing and composing, an obsession that destroys his marriage.

Always amongst the most heartwarming, we have people with physical or mental restrictions, who find that their skills in music are abundant. We can focus upon this small number and, with the arrogance of our age, declare that they are blessed. The fact that such people may be socially isolated or physically incapable of looking after themselves is outweighed by the fact that they give us music.

These three examples alone show that Sacks associates music with abnormality (whether the abnormality is something that happens to us or who we are). He believes implicitly that music is a power that is given from the outside of man. Those who are in some measure unusual are therefore more likely to “receive” it. Like many before him, Sacks could attempt to support this view by examples of deranged and strange composers in music history and contemporary pop. And, like those who have gone before, he would be forced to invent where he could not find. (After all, if J S Bach set the corner stone for Western Classical Music, with a seemingly industrious attitude, the family man must have had one screw loose - it must be in his religion.)

Oliver Sacks needs music and assumes that we all take it as a drug. He extrapolates his own use as normal, without any attempt to substantiate the claim. He assumes that music is a language and delves, as only a zealot could, into the “science” of hearing music - forgetting that man is not only body and mind but soul, as well.

Sacks looks through his own dead eyes at a world of people who are spiritually dead. How can he understand music? How can he see that all sinners are searching in music for an affirmation of their own reality in a sea of unbelief? How can he know that individuals are reaching out through music for an expression of their own identity in a world that only ever wants to conform?

“Musicophilia” means music-lovers. From that we might assume that a book of the same title regards those who love music, or at least like it. But that is not the case. It is a paradox of the book that Sacks proclaims his love of music but spends so much time discussing people whose talent has in some way become a curse. 

For Sacks music is an essential key that allows us to make sense of the world about us. He sets out to prove that people with Alzheimer’s do better with music, as at the other end of the scale it is argued that Mozart makes babies more intelligent. 

But how does this fit in a Christian paradigm? Are we to believe that music is our Scriptures? Rather than having the Word of God we have instead the Music of Man, to interpret and illuminate our lives.

If only Sacks would join up this view with his evidence that too much music makes people’s lives intolerable. But he does not. 

As psychologists have presented the view that we are all a little mad, “Musicophilia” puts forward the case that there is never any normal and wholesome use of music: That music is for the mad, by the mad, and yet somehow - in a strange, topsy-turby way, that we cannot fathom - helps to keep us sane.