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Musicophilia

Tales of Music and the Brain

By Oliver Sacks
18-minute read
Audio available
Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain by Oliver Sacks

Musicophilia explores the enriching, healing and disturbing effects of music. It delves into fascinating case studies about disorders that are expressed, provoked and alleviated by music.

  • Anyone who loves listening to music
  • Anyone who wants to learn how music affects our brains
  • Anyone who wants to know how music can heal people

Oliver Sacks is a British-American physician, writer and professor of clinical neurology at Columbia University. He is also the author of Awakenings, which was adapted into an Academy Award-nominated film, and the bestselling The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.

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Musicophilia

Tales of Music and the Brain

By Oliver Sacks
  • Read in 18 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 11 key ideas
Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain by Oliver Sacks
Synopsis

Musicophilia explores the enriching, healing and disturbing effects of music. It delves into fascinating case studies about disorders that are expressed, provoked and alleviated by music.

Key idea 1 of 11

Not everyone can comprehend, produce or even enjoy music.

Musicophilia, the propensity for producing and the desire to listen to music, exists in virtually every culture.

But this doesn’t mean that every single individual is occupied or preoccupied by music. In fact, some people don’t have musical abilities, while others are completely indifferent to music. This latter category of people have a condition called amusia, which means they lack certain kinds of musical abilities.

One kind of amusia is tone deafness, present in about five percent of the population. People who are tone deaf don’t realize if they hit the wrong notes while singing, and are also unable to recognize when others sing off-key.

Another kind of amusia is rhythm deafness, meaning the inability to follow the rhythm of a piece of music. One famously rhythm-deaf person was Che Guevara. It was said that when the orchestra played a tango, he would dance a mambo.

There are also many cultural forms of rhythm deafness, meaning the inability to follow musical rhythms from “foreign” cultures. Research shows that infants can detect all kinds of rhythmic variations, but by 12 months their range has already narrowed down to the ones they hear in their daily lives – the ones in their culture.

While those with gross tone or rhythm deafness can still enjoy music and dancing, people with amusia in its most absolute sense don’t even experience music as music. For such people, melodies simply don’t sound like music and might even acquire a disturbing character. Instead of hearing what we think of as music, a man with absolute amusia said he heard the sound of a screeching car!

There are also people who don’t have any problems perceiving music, but simply don’t enjoy it. Certain historical figures reported that they were indifferent to music. For example, in his autobiography, Darwin reveals that in his adult life he lost his feeling for music. And Freud once explained that he never listened to music voluntarily because he was incapable of deriving any pleasure from it.

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