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Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Musicophilia

I just finished reading Musicophilia, by the well-known neurologist and author, Oliver Sacks. The Wikipedia page on Sacks includes the following observation:
Sacks considers that his literary style follows the tradition of 19th-century “clinical anecdotes”, a literary-style [sic] that included informal case histories, following the writings of Alexander Luria.
This style is both the strength and the weakness of Musicophilia. On the one hand, it lends concreteness and interest for the reader. On the other hand, it runs the risk of substituting random anecdotal evidence for serious scientific study.

The premise of this book is immediately intriguing. The brain processes music in many ways, both cognitive and emotional, so it shouldn’t be surprising that neurological disorders would affect musical skills, interest in music, and ability to respond to music. In his usual manner, Sacks weaves dozens of real-life stories through his narrative, occasionally touching on the abstract but usually focusing on the specifics of his cases. Along the way we pick up a lot of fascinating if disjointed information about absolute pitch, musical savants, Williams Syndrome, synaesthesia, epilepsy, music therapy, Tourette’s Syndrome, Parkinson’s, depression, hallucinations, etc., etc. — a rich smorgasbord of every aspect of brain science that might touch on music. It’s enjoyable and informative, so do read it. But just don’t expect a scientific treatise with statistically valid data!

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