By now, it's a given that an Oliver Sacks' book is worth your time and close attention. His particular talent lies in making the science interesting without becoming a "pop-science" writer. This is not an easy achievement, but Sacks manages it with facility. He can explain the science in terms of case studies - many of which have claimed his medical attention. He does this while mixing in experiences of his own and some personal reflections which are anything but intrusions. While some of his books are essays on selected individuals ["An Anthropologist on Mars" is an example], this one has a very special focus: the minds that make music unbidden.
Music arising in the mind without prompting may seem a common enough occurence. The advertising industry has demonstated fully music as an uncontrollable meme. The cases Sacks portrays here are of another sort. In some cases the music has taken over - sometimes supplanting other thinking processes and reducing the victim to near helplessness. The chief problem is often a lack of variety. More than the adverts' jingles, particular tunes may emerge from the distant past to occupy the sufferer's waking hours. A well-disciplined mind, such as Doctor P's, may be able to use the uncalled for music in ways that get them through daily tasks. Others don't have that ability and the music proves a terrible distraction. The music renders them "incapable of hearing themselves think".
Therapy for such conditions is in its infancy and may actually be subverted by the deluge of music impinging our ears daily. Sacks notes the proliferation of the iPod devices bringing music to listeners who seem to pass the day in another realm. This, however, is not relieving a condition, but may be generating a new one. Some music therapy has been in use to overcome coordination disorders, but this is limited and selective in effectiveness. Even "classical" music, which is known to "draw the mind" into it is not innocent in causing disorders. One of the more captivating classical pieces, Ravel's "Bolero" may be both the product of "musicophilia" in an aging composer and the source of endless reptition in the mind of the listener. The tendency of the mind to retain music is demonstrated in those with advanced Alzheimer's, who lose other facilities but retain a sense for music. Is music thus something the brain holds on to as something reliable in an otherwise confusing world? Brain scans have demonstrated that professional musicians have certain areas of the brain larger than the rest of us, but as a path to therapy, this situation has offered little up to now.
The author's avoidance of simply presenting a string of clinical studies is a testament to his humanitarian approach to the various conditions he lists here. In a sense, this book is a catalog of distortions the mind may be subject to relating to music. In one case, a lightning strike turns an orthopaedic surgeon into a classical pianist. Another suffers massive brain damage, yet continues a relatively normal life so long as he can arrange things in musical forms. Others may respond positively to prompts of classical themes, while becoming emotionally distraught at modern forms. Listing the cases in such a way leaves the impression that one might as well be perusing a medical journal. In Sacks' hands, nothing could be further from the truth. He is passionate in his relating these conditions, his feelings permeating every page. A book well worth your time, whether you are intersted in music, the mind or how they combine in the minds of people you may know. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]