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Reviewed by Greg Beets, November 30, 2007, Music

Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain

by Oliver Sacks
Knopf, 400 pp., $26

After reading the latest popular brain-science narrative from neurologist Oliver Sacks, you'll feel grateful for having the ability to "get" music. The author of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat illustrates the many areas of the mind required to perform, listen to, and emotionally respond to music by introducing people whose brains function differently. Abnormalities with any one of these areas can have far-reaching consequences. A doctor struck by lightning has a sudden emergence of musical talent, while a composer involved in a car accident loses her ability to discern harmony. The story of English musician Clive Wearing is both enthralling and heartbreaking. After a brain infection leaves him debilitated by retrograde amnesia and a memory span of less than half a minute, Wearing becomes a man without identity who's dependent on his wife for care. Remarkably, though, his musical abilities remain largely intact, offering Wearing and his loved ones no small degree of solace amid the suffering. Sacks also discusses how music is sometimes the last refuge of responsiveness for persons suffering from degenerative conditions such as Alzheimer's disease and dementia. Although overlong in spots, Sacks' neophyte-friendly prose describing the sometimes-miraculous, sometimes-terrifying effect of music on the human brain is both fascinating and accessible.

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