Books

Brain song

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CORRECTION

A book review in Sunday's Arts & Living section misidentified the author of "This is Your Brain on Music." The author is Daniel J. Levitin.

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Fans of the 1990 movie "Awakenings" with Robert DeNiro and Robin Williams, about patients brought out of a catatonic slumber by the "wonder drug" L-dopa, might remember Rose. She was the one who, in that shining interlude of lucidity, wanted only to sing and sing.

Rose sings again in the newest book by neurologist-turned-author Oliver Sacks, whose groundbreaking work was the basis of that cult-favorite film. In "Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain" (Knopf, $26), Sacks tells in more detail the story of Rose's musical rebirth in 1969: how Rose on her own requested a tape recorder, how she recorded dozens of bawdy songs from her music hall days in the 1920s, and how, as the drug lost its efficacy, she suddenly "forgot" every note and word.

After taking a detour in 2002's "Oaxaca Journal," about ferns in Mexico and the origins of civilization, Sacks returns to the amazing patients and baffling cases that readers found both tragic and charming in 1995's "An Anthropologist on Mars" and 1985's "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat." Sacks tells his patients' stories, since most of them cannot, with a careful blend of empathy and wonder.

One of the more cinematic of these stories involves Tony Cicoria, an orthopedic surgeon in New York who was struck by lightning in 1994. Although he recovered and returned to work, the incident left a strange side effect: an insatiable desire to play Chopin etudes and polonaises. The problem was that Cicoria didn't play piano or even own one, so he got an instrument, bought the music and began practicing for hours every day. Like Richard Dreyfuss in "Close Encounters," Cicoria's obsession upturned his life and wrecked his marriage, yet he remained undeterred.

"I came to think that the only reason I had been allowed to survive was the music," Cicoria tells Sacks. "It's like a frequency, a radio band. If I open myself up, it comes. I want to say, 'It comes from heaven,' as Mozart said."

But is that where music comes from, from God or the muse? "Musicophilia" helps us see that the answer, decidedly, is no. Sacks has not merely compiled a Neurological News of the Weird -- a composer who can "taste" each chord, a piano tuner whose ear goes out of tune, a violinist whose fingers disobey. He has also significantly updated Anthony Storr's landmark survey of music-related science "Music and the Mind."

Storr's book was state of the art in 1992. But that same year, the late Justine Sergent and a team of scientists at McGill University in Montreal published a groundbreaking study using MRI scans to describe what happens in a musician's brain. Not only did it show that a startling array of neural pathways are activated when a pianist sight-reads music for the first time, but it also suggested a crucial distinction -- now more widely accepted -- between music and speech functions in the brain.

Since then, there has been an explosion of research into the way the brain processes music, a veritable fugue of scientific papers with such titles as "Functional Neuroimaging of Semantic and Episodic Musical Memory" and "Receptive Amusia: Evidence for Cross-Hemispheric Neural Networks Underlying Music Processing Strategies." Much of this research was referenced in Richard Levitin's "This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession" (Dutton 2006). That readable best-seller by a rocker-turned-neuroscientist explored why most of us, musician and non-musician alike, have a remarkable capacity to remember music even if we heard it only briefly or long ago.

In "Musicophilia," Sacks brings us nearly up to the minute on the latest research, which he has woven unobtrusively into a readable main text, entertaining footnotes and an extensive bibliography. If some readers are disappointed not to find a unified narrative to suggest a sequel to "Awakenings," there is method in Sacks' episodic approach to this material. While authors have tended to focus on discrete musical phenomena -- musical savants or child prodigies -- Sacks has tried to account for a full range: music and blindness, music and epilepsy, music and dementia, music and aging.

Through the stories that braid these chapters together, Sacks affirms again and again the unique power of music to help and to heal. And if his scientific explanations threaten to make music seem less mysterious, be assured: They also make it appear more human.

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