Music & the mind

This week’s New Yorker contains an article by Oliver Sacks about a condition called musicophilia, in which one feels sudden urges to listen to, or play, music follwing brain injury:

In 1994, when Tony Cicoria was forty-two, and a well-regarded orthopedic surgeon, he was struck by lightning. He had an out-of-body experience. “I saw my own body on the ground. I said to myself, ‘Oh shit, I’m dead.’ …Then–slam! I was back.” Soon after, he consulted a neurologist–he was feeling sluggish and having some difficulties with his memory. He had a thorough neurological exam, and nothing seemed amiss.

A couple of weeks later, Cicoria went back to work, and in another two weeks, his memory problems disappeared. Life had returned to normal, seemingly, when “suddenly over two or three days, there was this insatiable desire to listen to piano music.” This was completely out of keeping with anything in his past. He started to teach himself to play piano. And then, he started to hear music in his head. In the third month after being struck, Cicoria was inspired, even possessed, by music, and scarcely had time for anything else.

The New Yorker also has a podcast interview with Sacks, in which he discusses, among other things, musicophilia. The condition is the subject of his new book, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, which is to be published in October


  1. #1 The Primate Diaries
    July 29, 2007

    Thanks for bringing this up. With all the hullabaloo over the New Yorker bonobo article I failed to look up what else was in this issue. Oliver Sacks has produced some of the greatest popular accounts of neuroscience ever written. For those who haven’t encountered his wonderful style I highly recommend An Anthropologist on Mars.

  2. #2 Tony P
    July 29, 2007

    Here’s another interesting one for you. I work in an IT unit with five people.

    Of those five, four have music backgrounds be it concert pianist, organist, program dir for a radio station, etc.

    Figure that one out.

  3. #3 gerald spezio
    July 29, 2007

    Yabut, what if Paisano Cicoria developed an insatiable desire to listen to endless refrains of Louie Prima singing “Lucretia no capece.” This happens to me, and I wasn’t even struck by lightning.

  4. #4 Lori
    August 3, 2007

    After an event that was incongruous with my expectations, (i.e., shock without the external blunt force trauma) I began too began to hear music in my head — mostly fugue-type orchestral arrangements. The internal music stops when I play music (i.e, radio, cd, tv) or listen to somethng else. I’ve been told this is “masking.” Without the mask, however, the external mask, the internal “music” interfers with my concentration. How does Oliver Sacks, notion of what he’s experienced differ: phantom music sydrome, cervical spondylosis, auditory halluciantions. and other hearing related diagnoses?

    THis non-specific music has intermittentl reappeared, regardless of Physical Therapy. Now I am concernec about lesons on my brain. I know that stress causes cancer — coulld this be what’s gong on (i.e., pressure on my brain stem,). The reversal of the geomagnetic field could also be contributing to this. Otrher readers, please describe this phenomena (music inside your head) if it is the result of some sort of shock to your system (less a lightening bolt). the data will be useful ifor me to come up with a treatment protocol.

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