Oliver Sacks: A Musical Requiem

Patient Expert

Yesterday, I discovered that the celebrated Harvard neurologist and author, Oliver Sacks died from cancer, at age 82. Dr Sacks, who came into prominence educating the public on oddities of the brain through such books as Awakenings and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, was also a strong proponent of the healing powers of music.

As regular readers of this blog know, listening to music and playing a musical instrument has been central to my recovery. Two years ago, I posted a piece with this unusual title: Mickey Hart, Oliver Sacks, and Simply Mind-Bending Stuff - Another Music Post.

Mickey Hart was the drummer for the Grateful Dead and serves on the board of the Institute for Music and Neurological Function. Dr Saks served as honorary board member. The focus of the Institute’s work is helping individuals with neurological conditions (such as stroke) recover speech and movement through activities such as singing and drumming.

In 2007, Dr Sacks published the best-selling Musicophilia, which explored that mysterious territory where neural systems meet melody and harmonics and rhythm.

In 2008, I had occasion to hear Dr Sacks speak on the topic at the American Psychiatric Association annual meeting in Washington DC. As I reported back then, here on HealthCentral:

Dr Sacks gave a very intriguing and entertaining talk on "music bubbling up in the mind." He pointed out that music is the only faculty not altered by dreams. He made special reference to its healing powers, and urged his audience to pay much more attention to music when dealing with their patients. William Styron in "Darkness Visible," he pointed out, wrote how he was able to reconnect with memories of joy in his life when Brahms' Alto Rhapsody began resonating in his head. That was the beginning of his recovery. The sound, Styron wrote, pierced his heart like a dagger.

According to his NY Times obituary:

“I haven’t heard of a human being who isn’t musical, or who doesn’t respond to music one way or another,” he told an audience at Columbia University in 2006. “I think we are an essentially, profoundly musical species. And I don’t know whether — for all I know, language piggybacked on music.”

Referring to Nietzsche’s claim that listening to Bizet had made him a better philosopher, Dr. Sacks said, “I think Mozart makes me a better neurologist.”

A couple of weeks ago, fresh from being out in nature amongst fellow didgeridoo-players, I promised yet another piece on healing through music. Consider this modest little requiem a promise kept.