Last Thursday, in a New York Times op-ed, neurologist and best-selling author Oliver Sacks revealed that he has been battling cancer in various forms for the past nine years and that it has now metastasized in his liver. “This form of cancer cannot be halted,” he writes. But rather than resigning to his disease and letting it slowly drain his will, he has resolved to face it.
“I feel intensely alive,” he writes in the New York Times, “and I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight.”
The words are hard to read. Oliver Sacks’ contributions to psychology, and especially music psychology, are monolithic. The brilliant storytelling style and compassionate way he dealt with his subjects inspired countless students to pursue psychological research and medicine. For anyone who has ever wondered how the climax of Beethoven symphonies can move us to tears, or why the pounding rhythms of a festival can cause us to lose all inhibitions, his 2007 book Musicophilia is a revelation. His neurological explorations always included a deep reverence for the aesthetic and human experience of music, which could bring that science to life for even the most scientifically averse.
The following is a list of some of Oliver Sacks’ most resonant quotes that capture the true power of music. Music is far more than “auditory cheesecake,” as some esteemed scientists have attempted to argue in the past. It is a vital part of the human experience. Few proved it as elegantly as Oliver Sacks:
1. On the undeniable “humanity” of music
One of the most incredible aspects of music is how finely tuned our minds are to respond to it. As Sacks suggests here, it is perhaps the most universally accessible art form. Nearly every living person with a healthy mind is capable of feeling its beauty. And it can be more than just aesthetics. Music can be deeply therapeutic. It can be invaluable in providing one with a sense of self. And it can help some people express themselves and connect to the world when little else can.
2. On what science misses about music
In Musicophilia, Sacks explored all the fascinating therapeutic applications and neurological processes that explain why music is so vital to human lives. But in his explorations, he never loses sight of the profound magic of the listening experience. His love and reverence for the art form shine through even the most technical scientific dissections.
3. On melody
Sacks has a preternatural gift for distilling even the most technical musical concepts down to a fundamental essence anyone could understand. He frequently creates vivid analogies linking elements of music theory to physical activities and our experience of other art forms such as painting and literature.
4. On the emotional power of music
Music can capture pretty much the entire spectrum of human emotion. It can cause one to experience profound sadness, extreme joy, anger, fear, longing or triumph. And it does all of this without relying on any external knowledge or concepts, which makes it even more powerful as a unifying agent for people from a wide variety of backgrounds.
5. On rhythm
Rhythm, Sacks claims, is one of the most basic and fundamental parts of the human experience of music. It can never be “lost” the same way one can lose language or emotional processing ability due to injury or a brain-affecting disease. He believes rhythm has a profound evolutionary benefit in syncing human beings to create a social whole.
6. On being his own best test subject
In many chapters of Musicophilia, Sacks turns away from his clinical subjects and reviews of scientific literature and looks at himself and his own experience with music. In this chapter on rhythm, he describes injuring his leg in a climbing accident. In his recovery, music played an important role in helping him master walking again. His own mind was his best laboratory. And his personal reflection helped to give his scientific explorations a character-driven sense of story.
7. On music’s incredible diversity
Sacks made an excellent foil to Jon Stewart’s irreverent satire in a 2009 appearance on the Daily Show. Stewart asked about whether personalities as different as Gandhi and Hitler could enjoy the same music. But instead of letting the question end at a cheap laugh, Sacks used it as an opportunity to share some surprising musical knowledge.
Also notable: At 75, he used the slang word “dig” more deftly than even the hippest 20-something.
8. On music, dementia and the self
The majority of Sacks’ expertise is in abnormal psychological disorders, with much of that focus on Alzheimer’s and dementia. He ran a clinic for people suffering from these debilitating mental diseases, and some of the most mind-blowing findings in Musicophilia comes from people suffering from dementia. Music has an incredible ability to restore the minds and personalities of those who can barely string together thoughts and memories. A vivid example of this power of music can be seen in a documentary Sacks appeared in called Alive Inside. In one famous clip, a demented man named “Henry” listens music from his past and suddenly seems to awaken.
9. On the “Mozart Effect”
The “Mozart Effect” was a pop psychology theory that ran rampant in the ’90s. A few journalists misinterpreted a narrow piece of psychological research that listening to Mozart temporarily boosted spatial intelligence. And it gradually spiraled into a host of pseudo-scientific research (with full product lines to match) that claimed playing Mozart for one’s child would make them more intelligent. For a long time, it obscured legitimate claims on music’s actual impact on the brain, which Sacks worked to clarify throughout Musicophilia. The fact that he was still getting asked about the Mozart Effect as late as 2007 proves how much more work needs to be done to make sure the real science about music’s impact on the developing mind is communicated.
10. On the modern listening environment
Sacks is not a huge fan of the iPod. Music used to bring people together, and now it frequently causes deeper separations. “Now that we can listen to anything we like on our iPods, we have less motivation to go to concerts or churches or synagogues, less occasion to sing together,” he said in a Harpersinterview. In Musicophilia, he also claimed that our frequent use of iPods is likely causing massive hearing damage to many young people and is making us far more sensitive to ear worms.
11. On how much more there’s still to learn
Sacks is a scientist, but he’s also a poet. Passages like these make the science feel like a vast and unexplored frontier, and they underline the need for more minds to answer that call. When Sacks finally quits this world, we will need more intrepid and dedicated researchers to take up the mission he so masterfully sketched out. It will doubtlessly inspire legions of new musicians, neurologists and writers to ask questions for decades to come — and maybe answer some, too.