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Maggie Ciskanik, M.S., MSc. December 23, 2022 5 min read

Music and the Brain with Dr. Oliver Sacks: Christmas Edition

“Music seems to be an essential part of the human condition.”
—Oliver Sacks, Linus Pauling Lecture 2007


The Christmas season, with its carols and hymns, provides an apt opportunity to consider the role of music in human culture and human brain development.

Neurologist and storyteller Oliver Sacks 

Dr. Oliver Sacks describes himself as “a physician, a storyteller, and a naturalist.” He has written nine best-selling books, including The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, An Anthropologist on Mars, Awakenings, and Musicophilia. The New York Times has described him as the “poet laureate” of medicine.

In this lecture, he touches on many of the themes and stories from Musicophilia, published in 2006.

Language and Music

Sacks begins by pointing out that many might wonder, in the words of 19th-century psychologist William James, what “zoological” utility does music have?

Historical surveys identify music as a central component in every culture known, embracing social rituals and religious practices. Bone flute instruments have been discovered that are over 50,000 years old. Its cultural utility, at least, is apparent. Could there be other roles for music in the development of the human race?

There seem to be similarities between language and music. Both have rhythm and beat.  Dr. Sacks notes that we spontaneously and irresistibly keep time to music which is especially evident watching children respond to music. It also may explain why Parkinson's patients can move better when they hear the beat of the music. The fact that the beat of music remains even with damaged motor pathways may indicate that this response to music is a very early development in man’s history. (The story of Dolores below reveals the significance of rhythm as a stand-alone component of music.)

The similarity with language ends with rhythm. According to Sacks:

Music has no power to describe, no power of representation, but it does have an overwhelming power to evoke emotions, states of mind, and thoughts that sometimes can't be evoked in any other way. Music goes down to the very core of one's being, and I think this is why one can't do without it. 

Darwin, by the way, thought that music preceded language. According to Sacks, in the Descent of Man, 

"Darwin wonders whether musical tones and rhythms were perhaps used by our half-human ancestors during the season of courtship when animals of all kinds are excited not only by love but by strong passions—jealousy, rivalry, and triumph."

The Brain Without Music

“Amusia” is a rare condition.  A person so afflicted literally cannot hear music even though they can hear and recognize voices. Sacks describes one such woman named Dolores. Even though she came from a musical family, as a child she could not distinguish any tones, the building blocks of melodies. It upset her mother greatly, who accused her of being obstinate and of wanting to embarrass the family.

Dolores did, however, have a sense of rhythm. Her experience of music, on the other hand, she described as the sound of pots and pans being banged together. She had no idea why she couldn’t experience music as others did. 

Finally, when she was 70 years old, she read an article that described her condition perfectly. She told her husband, who loved attending concerts, “That is me!” After contacting the researchers involved in the study, they assured her she was not suffering from some psychological failure, but her inability to distinguish melodies was caused by an anatomical anomaly in her frontal lobe. They advised her to stay away from concerts in the future!

More Musical Anomalies

“Every disease is a musical problem and every cure a musical solution.”  
—Novalis, 18th-century poet

Back in 1966, as a consulting neurologist for a chronic care facility in Beth Abraham Hospital, Sacks encountered a unique group of patients. These patients were in frozen states, like statues, until music was played for them. Eventually, Sacks identified them as survivors of a sleeping sickness epidemic from the 1920s and was able to treat them successfully with L-Dopa. Interestingly, he noted the effect music had on them:

"[M]usic could liberate them. When music was played they would be able to dance and sing and move around. . .As soon as the music stopped they would freeze up, bend, and start shaking again.”

Another startling example of the power of music is the story of Michael Woody Geist. He showed signs of Alzheimer's at sixty-seven years old, and he quickly lost most of his memory. He could not remember how to tie a tie, but he could remember the baritone part from every song he sang over the span of forty years. As of Sacks’ lecture, he was still performing with an acapella group, known as the Grunyons. His story was featured in an HBO documentary on Alzheimer’s disease and music.  Once he opened in Radio City Music Hall, but got lost on the way to the stage!  

Another group of patients affected by music is aphasic stroke patients, those who have lost the ability to speak. These patients can still sing! In some cases, aphasic patients have actually regained the ability to speak through the language in the songs they know. Sacks also declares that music therapy is an essential component in his treatment of Alzheimer's patients.

The Brain on Music

“In the Word of words, all threads of meaning are drawn together, and the notes and noises of our lives add up to a symphony or a song that we could never have guessed.”
—Stratford Caldecott, The Radiance of Being

The advent of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) enabled a closer study of the effects of music on brain structures and pathways. The bridge between the right and left sides of the brain—the corpus callosum—is enlarged especially in performing musicians. Auditory and motor parts are enlarged also. These changes are so characteristic of performing musicians, researchers can say, “This is the brain of a musician.” For example, Sacks notes that huge changes can be observed in a year after using the Suzuki music method. There are over twenty-five parts of the brain involved in perceiving the attributes of music, such as pitch and rhythm, more than are involved in perceiving language.

There are also studies on music and children, music and plants, and the brain networks involved in the aesthetic appreciation of music.

As our homes and hearts are filled with the music of Christmas, let us celebrate the power of music to elevate our moods, heal us, and enrich our culture.

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Maggie Ciskanik, M.S., MSc.

Maggie Ciskanik, MS, MSc, has been a neurological nurse, an educator, and a writer. Her interests, life experience, and education have put her at the crossroads of the philosophy, theology, and science of human flourishing. With a bachelor’s degree in Philosophy, an MS in Nursing, and an MSc in Applied Neuroscience, she strives to share scientific information from a faith perspective. Her interests range from the relationship between health and cognitive function to the neural correlates of free will, creativity, and the human experience of transcendence.