LectureHop: Oliver Sacks’ Musicophilia

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Filling our Hearts with the Sound of Music, Fu Foundation Bureau Chief, Tony Gong shares his comments on Oliver Sacks’ lecture.

At 11:00 a.m. yesterday, I ventured out of my room far too early for a Friday morning to catch Oliver Sacks’ Core-wide Music Hum lecture in Roone. But discovering new evidence to prove that not only Disney music is magical justified accidentally waking up my dozing roommate.

Professor Walter Frisch, the Director of Music Humanities, started the morning triumphantly by telling us that this was the “first time Music Humanities has sponsored a lecture.” Before the audience could grasp Music Humanities’ laziness implicit therein, Frisch excitedly went on to introduce Oliver Sacks, whom Frisch praised for his “scientific precision, profound empathy, and graceful prose.”

In walked Oliver Sacks, a tidy man with an impressive white beard covering his chin and awesome New Balance sneakers. He launched into a narrative about his childhood home, which was “full of piano playing, especially of Bach.”  In fact, he claimed: “Seventy years before, my two favorite things were smoked salmon and Bach.” I had to give it to him – he knew we were a smoked salmon-eating crowd.

Personally, I could’ve listened to Professor Sacks reminisce about his whimsical past all afternoon, but Sacks was beginning to sense that the audience wanted more than his nostalgia and views of his New Balance sneakers, however awesome. That’s when Sacks brought up the brain. Ah, yes, that thing, I thought with my brain. “A huge part of the brain – more than language – is devoted to music.” To qualify this point, Sacks explained, “The brains of musicians can sometimes be visibly enlarged in certain areas, such as the corpus callosum and auditory regions” – a scary possibility that will perhaps dissuade me from playing music for the rest of my life.

But the audience didn’t just want to hear about most, normal brains. We wanted to hear about brains that got messed up. Sacks must have read our minds because he obliged with a story about a man with Alzheimer’s disease, who “has no idea what he did for a living, and can’t remember what he did ten minutes ago.” But somehow, as Sacks magically revealed, “He remembers ever baritone piece he ever played…with as much humor and sensibility as before.”

I was hooked. New Balance sneakers and smoked salmon completely forgotten now, I listened intently as Sacks weaved together beautiful stories about his patients and his findings. He spoke about Parkinson’s patients moving to music after years of immobility, socially inhibited autistic people growing confident and expressive when performing music, and the obvious power of music in overcoming depression. To Sacks, “Every disease is a musical problem. Every cure is a musical solution.” 


Like any proper scientist, however, Sacks questioned some of his conclusions. Despite the fact that the autistic patient he studied became more emotionally expressive, Sacks wondered if “the patient actually felt the emotion he portrayed.” He ended by giving the audience his e-mail address ([email protected].) He encouraged us to submit accounts of music in our dreams – for although Sacks hypothesized that “music resists the distortion of dreams,” he admitted openly to us, “I need more data.” Needless to say, I blasted music all last night as I slept, hoping for an interesting story to relay to via e-mail. In the name of Sacks, my roommate’s sleep can wait. 

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  1. ripped off  

    sacks gave the same EXACT speech 2-3 weeks ago at the medical center uptown, down to the jokes (smoked salmon and bach) and the exact diseases (and patients) studied.

  2. uhhh  

    would you have liked him to have researched and written about a new subject in 2-3 weeks just for you?

  3. ripped off  

    no, thats ridiculous. but as a writer and (oh boy!) columbia's first "university artist," he could have at least come up with new material.
    the man has seen countless patients in his experience and could have drawn from different examples.
    moreover, the lecture at the medical center should have been more focused on the clinical aspects of these phenomena. the lecture for the music humanities classes should have been more geared toward the musical aspect of it. sacks is an expert in both fields and could have spoken well on both of them.
    instead, he just came up with one lecture on the middle ground and tired it out.

  4. pauses  

    Was anyone else struck by how many long pauses and "uhms" Sacks used during his lecture?

    It was as if he had been called on unexpectedly in the middle of a cocktail party to deliver a toast.

  5. what a  

    hilariously written LectureHop!!!!

  6. yeah  

    that shit really sounded like he was making it up on the spot. definitely enjoyable but no real thread tying the stories together or overarching point to the lecture besides "random stories about brains and music that oliver sacks has experienced."

  7. Correction  

    In the book, Sacks credits the "Every disease..." quote to its rightful originator, Novalis. Come now, Bwog.

    And also, Ollie is a humble guy by nature. He's intensely smart and thoughtful, and it just so happens that people like what he says. Even after garnering so much publicity, he can still be timid, too.

    Also, he has tinnitus so that can be kind of distracting.

  8. ummm  

    bwog...you guys should learn how to properly use commas

  9. hey  

    nice piece, tony.

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