Dr. Sacks and the Brain on Music

I just read a tremendous obituary in the New York Times – Dr. Oliver Sacks, renowned neurologist and prolific author and polymath, succumbed to cancer at 82 at his home in New York this morning.  His case studies of his patients, most famously brought to life in the 1990 film Awakenings, helped humanize people who have extremely complicated neurological profiles.

Reading the obituary this morning made me aware of Sacks’ book Musicophilia, which discusses the primacy of music in the human organism through case studies.  The NYT writes the following about the book and the Doctor’s musical perspective:

A skilled pianist, Dr. Sacks often wrote about the relationship between music and the mind, eventually devoting a whole book, “Musicophilia” (2007), to the subject. Dr. Sacks disagreed with the Harvard psychologist and author Steven Pinker’s view of music as “auditory cheesecake, an evolutionary accident piggybacking on language,” and pointed to its ability to reach dementia patients as evidence that music appreciation is hard-wired into the brain.

“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.

I have written before about Pinker’s perspective and the research surrounding music and its evolution in the human organism.  I look forward to learning more about Sacks’ insights – I’ve just downloaded Musicophilia to my Kindle and will report out on it when I’m done.

We all owe a measure of thanks to Dr. Sacks for his lifetime of work to illuminate the human brain, and for packaging the insights of his field in such vivid humanism.

Thanks for reading.



  1. […] the middle of reading Musicophilia, a 2007 book by Dr. Oliver Sacks I downloaded for Kindle after reading his obituary in the New York Times about a month […]

  2. […] assuming it to be an outgrowth of the human capacity for language.  Others, like the late Dr. Oliver Sacks, believed it to be its own uniquely human […]

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