The Power of Music on the Brain

Written by

Dr. Oliver Sacks

Last night I pulled out an old vinyl copy of a beautiful symphony by English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams: his symphony No. 5, composed and first performed in 1943.  Listening to a whole symphony on an old vinyl record is like slow food: you don’t usually have time to do it, but when you do it is very satisfying, a real luxury.

No. 5 is a big, sweeping, and uplifting work. I have always gotten goose bumps with the beautiful chord sequence that ends it. It was composed in the dark days of World War II, during the German blitz bombing of London. To me it shows that even in in the most trying times that music can be an elixir of hope. Such is the power of music. It gives us both strength and solace. As I mentioned in my Paris/St Germain post, it’s no coincidence that totalitarian regimes ban music as a way to assert control and to break its peoples.

Music is as basic and elemental as the human heart beat. We humans have made music for more than 50,000 years — before language, before any other arts. It is old and deeply embedded in our brains.

A woman I know once told me that listening to Malian music gave her courage. Music transcends language and cultures. It can drive us into ecstasy or make us shudder with sobs. It moves us like no other art. It brings people together, making us happy, making us dance. It feeds and soothes our souls and brings us joy. It can be a balm or an aphrodisiac. It is liberating and sublime…

These were prefatory remarks I made at a recent meeting of neurosurgeons and researchers put together by Dr. Amir Vokshoor, a highly respected spine surgeon who practices here in Los Angeles. He is also the founder and president of INI, The Institute of Neuro Innovation, advancing the research in brain science. The keynote speaker for last Saturday’s event was Dr. Adam Gazzaley, M.D. Ph.D, who is a Bay Area specialist in this new and exciting field. The night’s program also celebrated the late Dr. Oliver Sacks, who gave us so many fascinating insights into the human mind, music, and odd syndromes.

Here is a video of a presentation I made — “The Power of Music” — shot and produced by filmmaker Rob Taylor. It features Dr. Sacks, Moroccan trance music, the Grateful Dead too.

The Power of Music 01_1 from Rob Taylor on Vimeo.