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Oliver Sacks on 9/11 and the Paradoxical Power of Music to Bring Solace by Making Room for Our Pain

“Music can pierce the heart directly; it needs no mediation.”

A science-storyteller like the late, great, sorely missed Oliver Sacks (July 9, 1933–August 30, 2015) comes about once a century, if we’re lucky. Throughout his long career as a working scientist who bewitched the popular imagination with beautiful writing, he frequently turned to music as his storytelling muse. It was a relationship that once saved his life and culminated in his magnificent book Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain (public library) — an immensely insightful exploration of the physiological and psychological phenomena behind the all too common human impulse that once compelled the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay to profess: “Without music I should wish to die.”

In one particularly poignant passage, emanating his usual gift for exposing the monumental through the minute, Dr. Sacks captures the heart of music’s strange power over us by reflecting on a fleeting moment that took place on the fifth anniversary of the September 11 attacks:

On my morning bike ride to Battery Park, I heard music as I approached the tip of Manhattan, and then saw and joined a silent crowd who sat gazing out to sea and listening to a young man playing Bach’s Chaconne in D on his violin. When the music ended and the crowd quietly dispersed, it was clear that the music had brought them some profound consolation, in a way that no words could ever have done.

Music, uniquely among the arts, is both completely abstract and profoundly emotional. It has no power to represent anything particular or external, but it has a unique power to express inner states or feelings. Music can pierce the heart directly; it needs no mediation. One does not have to know anything about Dido and Aeneas to be moved by her lament for him; anyone who has ever lost someone knows what Dido is expressing. And there is, finally, a deep and mysterious paradox here, for while such music makes one experience pain and grief more intensely, it brings solace and consolation at the same time.

Complement the indispensable Musicophilia with Dr. Sacks on storytelling and the psychology of writing, then revisit his extraordinary life-story and my eulogy for this irreplaceable human.

For more on the power of music, see the science of why playing music benefits your brain more than any other activity, singer-songwriter Morley on how music heals the soul, and the psychology of how refrains enchant the brain.

Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton

Published September 11, 2015




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