Music & Brain Disorders

Oliver Sacks has a translated article in the German newspaper, Frankfurter Rundschau, simply entitled “Holiday Sounds”.  It’s an anecdotal piece about cases he’s observed of patients with the most severe brain disorders who still respond to music.  Here are some excerpts that I’ve translated back into English:

It is no accident that we teach our children with rhymes and songs.  Jingles or hit songs remain with us because music is so deeply anchored in our nervous system.  Music is so profoundly rooted in the nervous system that it is the last to disappear even from patients with the most severe neurological disorders.  I have seen this over and over again in the many years of my practice.  The right kind of music can enable a Parkinson patient to sing and dance, even when he otherwise can neither speak nor walk.  Many patients with aphasia, the loss of language usually caused by a stroke, can use words again that they otherwise are unable to speak in songs.

Patients with Tourette’s Syndrome, an affliction that causes physical and sometimes verbal tics, are often able through music to control their tics.  I have seen patients with severe forms of amnesia, who have been unable to remember what occurred five minutes earlier, sing difficult musical works and play with or even direct an orchestra.

Even patients with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia still respond to music even if everything else is no longer accessible.  For Alzheimer patients who do not recognize family or remember life experiences, musical memory remains unaffected by the ravages of the disease process.  Music can often awaken personal memories and associations, which are otherwise irretrievably lost, even in advanced cases of dementia.

[. . . ]

The effects of music in improving mood, behaviour and even perception can last in dementia patients for sometimes hours, even days.  Research is only now beginning to be undertaken on these effects.

[. . . ]

In the coming holiday season, I will be surrounding myself with as much music as possible.  I will again sing Chanukah songs with my children; I will listen to Bach’s Christmas Oratorio; I will go with friends to Carnegie Hall to enjoy Handel’s Messiah, sung by the heavenly St. Cecilia Choir.  Finally, I will practice piano for many, many hours, after not having played for 60 years, .