Oliver Sacks’ Earliest Musical Memory

Neurologist Oliver Sacks (1933-2015)
Neurologist Oliver Sacks (1933-2015)


The English neurologist Oliver Sacks passed away yesterday at the age of 82, following a battle with cancer. Sacks examined the relationship between music and the brain. His research highlighted the surprising ways some Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s patients respond to music. Demonstrating that music occupies more areas of the brain than language, Sacks considered music to be fundamental to humanity. His findings are outlined in his 2007 book, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain and the NOVA documentary, Musical Minds

In an interview, Oliver Sacks once talked about his first musical memory. He recalls his brother playing C.P.E Bach’s Solfegietto:

That piece of music was banged into my memory. It’s a piano piece with a very Bach fugal structure. It’s formally intricate, but it also arouses an intense emotion that I can’t really describe. I think it was a rather jolly piece. But my brother died a couple years ago, and now it comes to me as if it were his signature tune, with an elegiac quality. 

Oliver Sacks’ contributions, seemingly driven by a passion and fascination for music, were significant. His use of music to unlock the otherwise bleak world of patients with neurological disorders was inspiring. He attempted to give us a glimpse “under the hood” in an effort to capture the essence of our relationship with a piece of music. But reading Sachs’ description of Solfegietto, it’s easy to sense that, despite his extensive research, the true power and meaning of music remains elusive. Beyond the reach of science, it “can’t really be described.” W.H. Auden’s words come to mind:

We are lived by powers we pretend to understand.

Here is C.P.E Bach’s Solfeggio, performed by the Israeli pianist, Tzvi Erez. Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-1788) was the second surviving son of J.S. Bach.

Vibrating Strings

Have you ever wondered what a vibrating violin string looks like in slow motion? Here is an interesting demonstration from the Discovery Channel. Notice that the E and G strings are vibrating sympathetically with the bowed A and D strings.

As string players, our goal is always to draw the most resonant sound from the instrument. It’s possible for the bow to slip and slide on the surface, never fully catching the string and missing the deep, focused “core” of the sound. At the same time, pressing will dampen the natural vibrations of the string. The bow arm should remain relaxed and springy, with natural weight transferring into the string. The energetic flow of the bow is essential from the moment the bow is pulled or pushed. Imagine the sound you want to produce and then listen carefully as you play. Continue to strive for a better tone every day.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Is the entire universe vibrating strings?[/typography]

Dr. Micho Kaku, who works in string theory, thinks so and offers interesting ideas in this Big Think talk. NOVA’s Elegant Universe: Resonance in Strings explains the theory further.