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The healing power of music

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2001 - Spring


Twenty-five years ago, Oliver Sacks, M.D., tore off his left quadriceps while mountaineering in Norway and was saved by reindeer hunters. Following the accident, “the clumsy limb didn’t seem to be mine. It was as if I had no internal sense of pacing,” he said last fall during “Neurotherapeutic Effects of Music,” a symposium at the School of Medicine that explored the effectiveness of music in treating neurological disorders. Music, he said, helped him recover his “kinetic melody” and walk again. “Suddenly … Mendelssohn started playing in my mind and in some unconscious way I found myself walking to it.” Sacks, a neurologist and the author of Awakenings and other books, was experiencing the connection between music and healing that he had observed among patients with Parkinson’s disease. Although they could not initiate speech or walk, some were able to sing or dance when music was played. One patient stayed absolutely still with a finger on her eyeglass for most of the day, but came alive playing Chopin on the piano. Said Sacks: “I saw music as a mysterious, liberating power with these people who were otherwise virtually inaccessible.”