How Oliver Sacks turned me into a music teacher.

Music is part of being human. ~ Oliver Sacks, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain

I guess I was searching for meaning.

Music had been in my life since before I was able to stand – and once I achieved the latter feat, my (barely) upright infant frame bobbed enthusiastically to Bananarama’s Venus, Gypsy Kings’ Bamboleo and Roy Orbison’s Pretty Woman. 

But now it was time to decide on a university degree, a career path, something that mattered enough to me to take pride of place in my working adult identity. I felt music’s importance very deeply, but still I struggled to qualify it as a worthwhile vocation. Journalism, for instance, seemed a much more sensible option: a job that clearly contributed to the world in quantifiable, tangible ways. Music? Well, that was a hobby.

It really is a very odd business that all of us, to varying degrees, have music in our heads. ~ Oliver Sacks, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain

But it was a persistent hobby, a labour of love; a not-so-secret passion. When I had to write a book review for a Year 12 creative writing portfolio, I naturally chose a musical read. That book was Musicophilia, by noted neurologist and wonderful wordsmith, Oliver Sacks.

It is a beautiful thing when emotion and science intersect, supporting and complimenting one another in a myriad of multifaceted discoveries that shed light on the most mysterious aspects of existence. Musicophilia is a prime example of just such a happy marriage. Here, finally, was the facts-and-figures proof of music’s worth as a tool for healing, education and joy; the truth my heart had known all along, but that my head demanded to see in writing.

I devoured every story of overnight musical savants, paralysed bodies moving to beats, and minds crippled by dementia but still able to recognise the old wartime dance tunes. Most of all, I relished Sacks’ profound respect for music and his expert articulation of that medium which is essentially beyond words.

Written about like this, music seemed to me to be one of the most powerful, healing, educational, and emotionally beneficial tools available to man.

My 17-year-old self was hooked: I investigated music therapy, then music and education, and was soon recounting tales of music’s cognitive benefits with the zeal of a religious convert. “Did you know the elderly can remember tunes from their youth, even when they’ve forgotten their own name? And that the brains of professional musicians are noticeably larger than those of other kinds of artists?!” It all made so much sense; it validated my long-held hunch that music was so much more than entertainment.

Anatomists today would be hard put to identify the brain of a visual artist, a writer, or a mathematician – but they would recognise the brain of a professional musician without moment’s hesitation. ~ Oliver Sacks, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain

In the intervening years – in which I chose a Bachelor of Music, became a music teacher and have witnessed countless examples of music’s extraordinary benefits – my thoughts have often returned to the stories of Musicophilia. On days when I return tired from the classroom, or sit, frustrated, at my own piano, wondering why I do this at all; on those days I remember that music matters. Not just in an ephemeral, entertaining context, but on a very real cellular level that benefits our minds and bodies, as well as our hearts.

To this day, that approach informs every lesson I teach. Standing at the front of my classroom, my heart is full in the knowledge that what I do matters. That the enjoyment of, participation in, and creation of music is an important link between our physical and emotional experiences of this world.

Vale Oliver Sacks. And thank you for giving this musician ample fuel for a lifelong belief in the power of music.

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. ~ Oliver Sacks, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain