Oliver Sacks’s Musicophilia

Jonah Leher in Seed:


In 1974 Oliver Sacks was climbing a mountain in Norway by himself. It was early afternoon, and he had just begun his descent when a slight misstep sent him careening over a rocky cliff. His left leg was “twisted grotesquely” beneath his body, his limp knee wracked with pain. “My knee could not support any weight at all, but just buckled beneath me,” he wrote in A Leg to Stand On. Sacks began to “row” himself down the mountain, sliding on his back and pushing with his hands, so that his leg, which he’d splinted with his umbrella, was “hanging nervelessly” in front of him. After a few hours, Sacks was exhausted, but he knew that if he stopped he would not survive the cold night.

What kept Sacks going was music. As he painstakingly descended the mountain, he began to make a melody out of his movements. “I fell into a rhythm,” Sacks writes, “guided by a sort of marching or rowing song, sometimes the Volga Boatman’s Song, sometimes a monotonous chant of my own. I found myself perfectly coordinated by this rhythm—or perhaps subordinated would be a better term: The musical beat was generated within me, and all my muscles responded obediently…I was musicked along.” Sacks reached the village at the bottom of the mountain just before nightfall.