Footsteps from the abyss of total unawareness, musician and musicologist Clive Wearing has two lifelines: love and music. Suffering from an amnesia that robs him of nearly all memories beyond a few seconds, these bring him back from a waking death and become life and being itself:

“I picked up some music,” Deborah wrote, “and held it open for Clive to see. I started to sing one of the lines. He picked up the tenor lines and sang with me. A bar or so in, I suddenly realized what was happening. He could still read music. He was singing. His talk might be a jumble no one could understand but his brain was still capable of music. . . . When he got to the end of the line I hugged him and kissed him all over his face. . . . Clive could sit down at the organ and play with both hands on the keyboard, changing stops, and with his feet on the pedals, as if this were easier than riding a bicycle. Suddenly we had a place to be together, where we could create our own world away from the ward. Our friends came in to sing. I left a pile of music by the bed and visitors brought other pieces.”

Neurologist Oliver Sacks has offered insights into the mind and consciousness before; here, he gives us a glimpse from an extreme world of just how important our experience is in all our minds. And if this doesn’t make you want to practice — in fact, realize what a profound experience that practice is — nothing will.

A Neurologist’s Notebook: The Abyss – Music and amnesia. [The New Yorker]

Thanks, Wally, who adds: “music is about being in the present – that seemed to be the thrust of things, and it was beautiful to read how this man who lives only in the present, with no remembrance of what happened just moments ago, was able to build his life around that. Ironically, after reading that story, i thought to myself — I will always think of this story whenever i listen to music or work on music.”

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  • I'll think of this story too next time I meditate into practice. I find when I come to challenging parts of music(I'm self taught) I have to ignore what I plan on doing with my hands in order achieve what I'd like to hear over all. like induce a daydream with awareness.



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  • Iain

    You can learn more about Clive from the excellent Radio Lab podcast.

  • Gordon

    I believe memory is a function of the whole body (not just the brain). I'm a percussionist and some times my mind can't remember a part – but my muscles do.

  • d.bauch

    But dont ur brain control those same muscles?

    It is just that it has become so much intuitive that you dont feel as if your mind is making a decision

  • Memory and music are fascinating subjects. Just how a pianist remembers how to play a piece after years of not having practiced it is mind boggling… but true. Sure, an old piece is rusty at first. But after a couple of large practice sessions, the work is back in ones fingers. A piece that initially took months to learn can be recaptured in a fraction of that time.

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