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Dreamed 1974 by Oliver Sacks


Like most people, I dream of music occasionally. Sometimes I have panicked dreams that I have to perform in public music that I have never played before, but generally, in my dreams, I am listening to or playing music I know well. And though I may be deeply affected by the music while I am dreaming, when I awake I sometimes have only the recollection that I have dreamed of music or of the feelings that went with it, without being able to say what the music actually was.

But on two occasions in 1974 it was different. I was severely insomniac and had been taking chloral hydrate, an old-fashioned hypnotic, in rather large doses. This disposed me to excessively vivid dreams, which could sometimes continue as a sort of quasi-hallucination even after waking.


On one such occasion, I dreamed of the Mozart horn quintet, and this continued, delightfully, when I got up. I heard (as I never do with my normal musical imagery) every instrument clearly. The piece unfolded, played itself unhurriedly, at its proper tempo, in my mind. And then suddenly, as I was drinking a cup of tea, it stopped, vanished like the bursting of a bubble.

During the same period, I had another musical dream, and this too continued into the waking state. Here, in contrast to the Mozart, I found something deeply disturbing and unpleasant about the music, and longed for it to stop. I had a shower, a cup of coffee, went for a walk, shook my head, played a mazurka on the piano--to no avail. The hateful hallucinatory music continued unabated. Finally I phoned a friend, Orlan Fox, and said that I was hearing songs that I could not stop, songs that seemed to me full of melancholy and a sort of horror. The worst thing, I added, was that the songs were in German, a language I did not know. Orlan asked me to sing or hum some of the songs. I did so, and there was a long pause.

"Have you abandoned some of your young patients?" he asked. "Or destroyed some of your literary children?"

"Both," I answered. "Yesterday. I resigned from the children's unit at the hospital where I have been working, and I burned a book of essays I had just written.... How did you guess?"

"Your mind is playing Mahler's Kindertotenlieder," he said, "his songs of mourning for the death of children." I was amazed by this, for I rather dislike Mahler's music and would normally find it quite difficult to remember in detail, let alone sing, any of his Kindertotenlieder. But here my dreaming mind, with infallible precision, had come up with an appropriate symbol of the previous day's events. And in the moment that Orlan interpreted the dream, the music disappeared; it has never recurred in the thirty years since.

(This excerpt is from Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks, ch. 23, "Awake and Asleep: Musical Dreams")


I don't know how common this is, but I too have dreamed of music whose subject and lyrics pinpoint what's going on with me in a way my conscious could not--often when my conscious is reluctant to face it.

--Chris Wayan

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