Rabbi Baroness Neuberger’s speech at the 2015 Midsummer Banquet

Ladies and gentlemen,
I want to talk to you about music and health, music and the soul. A couple of years ago, a film called Alive Inside followed the efforts of Dan Cohen, an American social worker, alongside the author Oliver Sacks in exploring the therapeutic benefits music can have on the elderly.

In the film, Henry is introduced. At first, he sits with his head on his desk, withdrawn and unable to communicate – a distant shadow, according to his daughter, of a man who once sang and danced his way through life, singing and swinging his children around singing ‘Singing in the Rain’ – in the rain…..
Cohen and Sacks then handed Henry, who suffers from a degenerative disease and has been in a nursing home for ten long years, an iPod full of music from his era. Instantly, he begins to sing and move in time to the music. What happens next is quite extraordinary…..
“Immediately he lights up. His face assumes expression, his eyes open wide…he’s being animated by the music,” says Sacks. He appears to be a man transformed, and goes on to speak passionately about his favourite music and the affect it has had on him, so that someone who can barely speak is saying “I’m crazy about music”. He described his favourite musician, Cab Callaway, and went on to sing one of his songs. He is, as Sacks puts it, restored to himself. He has remembered who he is, and reacquired his identity. “The Lord came to me and gave me Music” says this deeply religious man, with clear articulation, though formerly mute. And Sacks ends by saying that music appears to have the power to animate and bring a sense of identity back to people who are out of it. It brings them into it.
So why? All the evidence from these types of cases seems to support many of the theories Sacks put forward in his book Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain. He argued there that music is intrinsic to our neurological makeup and can be used as treatment. He talked of the philosopher Immanuel Kant and his description of music as ‘the quickening art.’
And yet we use it so rarely in the therapeutic environment, despite all the work done by music therapists, and all my attempts to get it used more widely in my years at the King’s Fund, including persuading the late lamented wonderful Chris Hogwood to help, went unfulfilled.
Yet there are loads of examples of music making a difference to people’s health and general wellbeing. The examples differ from one another considerably, but are no less powerful for that. Take Buster Martin. He was born in France in 1906, the year of the San Francisco earthquake, the year that the launch of the battleship Dreadnought began the naval arms race that ended with the First World War, and three years before the first British old age pensions. He came to London when he was three months old, had 17 children and, until 2009, worked three days a week with Pimlico Plumbers, and refused to take the day off for his hundredth birthday.
In 2007, at the age of 101, he hit the headlines as a member of the rock band the Zimmers. This was the brainchild of documentary maker Tim Samuels, which recorded their first hit single that year at the Abbey Road Studios and were an instant success. Their YouTube video has been downloaded two million times. The Zimmers has 40 members with a combined age of more than 3,000 years (the lead singer is 90). They are still going strong. In 2012, they performed the Beastie Boys’ “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party!)” on Britain’s Got Talent. They reached the semi-finals. This is a classic case where rock music- not necessarily to the band’s members’ taste or ours- has been shown to keep people alive and active, to keep their brains in gear and keep them going. Different from our first case. But important.
So what is it about music, from the music that lights up someone who is ‘out of it’ to the music that keeps old people young and active? Is it only ‘the quickening art’? Or is it something more fundamental, something about how music wakes the soul, a rather melodramatic way of putting it. I don’t mean it theologically- I mean that bit of us that isn’t quite our mind, isn’t quite simply the mechanics of the heart and lungs that keep us going, isn’t simply the neural networks of the brain, but that bit of us which is spirit, soul, call it what you will, which, when you see someone who has just died, is clearly no longer there.
I was talking with an eminent geriatrician about this last week, and she too got excited. She gave me two case studies from her own practice which emphasise the point. First, an eminent lawyer aged 85, was admitted to the rehabilitation ward in a semi-conscious state, having sustained a head injury three weeks earlier, falling off a ladder. He’d been treated in the acute ward, where he had received total care and was fed by naso-gastric tube. The staff who had cared for him reported that he was unresponsive. His CT scan showed no acute injury. On arrival in the rehab ward, staff reported that he was moving his head and making unintelligible sounds. My friend went to see him, and, during her examination, noticed that he was responding to her commands. She asked him whether he preferred Beethoven or Mozart.
He replied Mozart. So she sat down with the family to get a more detailed life story, and soon after they brought in a CD player and played him Mozart. The nasogastric tube was removed and he was encouraged to engage in basic rehabilitation. As well as playing him music, the family read to him and included him in family discussions. He gradually started to communicate and join in. He started to be able to get on and off the bed and partially dress himself. He enjoyed being read to – but he then admitted that his favourite composer was Beethoven, rather than Mozart. His speech returned to almost normal, though his memory continued to be a problem and he required prompting for most activities of daily living. But, after 3 months, he was able to walk with assistance, feed himself and dress with help. Eventually, after 3-4 months, he was able to return home to live with his wife, supported by twice daily carers, and he gradually improved, though the family remained devastated by his loss of cognition.
And here’s another. Mrs X, an 82 year old pianist, was admitted to hospital having suffered a cluster of small strokes leading to a state of semi-consciousness. After a week in hospital, her condition was unchanged; she was receiving food and water by naso-gastric tube and was unresponsive to her family or health care staff. She was a widow with two devoted daughters and four grandchildren. One of her grandchildren was studying for her A Levels in order to train as a doctor. The family was distraught and begged the doctors to do something. They explained that, until her admission, she had been playing the piano for the residents of the local Jewish day centre and care home.
Following their discussion with the consultant, it was agreed that playing her favourite classical music throughout the day might wake her up. The family sat with her for the following week, playing her music. She gradually woke up and started to eat and drink – although she was still very weak, requiring help in all activities of daily living. After another discussion, a keyboard was brought in, whereupon she began to play her musical repertoire.
She then became receptive to receiving physiotherapy and occupational therapy. She began to sit in a chair, dress and mobilise around her room with help. Following six weeks of intensive rehab, she went home. She lived for another 8 years and died on the very day her granddaughter became a trainee doctor working with the doctors who had cared for her grandmother.
These patients were fortunate. Doctors, nurses, care workers, therapists, all realised that music might wake up the soul. All of them realised it has a profound and as yet unexplained effect on the brain and the person. Yet in all too many care homes the TV is on, blaring, playing jingle after jingle, the residents slumped in chairs around the room. It’s not proper music, nor is it the music they themselves prefer to listen to. Go to a better care home with residents with severe Alzheimers and watch people who can’t tell you their names sing old hymns they know from childhood lustily and tunefully. Because the staff have observed that music speaks to the soul.
We know there’s something here. And my plea to you tonight, as the Musicians’ Company, is to do everything in your power to make it be taken more seriously. Not music as therapy, though that has its own considerable value, but music as part of what makes us tick, which can be used to wake us up. A serious subject for an after-dinner speech, but I make no apologies for that, because I believe there’s an urgent task for us here, and we could, without doubt, transform the lives of so many people if we took this approach to music and health and well-being seriously.
Thank you for listening.

Rabbi Baroness Neuberger DBE