A Mind for Music

  • Posted 06.30.09
  • NOVA

Neuroscientist and writer Oliver Sacks has a passion for Bach, while Beethoven leaves him relatively cold. MRI scans reveal that this preference runs deep—it is manifest even in how his neurons respond when he listens to the composers' music. See how it works.

Running Time: 04:05


A Mind for Music

Posted: June 30, 2009

NARRATOR: The well-known writer and neurologist, Oliver Sacks, is exploring the idea of how the brain reacts to music. He is trying to figure out why some brains can't decode music at all while others are sensitive to the slightest musical nuance.

OLIVER SACKS: In general, I'm a Bach lover and have always been. You know, even when I was a kid—when I was five—I'm told that I was asked what my favorite things in the world were and I said smoked salmon and Bach and, seventy years later, it's still pretty much the same.

NARRATOR: In his quest, Dr. Sacks is offering himself up as a test subject. A team of neuroscientists at Columbia University have designed a test that will reveal if the brain of Dr. Sacks loves Bach as much as he does. Hal Hinkle gives Dr. Sacks a device to rate his emotions, while at the same time a scanner will record the activity of his brain. He'll hear two pieces of music: one by Bach and one by Beethoven. First the Bach. Then the Beethoven. The composers are different, but the music shares certain qualities.

HAL HINKLE: Oliver, that completes the first emotional scan. I would like to hear how that was for you.

OLIVER SACKS: The Bach sort of blew me away, especially that point where the soprano came in and there was a wonderful harmonic modulation. But the Beethoven I'm afraid sort of left me flat.

NARRATOR: The results of the scan, amazingly, seem to confirm his feelings.

JOY HIRSCH (Columbia University Medical Center): What you can see just in an immediate overview here is that this is your Bach brain and this is your Beethoven brain.

OLIVER SACKS: Sorry, Ludwig.

JOY HIRSCH: Yeah, sorry Ludwig. There's not much there.

NARRATOR: Bach clearly excited much of his brain, including the many regions essential to appreciating the complexity of music. But unlike Beethoven, Bach activated the amygdala, which is vital to processing emotions.

JOY HIRSCH: Here we see large activity associated with the right amygdala when you're listening to Bach. There is none of that when you're listening this very comparable piece in Beethoven.

NARRATOR: But during another part of the test, Dr. Sacks was unable to distinguish Bach from Beethoven.

HAL HINKLE: Ah, again, we'd like to hear what your response was to it.

OLIVER SACKS: Well, I'm sort of confused. I could hardly differentiate Bach from Beethoven and neither seemed to move me very much.

NARRATOR: But his brain tells a different story.

HAL HINKLE: The remarkable finding for you was even when you might have thought it was Beethoven...

OLIVER SACKS: Even when I was confused...

HAL HINKLE: Your brain can tell Bach from Beethoven.

NARRATOR: Dr. Sacks clearly favors Bach over Beethoven. Even when he couldn't tell them apart, the brain scan on the left still shows increased activity. So, in fact, his brain recognizes the difference and makes its preference clear.

OLIVER SACKS: So my brain knows even when I don't.

JOY HIRSCH: That's the conclusion. You're brain can distinguish them even when you don't.


© WGBH Educational Foundation

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