Musical Minds

Oliver Sacks explores how the power of music can make the brain come alive. Airing June 30, 2009 at 9 pm on PBS Aired June 30, 2009 on PBS

Program Description

(Program not available for streaming) Can the power of music make the brain come alive? Throughout his career Dr. Oliver Sacks, neurologist and acclaimed author, has encountered myriad patients who are struggling to cope with debilitating medical conditions, including autism and Tourette's syndrome. While their ailments vary, many have one thing in common: an appreciation for the therapeutic effects of music. NOVA follows four individuals—two of whom are Sacks's case studies—and even peers into Sacks's own brain to investigate music's strange and surprising power over the human mind.


Musical Minds

PBS Airdate: June 30, 2009

NARRATOR: Some people have it, and others just don't...

OLIVER SACKS (Author, Neurologist): This has been argued for two and a half centuries and will probably continue to be argued.

NARRATOR: on the brain. Why are some of us hardwired to love music, to write music, to make music?


ALAN YENTOB: Some people have got it, and some people haven't got it. And you've got it, Derek.


NARRATOR: Four amazing cases take us on a journey to find an answer. Can we unlock the mysteries of Musical Minds? Right now, on NOVA.

ALAN YENTOB: Derek is blind and autistic.

DEREK PARAVICINI: Alan, I'm Derek. Hello, Alan.

Very well, thank you.

ALAN YENTOB: He can barely count past 10, but he can process music at lightning speed.


ALAN YENTOB: Matt has Tourette syndrome. He is tormented by tics, except when he plays the drums.

MATT GIORDANO (Drummer): It's almost like my brain was a puzzle, right, and some of the pieces were not in place, and, all of a sudden, everything just kind of clicked.

ALAN YENTOB: Tony is an orthopedic surgeon who had no formal musical training. One summer day, he was struck by a bolt of lightning. He is now a composer and performer, playing to sell-out audiences.

TONY CICORIA (Composer and Pianist): I thought that the only reason that I was allowed to live was because of the music.

ALAN YENTOB: What is it about music that unlocks the human mind?

Finding an answer is the obsession of Dr. Oliver Sacks, a neurologist and author of many acclaimed books including The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.

His books are filled with the compelling stories of his patients, ordinary people coping with extraordinary neurological conditions.

His book Awakenings, based on the work he did with catatonic patients, was made into a film, starring Robert DeNiro and Robin Williams.

In his latest book, Musicophilia, he explores the connection between music and the human brain.

What came first, music or language?

OLIVER SACKS: Well, this has been argued for two and a half centuries and will probably continue to be argued. Various people, from William James to Stephen Pinker, have seen music as trivial. But I think it's difficult to match that up with the fact that music occurs in every culture that we know of...a central role, or many, many central roles.

ALAN YENTOB: At what point does the fetus, do you think, develop a sort of sensibility to music?

OLIVER SACKS: This is really anecdotal. Certainly some of my musical friends who played Beethoven when the fetus was in utero, then insist that the child is fond of Beethoven or fond of rock music. I mean, certainly, sound will get transmitted to the fetus.

I've had music every day of my life, I think, as far as I can remember, and I would really feel starved if I didn't have music available. I think one can develop musically all through life.

ALAN YENTOB: Derek Paravicini lives just outside of London. He has a remarkable story.

He's 29 years old. He's been blind since birth and is severely autistic. In many ways, Derek functions like a four-year-old; he doesn't know his address or his phone number. And yet he is an astonishingly, almost bafflingly brilliant pianist.

DEREK PARAVICINI: Alan, I'm Derek. Hello, Alan.

Very well, thank you.

ALAN YENTOB: It's nice to be here, Derek. Is that 'specially for me?


ALAN YENTOB: Derek is a musical savant, and a great deal of his brain power is dedicated to hearing, processing and creating music.

Very nice, too. Thank you. What a nice welcome.

DEREK PARAVICINI: Yes, welcome to Red Hill, Alan.

ALAN YENTOB: Very nice to be here on a beautiful day. And so we've come to see you. Did we tell you we've come to listen to you play? We've even brought a little piece of music with us...


ALAN YENTOB: ...because we're making a film about music and how some people have got it and some people haven't got it. And you've got it, Derek.


ALAN YENTOB: Here it comes. Here it comes.

Derek has never heard this song before, but his mentor and music teacher, Professor Adam Ockelford has said that Derek will be able to play back any piece of music after hearing it only once, no matter how complex it is.

ADAM OCKLEFORD (Adam's piano instructor, Roehampton University): Do you want to try it without the C.D.?

DEREK PARAVICINI: Try it without the C.D., please, Adam.


ALAN YENTOB: Not only does Derek play the piece back note for note, but his ability to improvise and play around with the melody is simply stunning.



ALAN YENTOB: My god. So what do you make of that, Adam? You've seen it.

ADAM OCKLEFORD: I thought it was pretty good.

You got it, didn't you, Derek? What sort of style was that in, do you think?

DEREK PARAVICINI: George Shearing, George Shearing.

ALAN YENTOB: It's a beboppy kind of style.

DEREK PARAVICINI: Kind of bebop kind of style, yes.

ALAN YENTOB: Derek was born three and a half months premature and weighed only one pound, five ounces. The oxygen treatment he was given to keep him alive left him completely blind and with chronic learning difficulties.

Even today he has trouble counting beyond 10. But when Derek's parents discovered him playing the piano at the age of two, they knew there was more going on inside his head than the doctors had ever imagined.

ADAM OCKLEFORD: Suddenly they realized, of course, that inside that brain, where they thought not a lot was going on, actually, Derek was mapping out his musical world completely perfectly. It was just extraordinary.

When he was about four, four and a half, his parents brought him to a school for the blind where I was teaching. And I was just teaching a girl called Kelly, and we were working away, and suddenly I was aware that being shoved in the back, and a tiny little Derek had run across and pushed me out of the way and just started to play, just so motivated to make music, even at that stage. Of course, he had the most tiny hands. He could only reach five notes, a fifth, and somehow he taught himself "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina." He was playing, but not just the tune. Being Derek, he was playing scales and arpeggios, using his elbows and everything to get the notes in.

ALAN YENTOB: Do you remember that?

DEREK PARAVICINI: I do remember that, yes.

ALAN YENTOB: You were very little.

ADAM OCKLEFORD: Yeah, we were talking this morning, weren't we, Derek? And you were two, what happened?

DEREK PARAVICINI: I started to play "Argentina."

ADAM OCKLEFORD: That's how you played it when you were little, Derek, because you had tiny hands.


ADAM OCKLEFORD: They were about that big.


ADAM OCKLEFORD: And you used to use your thumb a lot, didn't you?


ADAM OCKLEFORD: Sometimes you'd use ch, ch, ch.


ALAN YENTOB: Since he was a child, Derek has attracted attention for his unique ability.

ADAM OCKLEFORD: Are you ready?

ALAN YENTOB: But, although his brain can process music at lightning speed, it took Adam years to teach him the basic fingering skills.

ADAM OCKLEFORD: Even today, Derek still doesn't really know his fingers from his thumbs, in a way. If you say, "which is your left thumb?" he'd have difficulty with that. But, of course, the minute it touches a keyboard, it's a different matter. He's completely at one. But the only way to show him how to play scales and arpeggios and so on—the sort of stock-in-trade of any pianist—was physically for him to feel my hands and for me to physically guide him on the keyboard. And I thought it would take a month or two, but it actually took years and years, because, in that respect, the learning difficulties were very apparent.

OLIVER SACKS: I think nothing gives one the sense of a neural basis for musicality more strongly than these musical savants who suddenly burst into song or play the piano or whatever, with almost no training; although, clearly, exposure to music has been important.

ALAN YENTOB: Exposure to music, but on the other hand, they're exposed to music but they can't actually read music. There's no visual aid to it. They just hear it.

OLIVER SACKS: They hear it and they get it, and it has a profound effect on them and they think about it. And music gets them going to an extraordinary degree.

ALAN YENTOB: Can you do Twinkle, Twinkle" in that style?

DEREK PARAVICINI: I can do "Twinkle, Twinkle" in that style.

ALAN YENTOB: You watch him playing and, frankly, you marvel at that, as you watch his hands and his accomplishment. And then I remember watching him walking here into the rehearsal studio, and I see the pace at which he's moving, the movements of his head, trying to coordinate himself and find his way. And that's clearly, that's kind of a difficult process for him. And yet, there's this sort of immediate transformation, and it's really quite a lot to take in.

ADAM OCKLEFORD: I think people, when they see Derek play the piano and hear him, they just can''s very hard for them to imagine how difficult a lot of everyday jobs are for Derek. His brain just isn't wired up to do a lot of the things that we find extremely easy. And yet something that most of us find impossible, he can do it automatically.

ALAN YENTOB: You have scanned his brain, at some point, didn't you, with an E.C.G.?

ADAM OCKLEFORD: Yeah, we did one of those experiments where you put electrodes on the scalp. And we tried playing Derek little fragments of the "Moonlight Sonata," some of which had errors in, and we discovered that Derek's brain, in a fraction of a second—before we could even consciously be aware of it—had registered what was right and what was wrong. His whole brain was lighting up with the music. Yet the verbal responses he gave were at child's level. It was hit and miss, "yes" or "no." Yet intuitively, his brain was alive with the music.

ALAN YENTOB: If you're blind, maybe your brain has space to accommodate something more.

OLIVER SACKS: Oh, absolutely. I mean, there's this huge real estate of the visual cortex. And nothing stays empty, and it'll be occupied by auditory stimuli, by tactile stimuli, and so the blind people become almost supernaturally sensitive in many other ways.

They will reach out to sound, to touch, to smell, and those parts of the brain will develop, instead. In general, people born blind are disposed to be more musical, and I think blindness must be important with Derek.

ADAM OCKLEFORD: Final blues?

DEREK PARAVICINI: Final blues; "Basin Street Blues."

ALAN YENTOB: Oh, that would be good, wouldn't it?

DEREK PARAVICINI: "Basin Street Blues."

ALAN YENTOB: Fantastic.


ADAM OCKLEFORD: Shall we do it together or do you want to do it as a solo?

DEREK PARAVICINI: Do it together and as a solo.

ADAM OCKLEFORD: All right then. Because you always play my parts, don't you, Derek?


ADAM OCKLEFORD: Go on, then.

DEREK PARAVICINI: And do it together, as well.


ALAN YENTOB: Although fascinating people like Derek are at the heart of his writing, in his latest book Oliver Sacks turns a lens on his own life.

He was born in London, in 1933, the fourth and youngest child of two doctors, themselves the children of Jewish immigrants.

Going back to your childhood, your parents were both medical practitioners and they were very, very musical, is that right?

OLIVER SACKS: My father was very musical, he would always have sort of tiny—I see there's one here—he would always have these little miniature scores in his pockets, and between patients he would take them out and look at them, and he maintained that he could hear an entire orchestra or choir in detail, that he didn't need a record player.

ALAN YENTOB: You mean he could just hear it in his head?

OLIVER SACKS: He could hear it in his head, and particular instruments could be emphasized, and he would mentally conduct it. I was in awe of this. My mother was the opposite. She could hardly hold a tune in her head, although she was fond of music. She loved Schubert. She loved singing.

I feel tearful when I think of some of the songs she sang—in a slightly off-key, slightly cockney way, but from great feeling.

The house was full of music, and it was also full of science and medicine and so, in a way, they form natural partners.

ALAN YENTOB: Oliver Sacks earned his medical degree from Oxford University and moved to New York in the 1960s, where he started work at Beth Abraham Hospital in the Bronx.

Events that took place here inspired his book Awakenings and had a profound effect on him. This was the first place he witnessed the therapeutic power of music.

When he arrived here, the corridors were lined with patients suffering from a type of encephalitis, sleepy sickness, a paralyzing disease that is rare today but affected over a million people around the world in the 1920s.

Remarkably, Sacks found that the drug L-dopa brought some of the patients out of their catatonic states. But he also discovered that even without the drug, there was one thing that could stir them.

OLIVER SACKS: These people, unable to take a step by themselves, or utter a syllable, could dance, could sing and could come completely alive, for a while, with music.

That for me was the stunned me. It still stuns me to see it. It was an absolute revelation. They were liberated by music; they were freed by music.

ALAN YENTOB: Today Beth Abraham is home to the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function and is a world leader in clinical music therapy. The basic idea is that music can help recover damaged brain function by activating parts of the brain that are nearby.

Sacks serves as a medical advisor to the Institute. Its motto, "Music has Power," attracted the usually reclusive musician Moby to become a patron and board member.

MOBY (Musician): It seemed borderline absurd and miraculous. Like, I couldn't believe it, you know, that people who can't speak, are able to sing. And people who can't walk are able to dance. Like, I mean, it's like, is there some sort of messiah involved in this?

What they're doing at the Institute, the way they're almost re-wiring the brain, you know, like if you have a damaged part of the brain, through music therapy, you're able to almost like re-route around the damaged part...the way the brain can sort of very adaptively rewire really is miraculous.

ALAN YENTOB: One of the most fascinating people Dr. Sacks has studied is a young man named Matt Giordano, who lives here in the quiet suburbs of upstate New York.

But Matt's house is anything but quiet. In fact he's had to seal up his windows to try to keep the noise down in his neighborhood.

So show me around, Matt.

Matt has severe Tourette syndrome. He has found that only one thing can help him control the involuntary movements or tics that Tourette's gives him: drumming.

MATT GIORDANO: Want me to play?


That was amazing. So how do you feel now?

MATT GIORDANO: Feel better. Feels like, kind of, washed them out a little bit there.

I have some drums out here, too. Basement's a little bit of a mess. I apologize. It's a basement.

ALAN YENTOB: Can you play those for us, as well?

MATT GIORDANO: Yeah, I'll have to set it up real quick.

ALAN YENTOB: Yeah, set it up.

Matt's now 26, but the discovery that he had a natural ability to play drums came one day when he was two years old and heard the Moody Blues song, "I'm Just a Singer (In a Rock and Roll Band)."

So that Moody Blues tune, that was the thing that really got you going, basically?

MATT GIORDANO: Yeah, well, I was two years old, and my parents just bought me a little toy drum set, just to keep a two-year-old occupied sometimes. And so they would listen to the Moody Blues on the record player—huge Moody Blues fans—and so they were in the other room and that song "I'm Just a Singer in a Rock 'n Roll Band," came on, and all of a sudden they noticed I'm playing right along with the drums, at two years old. So they kind of recognized I had a natural ability and gift at playing the drums.

ALAN YENTOB: Do you know how to play that? Can you get back into that?

MATT GIORDANO: I think I might remember maybe a little bit. I'll give it a whirl.

I tell you, you know, you guys, you British people, you know how to play your music.

ALAN YENTOB: The discovery of Matt's gift for drumming coincided with the first tics of Tourette's, as well as other psychological issues.

In the 1980s, little was known about Tourette's, and no one really knew what was wrong with Matt, not even his parents, Kathy and Tony.

So did you discover very early on that Matt had Tourette's?

KATHY GIORDANO (Matt Giordano's mother): We started noticing symptoms around when he was about two years old, but we didn't have a clue, we didn't have any idea why he was doing what he was doing. And it really wasn't until the tics got very severe, he would come home from school and spin in a circle on the floor for like two hours at a time and he'd be crying, "Mommy, Mommy, help me, help me." But if I tried to stop him, he'd get angry at me because he needed to complete the tic. So that was when we brought him to the doctor's and got him diagnosed.

ALAN YENTOB: What were the symptoms besides, obviously, the ticcing and the lack of coordination? And there was also the anger wasn't there?

KATHY GIORDANO: Anything could set him into a rage, and that was very destructive. He broke windows and kicked holes in walls and broke our windshield in the car. And it was dangerous. It was dangerous for him, and it was dangerous for our family members. But he's always been the sweet kid that he is now. You know, when he wasn't in a rage, just the gentlest, kindest, most wonderful person.

ALAN YENTOB: I mean there was a period when he had to be, sort of, taken away from home, wasn't there? When he was sectioned, essentially, between the ages of 8 and 12? I mean, was it that bad?

KATHY GIORDANO: Yeah, it was that bad. He was either going to kill himself—I walked into the kitchen one day, and he had a knife pointed at his chest, because he knew that he was violent against Tony, was violent against me, violent against his brother and sister. And, like I said, he's a sweet, wonderful, gentle person, and to have that other part of him that he knew he was upsetting the family that much, was destroying him.

ALAN YENTOB: Matt was given medication at age seven, and was in treatment, away from home, for over four years. It was during this time that he found his talent for drumming could help him control his Tourette's.

KATHY GIORDANO: At school, he stopped being the weird kid with these tics and he started becoming the drummer. So it was very good for his self-esteem.

OLIVER SACKS: Music demands focus. The Tourette's doesn't so much go away as, I think, its energies get focused and channeled and can even form a source of strength or energy. But it is the organization, the order of music, which is their, sort of, great bastion against chaos.

ALAN YENTOB: People are trying to work out whether the music, neurologically, whether that affects the brain and, and in a way, the emotions, as well.

MATT GIORDANO: Oh absolutely, absolutely. I mean, I don't know if there's proof or not, but I mean, how much proof do you need to realize, this is pudding, you know? The proof is in the pudding.

I was playing this rhythm in a very balanced form of my body, a very balanced form of tempo and everything else. It was almost like my brain was a puzzle, right? And some of the pieces were not in place, and, all of a sudden, everything kind of clicked in the two hemispheres of my brain. And I literally felt it like this. I was doing it, and, all of a sudden—it went about this fast—and it kind of just clicked into place. And it literally went down my entire body, about that fast, and it was a very symmetrical balance of my entire being. When that happened, it was amazing.

ALAN YENTOB: Can you imagine your life without music?

MATT GIORDANO: I would go bonkers. I probably wouldn't be here, literally.

All right, my hands are freezing!

ALAN YENTOB: Where are the bits of the brain which relate to our musical sense?

OLIVER SACKS: There's no one musical part of the brain, and in fact there are, sort of, a dozen different parts of the brain which respond to pitch, to rhythm, to timbre, to melodic contour. Even this green part, the cerebellum, is very crucial. And, in fact, you find that visual parts of the brain and motor parts of the brain, and also the parts of the brain concerned with anticipation and expectation, because one doesn't listen to music passively, one sort of decodes it as one listens, one sees where it's going, one has expectations.

ALAN YENTOB: Processing music requires the orchestration of many regions in the brain, a neurological feat that science is just beginning to understand. Pitch, volume, timing and so on are each analyzed separately, and then combined together to create a musical experience.

ALAN YENTOB: At Columbia University, a team of scientists helps us see the brain of Oliver Sacks "on music."

HAL HINKLE (Department of Neurology, Columbia University): Dr. Sacks, welcome to the lab.

OLIVER SACKS: Okay, thank you. Nice to be here.

I don't think I have any of these things: "aneurysm, cardiac pacemaker, infusion pump..."

ALAN YENTOB: Hal Hinkle, a Ph.D. candidate in neuroscience, is going to lead Sacks through the experiment.

OLIVER SACKS: And I guess I weigh 190 today.

HAL HINKLE: Wonderful.

OLIVER SACKS: I better put pounds, in case they think it's kilos.

HAL HINKLE: Thank you. Good.

OLIVER SACKS: Okay. Right.

ALAN YENTOB: For the test, he'll first be asked to listen to a piece of music. It's one he is familiar with, "Diversions," by Joseph Horovitz. He even has it on his iPod. Then, he'll be told to imagine the same piece playing in his head.

HAL HINKLE: If you'll just take a seat for a moment.

ALAN YENTOB: We're going to peer inside his brain using functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI. An fMRI scan shows changes in blood flow in the brain, so we can see which regions are active.

HAL HINKLE: We're going to do two sets of scans. The first set of scans, we're going to be asking you to listen to music, and then we're going to ask you to imagine that music.

OLIVER SACKS: I look forward to it.

HAL HINKLE: I bet you do.

ALAN YENTOB: First, Sacks listens to the music. Then, Hal asks him to try to recreate the melody in his head. So the question is, "Did his brain perform in the same way when he listened and when he imagined?"

Hal, along with neuroscientist Joy Hirsch, reviews the results with Dr. Sacks.

JOY HIRSCH (Columbia University Medical Center): I want you to see how much of this activity is in common. Remember, I pointed out these frontal lobes areas, the middle frontal gyrus?

OLIVER SACKS: The executive one, yeah.

JOY HIRSCH: See? Exactly the same place in both sets. So, in imagining the music, you're engaging exactly those same areas.

ALAN YENTOB: Many brain regions were active in both cases, but when Sacks imagined music, there was one curious difference.

JOY HIRSCH: Notice this additional activity in the frontal lobe. That means the front part of your brain is very engaged in creating the music. The music isn't coming from the auditory cortex. One might imagine that it's coming from your frontal lobe.

Look at this! Isn't that gorgeous?

ALAN YENTOB: It seems that in the brain of Dr. Sacks, his internal iPod, is orchestrated by his frontal lobe, the part of the brain that coordinates higher mental functions and working memory. But could the scan of his brain tell us what song he was imagining?

JOY HIRSCH: It tells us that you're listening to music, perhaps that you're imagining music, but it doesn't tell us anything about the specific music, at least at this point.

OLIVER SACKS: You can't read my thoughts.

JOY HIRSCH: I can't read your thoughts, yet. But we're trying, Oliver. We're trying.

ALAN YENTOB: For musicians, imagining music can also activate motor regions of the brain, but what about non-musicians?

HAL HINKLE: So Oliver, there's this broad question of, are all brains musical?

OLIVER SACKS: Well, I've certainly spoken to a lot of people and corresponded to a lot of people. There are those who say that they couldn't bear a day without music, and even if they don't hear it on the radio they will hear it in their minds. There are others who say music doesn't mean much to them, and if it disappeared tomorrow, that would be okay with them.

ALAN YENTOB: Even if you can't play classical music, many of us can appreciate a beautiful piece of Chopin. But imagine what life would be like if our brains couldn't make sense of the music we hear, and what if we didn't understand why that was happening.

If you are Anne Barker, music just sounds like an ugly noise.

So what about a nice bit of Chopin, then?

ANNE BARKER (Amusia Patient): No. No, I would never choose to listen to Chopin while in the car. It's not my idea of fun. In fact, it would be really irritating. I think I would have lots of accidents if I listened to Chopin.

ALAN YENTOB: What does the piano do for you then? What's the sort of...

ANNE BARKER: I think it's the thumping of the keys that irritates me. It's very...I don't get any pleasure to listen to the piano. It's an irritating sound, particularly classical piano.

ALAN YENTOB: Anne has a rare condition called "amusia." Although her hearing is normal, she has the musical equivalent of color-blindness.

OLIVER SACKS: You can be deaf to music and to different aspects of music. You can be deaf to pitch, you can be deaf to rhythm, or, even if you hear pitch and rhythm normally, you may be deaf to melody—just not catch melody—or deaf to harmony. And all of these things are called amusia.

ALAN YENTOB: To make matters worse, Anne comes from an extremely musical family. Her parents even own a village shop which specializes in traditional Irish instruments.

Anne is one of eight children. The entire family is the subject of a research study being conducted by Dr. Lauren Stewart. She's trying to find out whether amusia has a genetic or environmental cause.

LAUREN STEWART (University of London): Okay, Anne. I'm going to be playing you different pairs of tunes. I want you to tell me if they are exactly the same or slightly different.

ANNE BARKER: Same...don't know...different.

Most of these, I guessed.

LAUREN STEWART:Yeah, don't worry, you're doing fine.

ALAN YENTOB: Yeah, you're guessing?

LAUREN STEWART:You're doing good.

ALAN YENTOB: You're cheating.

LAUREN STEWART:No, you're doing your best.

ANNE BARKER: I don't know if they're same or different. So I have to...

ALAN YENTOB: You have to have a go.

ANNE BARKER: I have to have a go.

ALAN YENTOB: This is par for the course. Anne manages to guess only two out of 10 of the answers this time. And it's only now that she can understand why this condition has had such an impact on her life.

ANNE BARKER: Different.

ALAN YENTOB: When you, as a kid or a teenager, you went dancing, did you sense that something was wrong?

ANNE BARKER: I've got so many funny stories to tell about dancing, it's legendary.

ALAN YENTOB: Well, tell me your dancing story.

ANNE BARKER: My dancing stories. My first experience of dancing was at the age of five, when my mum sent me to Irish dancing class, and I so much wanted to be a nice Irish dancer.

Six years later, at the age of 11, I was still at the same class, at the beginners' class, I think, with the little children, with the five-year-olds. And I had practiced my step every night, diligently, for six years. And I knew my steps, my jigs and my reels perfectly. And I could not understand why I was still in the same class six years later. Looking back as an adult, I think I was...what I was dancing bore no relationship to the music that was being played, so I can only think that...

ALAN YENTOB: So, it must have been an immense relief to find out what it was that was wrong.

ANNE BARKER: Oh incredible, incredible. But as a teenager, none of the boys would dance with me. I used to avoid going anywhere where there was dancing, and still do avoid situations where I have to dance, because it's so socially humiliating, absolutely humiliating. I'd love to be able to do salsa, oh I'd love that, or to jive, but no, my prowess was on the football pitch.

ALAN YENTOB: Despite it all, Anne still likes the social side of listening to friends and family making music down in the village pub.

Her condition isn't as perplexing now that she understands the cause.

ALAN YENTOB: Some brains can't decode music at all. But others are sensitive to even the slightest musical nuance.

Why do some pieces move us while others leave us cold?

OLIVER SACKS: In general, I'm a Bach lover and have always been. 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 70 years later it's still pretty much the same.

ALAN YENTOB: Most of us have music that we've loved since childhood. In fact, the music we listen to as children can have a profound effect on what we enjoy as adults.

With the help of the Columbia team again, a second test can show us if the brain of Dr. Sacks loves Bach as much as he does.

HAL HINKLE: Roll back and forth.

ALAN YENTOB: This time, Hal Hinkle gives Dr. Sacks a device to rate his emotional response as he listens. He'll hear two pieces of music by different composers, a Mass by Bach and one by Beethoven.

First, the Bach.

Then, the Beethoven.

The composers are different, but the music has certain similarities, such as volume and tempo.

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.

ALAN YENTOB: The results of the scan are in, and, amazingly, they seem to confirm his feelings.

JOY HIRSCH: 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.

ALAN YENTOB: Clearly, Bach excited much of his brain, including the many regions essential to appreciating the complexity of the music. But, unlike Beethoven, the Bach activated the amygdala, buried deep in his brain, and 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 are listening to this very comparable piece in Beethoven.

OLIVER SACKS: I have to say my music teacher is trying to get me into some Beethoven, into a Beethoven sonata. I say, "I don't like it very much." And she said, "You have to learn it and then perhaps you will like it more."

ALAN YENTOB: In fact, our brains do constantly change and adapt to new learnings and stimulation. Neuroscientists call this plasticity.

Twenty or 30 years ago there was a tendency to think of the brain as almost as fixed as it would appear to be anatomically. And we, in fact, now know that the brain is just continually shaping itself, being reshaped. There seems almost no end to the plasticity of the brain.

But can musical ability be wired into the brain where it never existed before? The answer may lie in one of Oliver Sack's most mysterious case histories, sparked off by an event which took place in a small town in New York State, on a stormy afternoon, in August, 1994.

I have never met another person with a story like Tony Cicoria's. Tony was 42, a former college football player who had become a well-regarded orthopedic surgeon.

OLIVER SACKS: Tony is a surgeon, in New York State, who had very little musical background, or interest, or taste or talent, until, through a freak accident of being on the phone in a storm, he was hit in the face by a bolt of lightening, flung back and killed, in a sense. He probably had a cardiac arrest.

He had one of these strange out-of-body experiences, which one can have in these circumstances, then he was resuscitated. He seemed to be pretty much himself.

But then, three or four weeks after this, a strange transformation happened, where he developed a sudden "insatiable passion," as he put it, for hearing piano music, and then for playing piano music, and then for composing piano music. This took hold of him and wouldn't let him go.

ALAN YENTOB: Twenty-three College Park Drive.

He's playing music.


ALAN YENTOB: You were practicing. That's just normal for you is it?

TONY CICORIA: I'm just warming up.

ALAN YENTOB: When did this change happen, when did this sort of compulsion for the music happen?

TONY CICORIA: Within that first two weeks, I started to have a craving to hear classical piano music, which was unlike me. I was a product of the '60s. I liked loud, hard rock and roll. There wasn't much else. And then, within a short period of time, it wasn't enough to just listen to the music, I wanted to be able to play it. And, magically, I just ordered all the sheet music and was determined to learn it.

ALAN YENTOB: But you couldn't read sheet music?

TONY CICORIA: No, but that's why there's magical thinking, somehow it was just going to happen. At the time, I was working full-time as an orthopedic surgeon, 12 to 14 hours...long days. In order to be able to keep up with this possession that I had all of a sudden, I got up at 4:00 in the morning, and I would practice until 6:30, when I had to go to work. And then, I would come back from work, and I would sit there until, literally, I couldn't see the pages. And, unfortunately, the time that I sacrificed was any time that I had with my wife. My obsession with the music certainly was my contributing 50 percent to our marriage breaking up.

For a long time, I thought, certainly, that the only reason that I was allowed to live was because of the music.

OLIVER SACKS: All of this went for him with a sort of mystical or religious feeling.

ALAN YENTOB: Because of this near-death experience he had, as well.

OLIVER SACKS: Well, or perhaps just because of what was happening with his brain, or perhaps, you know, out of sheer gratitude for, you know, for surviving this, although I'm inclined to think that there was a definite neurological basis for the mystical surge as well.

He said, as a medical man, he said, he couldn't explain it. was due to divine intervention. I wasn't quite sure how to respond to this but I, I hope delicately, asked him if he would allow that divine intervention might operate via the nervous system.

ALAN YENTOB: Nerves, Tony?

TONY CICORIA: Nerves? "Nerves" is not even the word.

ALAN YENTOB: Tonight's a big night. It's the first performance of "The Lightning Sonata," written and performed by Tony Cicoria and inspired by his own extraordinary story.

How many people will be there?

TONY CICORIA: Five hundred; there are 500 seats.

ALAN YENTOB: I hear it was oversubscribed significantly; is that right?

TONY CICORIA: Yeah, yeah. The last I heard were that there were 2,000 requests. And we only have 500 seats.

ALAN YENTOB: Do you ever think, "Well, at some point I'm going to have to make a choice between medicine and music?"

TONY CICORIA: I'm hoping that I won't have to give up either, that I can find a balance. But I think the music is a much deeper part of me than what I do for a living.

ALAN YENTOB: The incredible events that led to Tony's passion for music have opened up a whole new chapter in his life.

And as for Matt, he too has found a way to use the power of music to transform his life. Nearly all the children and young people in Matt's drum workshop also have Tourette's. They've discovered Matt, and he's found his vocation.

OLIVER SACKS: I went there one Saturday morning, in New York, and saw, sort of, 30 people twitching and ticcing violently, out of themselves, uncoordinated, and all out of synchrony with each other. I mean, it was real pandemonium. And yet, when he started the drumming, and when others came in, everyone was orchestrated, they formed a group. One saw synchrony, one saw bonding, one saw this primal power of music to, not only to synchronize everything in the nervous system, but to synchronize people together.

MATT GIORDANO: Five, four, three, two, one and stop. Good, real good.

ALAN YENTOB: And what about Derek? Challenged since birth by severe autism and blindness, how his brain works is still a mystery, and yet, his extraordinary musical gift is, quite simply, inspirational.

OLIVER SACKS: Although I seem to talk about illness and damage and problems, my real theme is survival, how people manage and transcend, often triumphantly.

And I think this can happen with many people, that music can somehow bring back the feeling of life when nothing else can.

Broadcast Credits

Musical Minds

Narrated and Presented by
Alan Yentob
Directed and Additional Filming by
Louise Lockwood
Produced for NOVA by
Ryan Murdock
Production Team
Sharon Green
Jo Pagan
Janie Murphy
Associate Producer
Jonathan Loewald
Edited by
James Hamilton
Nathan Hendrie
Additional Editing by
Steve Audette
Will Edwards
Adam Craig
Gordy Waterman
Sound Recordists
Adam Scourfield
Dan Stevens
Rick Albright
Cameron Duguid
Xian Zhang
Nathan Hendrie
Production Manager
Daisy Robertson
Production Coordinator
Lisa Moultrie
Assistant Editor
Sommer Basinger
Online Editor and Colorist
Michael H. Amundson
Audio Mix
Greg McCleary
Ferris Jabr
Production Assistant
Robert Ryan
Archival Material
The Kobal Collection
Triangle Collection/Getty Images
Special Thanks
An Bosca Ceoal
Dr Katie Overy
Rnib Redhill Community Housing
Suny College At Oneonta
Drum Echoes Workshop
Universal Music Group
University Of Sheffield MRI Dept
Columbia University Medical Center
Executive Producers for the BBC
Janet Lee
Alan Yentob
NOVA Series Graphics
yU + co.
NOVA Theme Music
Walter Werzowa
John Luker
Musikvergnuegen, Inc.
Additional NOVA Theme Music
Ray Loring
Rob Morsberger
Closed Captioning
The Caption Center
NOVA Administrator
Mykim Dang
Carole McFall
Eileen Campion
Victoria Louie
Karinna Sjo-Gaber
Karen Laverty
Steve Sears
Kate Becker
Senior Researcher
Gaia Remerowski
Production Coordinator
Linda Callahan
Sarah Erlandson
Talent Relations
Scott Kardel, Esq.
Janice Flood
Legal Counsel
Susan Rosen
Post Production Assistant
Darcy Forlenza
Associate Producer, Post Production
Patrick Carey
Post Production Supervisor
Regina O'Toole
Post Production Editors
Rebecca Nieto
Jason York
Post Production Manager
Nathan Gunner
Compliance Manager
Linzy Emery
Development Producer
Pamela Rosenstein
Supervising Producer
Stephen Sweigart
Business Manager
Joseph P. Tracy
Senior Producer and Project Director
Lisa Mirowitz
Coordinating Producer
Laurie Cahalane
Senior Science Editor
Evan Hadingham
Senior Series Producer
Melanie Wallace
Managing Director
Alan Ritsko
Senior Executive Producer
Paula S. Apsell

© 2008 BBC

© Musical Minds Additional Material © 2009 WGBH Educational Foundation

All rights reserved


Main header: (Oliver Sacks)
Courtesy Adam Scourfield


Anne Barker
Tony Cicoria
Matt Giordano
Hal Hinkle
Neuroscience, Columbia University
Joy Hirsch
Columbia University Medical Center
Adam Ockelford
Derek Paravicini
Oliver Sacks
Lauren Stewart
Alan Yentob



Delosis—Musical Listening Test
You might claim to be tone deaf, but here's a chance to tell for certain. Take these music perception tests, developed by Isabelle Peretz of the University of Montreal, and learn if you have amusia.

Derek Paravicini
Find more information about Derek Paravicini, the blind piano prodigy featured in "Musical Minds."

Drum Echoes, Inc.
Learn about the organization started by Matt Giordano, whose drumming helps him control his Tourette's syndrome.

Beth Abraham Institute for Music and Neurologic Function
The Institute for Music and Neurologic Function provides clinical music therapy, used in treating conditions like stroke, dementia, and Parkinson's. See more about the Institute at its official website.

The Program for Imaging and Cognitive Sciences at Columbia University Medical Center
Learn about Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging at this website from the Columbia University Medical Center.

Seed Magazine's Workbench: Oliver Sacks
In this clever interactive, have a peek at Oliver Sacks's desk and see what he's working on now, whose photos he has push-pinned to his bulletin board, and more.

Big Think—Oliver Sacks
Hear more from Oliver Sacks at his website on Big Think.


Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain
by Oliver Sacks. Vintage, 2007.

This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession
by Daniel J. Levitin. Plume/Penguin, 2007.

How the Mind Works
by Steven Pinker. W. W. Norton & Co., 2009.


"Music as Medicine for the Brain"
by Matthew Shulman. US News and World Report, July 17, 2008.

"Baby Got Beat: Music May Be Inborn"
by Brandon Keim. Wired, January 26, 2009.

"Musicians' Brains Keep Time—With One Another"
by Jordan Lite. Scientific American: 60-Second Science, March 16, 2009.

"Music of the Hemispheres"
by Clive Thompson. The New York Times, December 31, 2006.


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