Tube talk: Nova – “Musical Minds”

Quite by chance, I caught Dr. Oliver Sacks’ appearance on The Daily Show a few days ago, where he was promoting an episode of PBS’s venerable science magazine Nova called “Musical Minds”.  Dr. Sacks is a British neurologist whose book Awakenings was the basis for the excellent movie with Robin Williams and Robert DeNiro.  “Musical Minds”, based on his 2007 work Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, boasted no such celebrities but was pretty interesting nonetheless.

The bulk of the special was dedicated to profiling four people who have very deep but very different connections to music.  Two of them (Derek Paravicini from England and Matt Giordano from upstate New York) have a high degree of innate musical ability that allows them each to seemingly overcome a significant neurological disorder.  Paravicini is an astonishingly gifted pianist despite being blind and autistic, while Giordano has a severe case of Tourette’s syndrome and finds relief only through his drumming (which he engages in even if there are no drums around).

Dr. Oliver SacksOn the other hand of the musical spectrum there’s Anne Barker from Ireland, who has a condition called amusia.  I had never heard of amusia but it sounds pretty damn awful to me.  People with it are unable to process music in even the most elementary fashion.  Basically, all music is noise to them.  At one point in the special Barker was asked to listen to pairs of musical snippets and determine if they sounded different or the same.  She only got 2 out of 10, and believe me when I tell you that these were not tricky at all.  For a music lover like me, this sounds like an awful way to live.

The fourth profile was the most interesting to me and concerned Tony Cicoria, an American orthopedic surgeon with no formal music training or even interest in music for most of his life.  Cicoria was struck by lightning in 1994 and soon developed an intense desire to first listen to piano music, then compose it.  While he is still employed full-time as a surgeon, Cicoria’s newfound obsession with music cost him his marriage.  He has composed original music and debuted his own Lightning Sonata to a sold-out crowd in 2008.

I would have liked to learn more of the science behind Cicoria’s musical awakening, as it seems obvious the lightning unlocked some part of his brain that was previously hidden to him.  I’ve always believed that almost all of us have such a musical part, but few have full access to it.  I’ve also always been a believer in the power of music to heal the psyche and connect us to a better part of our humanity.  Even if the truth behind all this has more to do with synapses and brain chemicals, it’s still a fascinating avenue of study.  Apparently Moby (who is briefly interviewed in the show) believes so too as he is a member of the board of directors at the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function, a nonprofit organization that studies the healing power of music.  The institute, a member of the Beth Abraham Family of Health Services, has been under the guidance of Dr. Sacks for many years.

The “bonus” profile, if you will, was of Dr. Sacks himself.  In my other favorite part of the show he underwent a scan with a functional MRI machine (fMRI) to check for brain activity when listening to and thinking about music.  When he heard a piece by Bach (his favorite composer) his brain lit up, whereas a similar piece by Beethoven left him cold.  What I’d like to know is whether or not the brain activity led to his love of Bach, or whether his love of Bach conditioned his brain activity.

Overall, “Musical Minds” was enjoyable and interesting despite being a little light on actual science.  I imagine his book, which I will probably pick up, delves a little deeper than the special.  In any case it’s inspired me to finally stop procrastinating and look into piano lessons, and I didn’t even need to be struck by lightning.

“Musical Minds” will probably air a few more times this week, so check your DVR and whatnot if you’re interested.  You can also stream the episode on Nova‘s website until July 7.