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Our Brains on Music: The Science*

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June 30, 2009

Television Review | 'Nova: Musical Minds'



Musical Minds, the season premiere of Nova on PBS, is based on the neurologist Oliver Sacks's most recent book, Musicophilia a collection of case studies of people whose brains have unusual relationships to music, cases in which, as Dr. Sacks puts it, music gets them going to an extraordinary degree. A one-hour program can't approach the depth and texture of Dr. Sacks's book, but it does get at one question that nags the reader: What do these musical savants sound like? Or put another way: Are they really as amazing as they're cracked up to be?

Music isn't my area, so I'm not going to hazard an answer other than to say that Derek Paravicini, an autistic and blind 29-year-old who is described as an astonishingly, almost bafflingly brilliant pianist, and Tony Cicoria, an orthopedic surgeon who began playing classical piano and composing after being struck by lightning, would be awfully impressive at your next party.

Musical Minds, which with the season premiere of the newsmagazine Nova ScienceNow is inaugurating a Tuesday-night science block for PBS, looks at four cases. In addition to Mr. Paravicini and Mr. Cicoria, a third exceptional performer, Matt Giordano, uses drumming to help control his Tourette's syndrome.

Anne Barker, however, sits at the opposite extreme: she suffers from amusia, an inability to hear or respond to music. The narrator, the BBC reporter Alan Yentob, mentions that Ms. Barker has the condition despite the fact that her parents own a store specializing in traditional Irish instruments. Viewers are free to draw their own conclusions about cause and effect.

(Those who follow Dr. Sacks's dispatches in The New Yorker will be disappointed to hear that no mention is made of Clive Wearing, the British musician whose profound amnesia was the subject of a heartbreaking excerpt from Musicophilia in that magazine in 2007.)

Dr. Sacks's trademarks as a writer are evocative storytelling and, just as important, a deep compassion for subjects coping with both the practical difficulties and the alienation caused by brain disorders. When those subjects are packed into 10-minute television profiles, an air of the carnival sideshow can set in, and Musical Minds is not immune to this, particularly in its depiction of Mr. Paravicini. His autism has caused speech patterns like those of a particularly loud talk-show host (an impression reinforced by his physical resemblance to the ubiquitous British presenter Graham Norton), and his hands, while striking the keys with impressive speed and precision, have a suspended look, as if attached to a marionette. Unfortunately, those are the impressions a viewer is likely to be left with.

The best moments in Musical Minds tend to involve the program's fifth subject: Dr. Sacks, who not only is interviewed by Mr. Yentob but also enthusiastically submits to having his own brain tested. These scenes are diverting, if not revealing.

In one Dr. Sacks is scanned while listening to his professed favorite, Bach, and then to Beethoven. A Columbia University researcher shows him the scans: many more areas of his brain light up during the Bach, which proves that he indeed prefers the Baroque master to the Classical firebrand. But does it? As the program acknowledges, science still has little idea what those red and green flashes on the M.R.I. screen really mean.

Which, in the meantime, makes Dr. Sacks's work documenting the strange adaptations of our brains all the more valuable and mysterious. Musical Minds may barely scratch the surface, but it's still full of fascinating information. Like this: Mr. Paravicini and Mr. Giordano each first demonstrated his unusual musical abilities at 2 one by playing Don't Cry for Me Argentina on the piano, and one by playing I'm Just a Singer (in a Rock and Roll Band) on the drums. There's a dissertation right there.


Musical Minds

On most PBS stations on Tuesday night (check local listings).

Produced for PBS by the WGBH Science Unit. Paula S. Apsell, director of the WGBH Science Unit and senior executive producer of Nova; Janet Lee and Alan Yentob, executive producers for the BBC; Louise Lockwood, producer; Ryan Murdock, producer for Nova; narrated and presented by Mr. Yentob.

* For the Metaphysics of Music see the 6-part video series by Dr. Nelson Harrison on this network.


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