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NOVA: Musical Minds

Airs Wednesday, June 15, 2011 at 9 p.m. on KPBS TV

Dr. Oliver Sacks sits on a piano bench holding a replica of a human brain. Th...

Credit: Adam Scourfield

Above: Dr. Oliver Sacks sits on a piano bench holding a replica of a human brain. Through the remarkable case studies from neurologist Dr. Sacks’ latest book, "Musicophilia," NOVA investigates the extraordinary impact music can have on the human brain.

Can the power of music make the brain come alive? Throughout his career Dr. Oliver Sacks, neurologist and acclaimed author, whose book "Awakenings" was made into a Oscar-nominated feature film starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro, has encountered myriad patients who are struggling to cope with debilitating medical conditions.

While their ailments vary, many have one thing in common: an appreciation for the therapeutic effects of music. "NOVA: Musical Minds" follows four individuals—two of whom are Sacks's case studies—and even peers into Sacks's own brain, to investigate music's strange, surprising, and still unexplained power over the human mind.

According to Sacks's latest book, "Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain," anatomists cannot identify the brain of a visual artist, writer, or mathematician—but they can recognize the brain of a professional musician. Music affects more parts of our brains than language does—clearly humans are musical animals. What can music tell us about our minds? And what can our minds tell us about music?

Finally, can music aid people battling severe neurological disorders? To find out, NOVA follows the BBC's Alan Yentob on an intercontinental quest—from New York to England and Ireland—to meet individuals like those chronicled in "Musicophilia," bringing Sacks's latest work to life through their intimate and phenomenal stories.

Three of the four case studies cope with neurological disorders: Tourette's syndrome, autism, and amusia, the musical equivalent of color-blindness, which results in deafness to certain elements of music. The last subject is a surgeon and rock 'n' roll lover who, after being struck by lightning, became obsessed with playing classical piano. Three of the four—all but the patient with amusia—have somehow, almost magically, unlocked a part of their minds to develop musical talents that were otherwise unimaginable.

Video Excerpt: NOVA: Musical Minds

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Watch this expanded version of the film's sequence on Oliver Sacks's brain as it responds—quite differently, as it turns out—to pieces by Bach and Beethoven.

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