By People Staff
November 24, 1975 12:00 PM

Eight-year-old John thumbs awkwardly through a stack of records until he recognizes Farmer in the Dell by the color of its cover. He painstakingly extracts the record, then wiggles it down over the phonograph spindle. He starts the phonograph, and as the music begins he slowly claps in rhythm.

Dr. Annamaria Nucci, 34, who has been watching him carefully, smiles. For a normal child, putting a record on is routine. But for John, who was braindamaged in infancy, this is a triumph.

It is a victory also for Dr. Nucci, a psychiatrist who uses music as part of her treatment at the Payne Whitney Clinic in New York Hospital-Cornell University Medical Center. Though her program is still experimental, she believes music therapy can alter the mood and calm brain-injured children.

Music as therapy has a long history. In the Old Testament David strummed his harp to soothe King Saul, and Muzak in elevators and offices is supposed to ease the tensions of modern life. But when Dr. Nucci began her research five years ago, there was little information on how particular kinds of music influence mental patients. “I’ve found,” Dr. Nucci says, “that melancholy music, for example, improved the mood of depressed patients and made them more willing to talk, but had the opposite effect on schizophrenic patients.”

Dr. Nucci’s interest in music is not merely clinical. She was born in Nicastro, Italy, where her grandfather was a concert violinist. At 8, she and her mother came to New Jersey where her father had started a small publishing business shortly after World War II. A piano prodigy, Annamaria made radio and concert appearances as a teenager, and after graduating from Montclair (N.J.) State College, she returned to Italy for a master of music degree in Florence. She was teaching in a New Jersey high school when she volunteered to work in a nearby psychiatric hospital in Paterson. “When I saw how music affected the patients I began to think more seriously about how it could be used.” She decided to enter medical school in Rome, where she began her research.

In her off hours, Dr. Nucci enjoys listening to music, but she is predictably choosy what she’ll listen to. “I like everything from classical music to rock ‘n’ roll,” she says. “But before I turn on the stereo, I stop and think. What I play depends on how I’m feeling.”