Musical Savants

by Bev Foster

Part 4 – Special series on Music and the Brain  Musical Savants Savant syndrome is a rare condition in which people with developmental disorders and impaired cognitive ability have an area of expertise. Most savants are victims of early infant autism which strikes seven children in a hundred thousand. Of these, as many as one in ten is a savant. Dr. Darold Treffert has studied savant syndrome for more than forty years and identifies three kinds of savants:

  • splinter skill savant – has the ability to memorize data and trivia i.e. sports statistics, dates
  • talented savants – shows a conspicuous honed skill
  • prodigious savant – shows an ability that would be spectacular even in a non-disabled person

Prodigious savants are rare. Treffert claims there are less than 100 known living prodigious savants worldwide. According to neuroscientist Robert Jourdain, one third of prodigious savants are musical. They display musical skills like genuine perfect pitch, fine-grained perception, phenomenal musical memory. Normal musicians acquire these skills through increased intellectual flexibility, a savant’s MO is rigid mimicry. Among them is Derek Paravicini, a blind severely cognitively impaired man with profound disability. Yet, Derek is a superb musician, considered  to be a living jukebox who entertains crowds from concert halls to long term care homes. It is as if he has a musical library in his head, both of repertoire and styles. He is able to recall any piece he’s heard as well as create music on demand. The unusual story of this prodigious savant is told in the book In the Key of Genius. You can watch Paravicini’s sheer genius here.Like Paravicini, musical savants are often blind. Jourdain explains there is a strong connection between musical savantism and retrolental fibroplasias, a prenatal syndrome where the fetal brain is starved for oxygen and the retina is harmed. Some researchers believe that the savant’s left brain- the seat of both language and reasoning skills – is damaged extensively.  If this is true, then the right brain is cerebral dominant, including parts of the right temporal lobe important in musical perception and memory. Another compelling contemporary musical  savant is Gloria Lenhoff who suffers with Williams Syndrome, a rare congenital disorder resulting in a mixture of intellectual strengths and deficits. According to Dr. Oliver Sacks, the syndrome is characterized by defects of the heart and great vessels, unusual facial conformations and retardations -most people with Williams Syndrome have an IQ of less than 60. Yet the neural structures seem to indicate very extensive brain activation in music processing, particularly of the amygdale. This may explain their extraordinary responsiveness and sometimes overwhelming emotional reaction to music. Lenhoff sings in more than thirty languages. Her story is told in the 2006 book The Strangest Song. You can see Gloria singing here.There are still many questions around savant syndrome. But one thing is certain: savants are to be celebrated for their unique abilities and gifts.