Musical Savantism

Speaker: Dr. Adam Ockelford, Roehampton University

4th November 2010

How can we explain the extraordinary musical skills demonstrated by some people with significant learning difficulties? The second speaker in this year’s Music, Mind & Brain Invited Speaker series was Professor Adam Ockelford, who spoke about musical savantism. Alongside his research into repetition in music, Ockelford has worked closely with children with a variety of disabilities, focusing on the role music can play in their development. His work has brought him into contact with a number of children possessing rather special talents.


Ockelford explained that people with ‘savant syndrome’ have moderate to severe learning difficulties alongside one or two areas of exceptional ability. Savants only represent a small portion of the population, but their expertise ranges from mathematics and calendrical calculation (the ability to specify the day of the week for any date) to more artistic talents such as drawing and musical aptitude. Exceptional musical ability is most common, occurring in roughly sixty-seven percent of all savants.

Interestingly, according to Ockelford, almost all musical savants experience a similar onset at an early age. The individuals are often self-motivated, nearly always possess absolute pitch and have exceptional memory. Musical savants often register high on the autistic spectrum and, in keeping with such disorders, are generally male. Ockelford notes that while their musical skill is great relative to their ability in other domains, it can be unremarkable when compared to that of musicians not suffering from impairment. The ability of many musical savants to discriminate between different pitches, however, can approach the limits of human perception.

Ockelford discussed a few of the individuals with whom he has worked: Stephen Wiltshire, an artist who can recreate cityscapes in immense detail from memory and also happens to possess absolute pitch; Nick, a blind autistic individual who began reaching for an organ and playing songs as early as eighteen months of age; and Anthony, a blind child whose disability was so severe that he believed the television was his sibling, yet could still express himself musically.

Perhaps the most remarkable is Derek Paravicini. Born very prematurely, blind and with significant learning difficulties, Derek was a self-taught and fluent but chaotic pianist by the age of four. Ockelford has nurtured his talent over many years and suggested that without learning the technique to channel his energy, Derek “would have exploded”. Derek’s experience of improvising and performing with others has also helped develop his social and communication skills and made possible a career as an internationally recognised musician.

Why Music?

Using ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ as an example, Ockelford demonstrated the extensive use of patterns (notes, intervals, shapes) in music. He described how the developing brain looks for predictability to make sense of the world. For savants, who may struggle to find order elsewhere in their environment, this attraction to the repetitive nature of music may be heightened and self-perpetuating.

Further, Ockelford estimated that infants hear music (lullabies, background noise, even the way nurturing adults speak to infants) throughout roughly eighty percent of their waking day. This prevalence of music in an infant’s environment coupled with the aforementioned search for order, a possible cognitive delay in language development, and the frequent presence of concurrent congenital blindness in these individuals may contribute to this musical affinity as well.

Citing an example of one girl who reproduced the sound of a passing plane on the piano, Ockelford also explained that imitation could be a means for savants to understand and ultimately control their auditory surroundings. Such stimuli often encourage not only imitation by the savant, but also modulation and improvisation. These ideas are supported by Leon Miller, writing in 1989 that “their excessive attention to detail and their desire for consistency in the physical environment has been seen as indicative of a … perhaps even obsessive stance to their environment.”

What can we learn? Neural models and the human perspective

It is hoped that by studying how savants’ abilities and approaches to music vary from those of the ‘normal’ population, we can gain a deeper understanding of the way that music is processed and represented in the brain, and of memory and learning in general.

Research (see Heaton & Wallace and Treffert references below for summaries) has examined whether musical savantism simply reflects an advanced auditory system coupled with heightened attention to detail, or whether there are qualitative differences with the brain mechanisms found in others, for example in the way that information is stored in memory.

Psychologist Pamela Heaton and psychiatrist Gregory Wallace (2004) have elaborated on models of Plaisted, Waterhouse and others to suggest that savantism may emerge from cognitive processes and behavioural characteristics associated with autism, some of which have been described above.  They suggest that “areas of cortex … usually devoted to social functioning [may be] reallocated to perceptual pattern recognition”, an attribute that seems key to savant skills in music and other areas.

However Darold Treffert (2009), who has been studying the syndrome for over forty years, points out that savant skills need not necessarily imply autism. Such abilities have also emerged alongside the onset of certain forms of dementia and this “has far-reaching implications regarding buried potential in some or, perhaps, all of us.”

The contributions that a study of savant syndrome affords to understanding the brain are important. But what came across very clearly listening to Ockelford was the human and personal dimension of his work with children with varying degrees of visual impairments and learning difficulties. Through hours of patient attention to diverse individual needs and abilities across the spectrum, Ockelford has seen first-hand the importance of music in a personal and social developmental context to savants and non-savants alike.

Final reflections

Professor Ockelford’s talk was truly inspiring. His work is valuable in two very different ways. On an interpersonal and human level, he is improving the quality of life of the individuals with whom he works. At the same time he is adding to the canon of psychological research into a fascinating phenomenon. The impact and value that music can add to the challenging lives of individuals with disorders on the autistic spectrum is very powerful.

We thought it fitting to close this blog entry with the mission statement of The AMBER Trust, a music foundation founded by Adam Ockelford in 1995. They state that for these children, music “ is not only a source of great pleasure, it also encourages learning, boosts their confidence and helps to develop each child’s self-expression and communication, opening up a world of independence and hope for the future.”

Alex Billig and Mike Wammes

References and Resources:

The AMBER Trust: A Music Charity for Blind Children

Heaton, P., & Wallace, G. (2004). Annotation: The Savant Syndrome. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 45(5), 899-911

Miller, L. (1989). Musical Savants: Exceptional Skill in the Mentally Retarded. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

Ockelford, A. (2007). In the Key of Genius: The Extraordinary Life of Derek Paravicini. London: Random House.

Ockelford, A. (2009). The role of the institution and teachers in supporting learning. In S. Hallam, I. Cross, & M. Thaut (Eds). Oxford Handbook of Music Psychology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ockelford, A. (2009). Zygonic Theory: Introduction, Scope and Prospects. Zeitschrift der Gesellschaft für Musiktheorie, 6(1).

Ockelford, A. (2010). Presentation and discussion, Goldsmiths College.

Treffert, D. (2009). Savant Syndrome: An Extraordinary Condition. A Synopsis: Past, Present, Future. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 364, 1351-1357.

Wisconsin Medical Society (further information on the syndrome, including profiles of some savants)

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