‘Dynamite in my ears’ – The Exceptional Musicality of some Individuals with Autism

Can people who struggle with speech be exceptional musicians? What does this have to do with autism? Professor Adam Ockelford, Director of the Applied Music Research Centre at the Roehampton University in London provided explanations to these questions in his talk at Goldsmiths University of London in November 2017.

Firstly, let’s define autism. As Prof. Ockelford proposed, imagine listening to the radio in an unfamiliar language that you cannot turn off. Imagine seeing through a stained-glass window, broken and glued together again in a random way. Autism is a developmental spectrum condition, influencing how people perceive the world and communicate with others. It affects approximately 1/100 children in the UK (The National Autistic Society, 2017). Children with so-called ‘classic’ autism often have little or even no speech. In ‘Asperger’ Syndrome language is not affected. People with autism have fragmentary perception (e.g., the stained glass), and seem to pay more attention to details than to the whole. The drawings of Stephen Wiltshire re-create highly detailed landscapes. Remarkably, rather than first sketching an outline, Stephen makes his way from one end of the canvas to the other in painstaking detail.


(Wiltshire, 2016)

Autistic people have a love for pattern and predictability. In that sense, it becomes easy to see why these individuals may have social and communication deficits: after all, humans are nothing if not unpredictable. Furthermore, Prof. Ockelford explained how these individuals have difficulty understanding the emotions of others (cf. ‘Theory of Mind’), which makes socialising a huge challenge.


Prof. Ockelford (2013) suggests that the developmental trajectories of music and language, which generally evolve together, can possibly diverge in some children on the autism spectrum, causing a delay in language understanding and use. These behavioural differences make autistic children perceive the world in more perceptual and musical ways; for example an early fascination with everyday sounds and objects (e.g. a microwave). It is interesting to note that such sounds are musical, producing pitches, tones and comprising different colours and harmonics (Ockelford, 2013). This is, as suggested by Prof. Ockelford (2013), one of the outcomes of an Exceptional Early Cognitive Environment. In other words, certain sounds do not acquire wider meaning or functional significance, but are instead processed purely in terms of their sonic qualities – in musical terms.

This strong and early detail-oriented connection with music may be the reason why such a large number of children on the autism spectrum possess absolute pitch: 1 in 20 within the autistic population compared with 1 in 10,000 in the western societies. As defined by Takeuchi and Hulse (1993), absolute pitch (AP) is the ability to identify or produce a pure tone at a particular pitch, without the use of an external reference pitch (e.g. piano).

Prof. Ockelford observes that the ability to recognise and sing a tone (in autism AP cases), generally comes before any theoretical aspects of music (naming notes, scales, etc.), and can be independent of language. A video was shown in which Freddie, an autistic student aged 10 at that time, was asked to reproduce a small melody on the piano. Surprisingly, instead of playing the notes on the piano, he sang them, barely brushing the piano keys. The music seemed to have sounded in his head, negating the need for him to actually play the instrument. As Prof. Ockelford reminds us “The vivid nature of perception – crucial for our functioning and survival – beguiles us into thinking that music exists beyond ourselves in a material way.” (Ockelford, 2017, p. 61).



Prof. Ockelford’s latest book Comparing Notes (2017) is an excellent resource for understanding the history of his work. It’s extremely well researched, and discusses many aspects of how we (both on and off the spectrum) derive meaning from the fuzziness that is music. Through his work with Derek Paravicini, diagnosed as having ‘classical’ autism, he discovered that Derek’s process of imitation led to agency, to musical structure, to music making sense. Derek is acclaimed as one of the greatest musical ‘savants’ ever to have lived. You can watch the amazing Ted talk featuring both Prof. Ockelford and Derek here: https://youtu.be/3S1HK7LQY2I

Prof. Ockelford commented that music cannot be cynical. It is innocent, a pure method of communication, which is thought to far precede the language we use today. The children he works with are always fun, excited and still hit the ceiling with pleasure when much loved chords and phrases are presented to them time and time again. Classical musicians alike visit and spend time playing with the Professor’s students. This includes MSc Music, Mind and Brain students whom he encourages to get in touch and participate. Blowing the cobwebs off their perhaps grey palettes, which after years of playing in familiar circles, could greatly benefit from the addition of fresh and brighter colour.

A collaboration of this nature was alluded to in the talk with a young girl named Romy. A lover of Bach, music is Romy’s language of communication and her humorous character was conveyed through purposefully playing the ‘wrong notes’ to avoid interaction with early piano teachers. In this way, music becomes a proxy language for children and adults on the autism spectrum. Children like Romy are extremely musically advanced, having the ability to transpose mid-piece and, in Romy’s case, communicate her disapproval through playing notes in the most opposed tonality to the original key. The shift in pattern allows Romy to portray her colourful personality in the most complex way that is astounding to most advanced musicians.



So what were Prof. Ockelford’s concluding thoughts? The fundamental idea is that through the repetition of words and sounds from our surrounding environment, both language and everyday sounds can be processed as music. The early cognitive environment of a child on the autistic spectrum is a complex one, however it is our responsibility to understand the message these remarkable individuals convey, not vice versa!

Catherine Smyth, Luca Kiss, Patrick Reis, & Simon Andrew Whitton


The National Autistic Society (2017). Autism. Retrieved from http://www.autism.org.uk/about/what-is/asd.aspx

Wiltshire, S. (2016). Cologne, Germany. Retrieved 18th November 2017 from: http://stephenwiltshire.co.uk/art_gallery.aspx?Id=7953

Ockelford, A. (2013). Music, language and autism. 1st ed. Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 211-215.

Ockelford, A. (2017). Comparing Notes : How we make sense of music. Profile Books LTD: London
Takeuchi, A. H., & Hulse, S. H. (1993). Absolute pitch. Psychological Bulletin, 113(2), 345-361.

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