Fragments of Genius: Mapping the Mind of a Musical Savant

Session Date: 
May 5, 2017

This talk summarizes the findings from a series of experiments undertaken over a number of years with the prodigious musical savant Derek Paravicini. These sought to map his perceptual and cognitive musical abilities with some precision; to identify the strategies he uses in learning new pieces, in re-creating them and in creating new material through improvisation; and to compare these abilities and strategies with those of advanced neurotypical musicians. The research showed that the development of Derek’s exceptional musical abilities (in common with all prodigies) were driven by the early acquisition of ‘absolute pitch’ – the capacity to identify and reproduce notes in isolation from others. Today, this enables him to disaggregate chords with great accuracy and speed, and to learn new pieces quickly and to retain them with a high degree of fidelity over long periods of time. However, Derek’s processing of music functions in many respects in the same way as other musicians, with an intuitive understanding of the stylistic grammars through which music is structured. For example, he finds ‘tonal’ chords easier to disembed than those built up from random combinations of intervals, and, despite his exceptional perceptual abilities, he finds ‘atonal’ music difficult to memorise and recall, and will ‘correct’ melodies and chords that did not fit with tonal expectations. In this way, Derek’s intuitive, non-conceptual understanding of music appears to function in very much the same way as that of other listeners (with or without musical training). Hence it appears to be the case that, despite his apparently idiosyncratic abilities, Derek (and, in all likelihood other musical savants) in fact function at one extreme of a common continuum of human musicality.

File 2017_05_05_09_Ockelford-Web.mp4111.56 MB