Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Musical Savants, Emotions and Creativity

Musical Savants, Emotions and Creativity

            Music has fascinated humankind since the beginning of time - from the remarkable ways in which we interpret various sounds to the wonders of people creating incredible compositions. Many scientists have been drawn towards a particular syndrome which relates to brain functions and loosely ties itself to the arts. This phenomena is known as Savant Syndrome, which is caused by brain damage to the left hemisphere (which is responsible for speech/language and reasoning skills). This deficiency can be caused by other disorders (such as autism and schizophrenia) or by a head injury (i.e. stroke, concussion). The brain rewires itself with the help of the corpus callosum (white matter in the brain) and makes new connections, allowing an individual to "tap into dormant abilities" (Dr. Darrold Treffert, Acquired Savants Open Up, HuffPost Live, 2012). Paradoxically, this syndrome allows a select few people in the world to exhibit extraordinary musical abilities. Many can repeat a song on their instrument(s) after hearing a tune once in their lives, improvise on a melody extremely fluently and/or compose songs that are universally cherished. The affected individual is identified as a savant, who is defined as "a person who displays an unusual (or exceptional) aptitude for one particular type of mental task or artistic activity despite having significant impairment of other areas of intellectual or social functioning" (Oxford English Dictionary, 2013). Thus, there is a "remarkable coexistence of deficiency and superiority" concerning the individual (Gururangan, Savant Syndrome: Growth of Empathy and Creativity, 2010, Pg. 1).  Robert Jourdain's general depiction of musical savants is, at best, stereotypical and at worst, erroneous. He implies that musical savants "lack complex emotions and creativity" by stating that they have minds that are "incapable of the full range of human experience" and that they "lack a cognitive hierarchy that can juxtapose ideas and meld them into new ones" (Jourdain, Music, The Brain, and Ecstasy, 1998, Pgs. 200-201). However, numerous research shows that musical savants not only have the same emotions as neurotypical people, but that they are more than capable of being creative with music.
            There are two examples which exemplify the ability of musical savants to understand and express complex emotions and be creative simultaneously. The first example involves Derek Paravicini, a jazz pianist who is also autistic and blind (Gururangan, Pg. 2). His "inability to filter out noise limits him  to communicating and comprehending (language) skills at a childish level (Gururangan, Pg. 4). Dr. John Sloboda conducted an experiment in 2003 in which Paravicini was asked to play a piano piece in three different ways to signify different emotions - happy, sad and angry (Ibid); this experiment was done to assess the "emotional relevance" and "understanding of emotional cues" of his playing. David played the first variation of the piece by playing it in a major key with an allegretto tempo and a staccato articulation. He demonstrated the second example by playing the piece in a minor key with a slower tempo and a legato articulation. Paravicini struggled with playing the third example with an "angry" tone. However, he was communicating his frustration by "grunting under his breath," which signified that he knew that his third variation of the piece did not reflect the intended angry emotion. Furthermore, he was also able to identify the intended emotions of a piece played differently thrice by another musician (Gururangan, Pg. 5). Jools Holland, a musician, concluded that the playing ability of Paravicini is "an extension of his personality and his feelings," proving that he (and other musical savants) can comprehend and express emotions - if there is an outlet (Ibid). Paravicini has superb improvisatory skills in which he "rearrange(s) elements of tonality, meter and phrase structure with subtle transformations and introduce(s) new material from pieces of similar style (Ibid). Out of all music genres, David delved into jazz - "the playground of the innovative" which allows "artistic freedom (with some structure). Paravicini has demonstrated creativity consistently in experiments and in his performances, showing that all humans have creative abilities.
            The second example involves Derek Amato, a former corporate sales trainer who had a concussion when he landed head first into the shallow end of a pool when he was 40 years old; he was trying to catch a football over the water. After being admitted to the hospital and treated for the concussion, he was sent home. He was able to sing and play the piano at a professional level almost overnight; he was an acquired musical savant (Chan, Michael,  Severson Dave, and Collins, Rocky, Ingenious Minds: Derek Amato, 2012). His friends mentioned that Amato plays very passionately, and that he "did not have a gift in music" prior to the accident. However, his hearing was impaired, and his memory never returned to his former state - causing worry about his career longevity. Frequently, he mentioned about music constantly banging in his head, making life emotionally disturbing. Interestingly, Amato had several concussions prior to the latest occurrence, and it was observed through an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) that music (which was initially used to try to calm him down) was further aggravating his brain and causing great sadness. Doctors discovered through an MRI that Amato had developed small white masses on various parts of the left hemisphere of the brain as a consequence to his concussions. He was told that he could take anti-epileptic drugs to "reduce the volume" of the music cerebrally, but Amato refused this treatment. He decided that he would rather connect emotionally with people through music than possibly return to his former life. Despite these challenges and lack of formal musical training, Amato was able to learn about musical techniques intuitively and apply them to form his compositions. He believed that music came to him "in pictures," in that he saw "black and white blocks moving from left to right" when he is playing the piano; it is believed that he developed synesthesia (a blending of two senses) as a result of the accident. Through the tragic event, the elevated emotions and tapped creativity have allowed Amato to enjoy life in a new and profound way that he could not have predicted; he considers it to be a blessing and a curse.
            Despite Jourdain's claim on musical savants lacking certain aspects of humanity and attempting to reduce them to mechanical beings, both Derek Paravicini and Derek Amato have shown that musical savants (born or acquired) have the capacity to understand "serious" emotions and foster creativity through their art. In short, these gentlemen have proven the most obvious point - that they are human as well.

Works Cited
Chan, Michael,  Severson Dave, and Collins, Rocky. Brain and Intelligence - Ingenious Minds: Derek Amato, Science Channel, Web. Sept. 20, 2012, Retrieved Oct. 21, 2013, http://science.discovery.com/video-topics/brain-intelligence/ingenious-minds-derek-amato.htm.

Gururangan, Kapil. (2010) Savant Syndrome: Growth of Empathy and Creativity, Berkeley Scientific Journal, University of Callifornia.

Jourdain, Robert. (1998) Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy.  Avon Books.

OED: Oxford English Dictionary, Savant (n.), Oxford University Press, http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/171449?redirectedFrom=Savant+Syndrome#eid271973695.

Treffert, Dr. Darold.  Acquired Savants Open Up, HuffPost Live, Web. Dec. 05, 2012, Retrieved Oct. 21, 2013, http://live.huffingtonpost.com/r/segment/brain-injury-trauma-hidden-talents-neuroscience/50be0e0f2b8c2a5d9b000769.

1 comment:

willimek said...

Music and Emotions

The most difficult problem in answering the question of how music creates emotions is likely to be the fact that assignments of musical elements and emotions can never be defined clearly. The solution of this problem is the Theory of Musical Equilibration. It says that music can't convey any emotion at all, but merely volitional processes, the music listener identifies with. Then in the process of identifying the volitional processes are colored with emotions. The same happens when we watch an exciting film and identify with the volitional processes of our favorite figures. Here, too, just the process of identification generates emotions.

An example: If you perceive a major chord, you normally identify with the will "Yes, I want to...". If you perceive a minor chord, you identify normally with the will "I don't want any more...". If you play the minor chord softly, you connect the will "I don't want any more..." with a feeling of sadness. If you play the minor chord loudly, you connect the same will with a feeling of rage. You distinguish in the same way as you would distinguish, if someone would say the words "I don't want anymore..." the first time softly and the second time loudly.
Because this detour of emotions via volitional processes was not detected, also all music psychological and neurological experiments, to answer the question of the origin of the emotions in the music, failed.

But how music can convey volitional processes? These volitional processes have something to do with the phenomena which early music theorists called "lead", "leading tone" or "striving effects". If we reverse this musical phenomena in imagination into its opposite (not the sound wants to change - but the listener identifies with a will not to change the sound) we have found the contents of will, the music listener identifies with. In practice, everything becomes a bit more complicated, so that even more sophisticated volitional processes can be represented musically.

Further information is available via the free download of the e-book "Music and Emotion - Research on the Theory of Musical Equilibration:


or on the online journal EUNOMIOS:


Enjoy reading

Bernd Willimek