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We asked respected Australian musician/composer/ music and special needs teacher, Greg Foster
to answer the following question...

Greg Foster

July 2008

The Question:
What is a music savant?


Response by Greg Foster share this - email, favourites, social bookmarks and more

Imagine a person who cannot tie shoelaces, does not know left from right, needs help dressing and yet, with no formal musical training, is able to listen to a performance of a movement of a piano concerto and then immediately sit at the piano and perform it from memory perfectly note for note. Such a person does exist and, although this is a rare condition, there are a handful of similar people called music savants.

Before discussing the fascinating abilities of the music savant and how it is possible for musical genius to coexist with profound disability we need to examine some relevant terms.

What is a savant? The term "savant" is from old French, the present participle of the verb savoir, to know, and actually means a person of profound or extensive learning; a learned scholar.

The rather crude expression "idiot savant", which juxtaposes two intellectual extremes, has been used to describe an intellectually impaired person with an exceptional skill or talent in a special field, such as a highly developed ability to play music or to solve complex mathematical problems mentally at great speed.

A term which is possibly a more accurate way to describe such a person is "autistic savant". People who exhibit this type of extreme talent but are in most other ways intellectually disabled are usually diagnosed as being affected by autism. A well-known example of this syndrome is Dustin Hoffman's excellent portrayal of an autistic savant in "Rain Man" which was based on a real-life autistic savant named Kim Peek.

This does not, of course, mean that all people with autism have a brilliant talent in one special field. However it is interesting to observe the various isolated skills that a number of them have which would not put them in the genius category and possibly may not even be noticed by the casual observer.

In my own experience as a special needs teacher I knew a seven year old boy with autism at the school where I taught who could not speak, communicate effectively, feed or dress himself, but who was obsessed with written language. On a visit to the zoo he would not look at the animals. He looked only at the printed signs with the Latin genus and species name of each creature. These he studied and committed to memory. This seven year old had virtually taught himself to read and write in both block letters and cursive script and had also developed his own style of writing with box-style letters (no curves).

Another boy I taught, who was severely afflicted by autism, had developed the ability to flick a spitball at a spot on a wall 4 or 5 metres away with amazing accuracy. This skill may seem inconsequential when compared to the remarkable talents of a savant but there is a correlation between these disparate abilities when we take into account that an autistic person's obsessive interest in one obscure subject can become an all-pervasive influence on his/her whole life to the extent that they develop into an expert in an unusual skill or become an authority in an obscure subject area but are often incompetent in many everyday living skills. A real-life example of such a person is Dr Temple Grandin whose obsessive interest in, and affinity with the cattle on the farm where she grew up as a severely autistic child led her to eventually become known throughout the world for her work on the design of livestock handling facilities.

Many people have attempted to define autism and most agree that it stems from an inability to effectively assimilate and process information received by the senses but no definitive cause has been found. Recent research is coming close to pinpointing the parts of the brain that are different to the normal brain but there is still disagreement on whether this is due to genetics, chemical imbalance, environmental toxins, the result of an interruption to the path of migrating neurons during the first few weeks of gestation, or other causes or perhaps a combination of factors. It is unlikely that a cure will ever be found so the most effective treatment is still special education.

In order to try to determine how some autistic music savants can develop musical skills to a far higher degree than others we need to look at how we all generally learn things and then establish where the savant differs to the norm.

We gain knowledge and skills by continually "sorting the wheat from the chaff". We hear or read information, observe things being done and then try doing what we have observed over and over in various situations and in various ways. We subconsciously filter out extraneous information and retain what seems useful and relevant. We learn to read people's facial expressions. We get a feel for truth, sarcasm, humour, exaggeration and lies and we develop filters for these so that our personal learning system becomes streamlined and efficient. Most of this happens at a subconscious level.

People with autism have great difficulty relating to the world and developing efficient learning strategies. They don't automatically know what is relevant or important to focus on in a given situation. They get distracted by irrelevant details and their attention can be totally absorbed by these. They have a limited ability to generalise because generalising requires accumulated knowledge to use when making split-second comparisons in order to sum up a situation. However a person with autism may develop an intense obsessive interest in a subject or skill, whether it be Australian post codes, the local telephone book, calendar dates, written language, art or music, they generally haven't developed normal learning strategies, and so may approach the subject in an unusual or unique way. For example Daniel Temmet is able to perform amazingly complex mathematical calculations without actually "calculating". Fortunately, despite his autism, he is able to communicate effectively and tells us he experiences numbers as colours, flashes, moods and, most interestingly, as shapes which fit together like a jigsaw puzzle which, he says, immediately reveal to him graphically the result of any multiplication or division.

In human beings, as perhaps in all living creatures, there is an instinct to survive as an individual organism and as part of a group or species. It has been noted that if a young child is left in a hospital bed with little human contact, without the love of a parent and with little other stimulation, his will to survive diminishes and his brain cells begin to atrophy. This is the tragic personification of the paradigm; "Use it or lose it".

This leads to the key point, in my view, demonstrating how a savant manages to develop an extreme skill. Although people with autism would have great difficulty completing an IQ test, they are not necessarily less intelligent than others and in fact savants are most likely of superior intelligence to most. A normal person usually has an enormous diversity of interests to keep their thought processes going, to keep the brain cells active and vital. An autistic person does not have the same capacity. However he may have an obsessive interest in one subject. When most of the world around him makes very little sense, in order to keep the brain cells humming, he seems compelled to put almost all of his energy and intelligence into his one interest. So, just as the blind person compensates for the loss of the visual sense by instinctively developing an acute sense of hearing, the savant develops his particular interest or skill to the extreme.

That's my theory anyway!

("Some scientists ... believe that certain parts of savants' brains become hyper-developed to compensate for the dysfunction everywhere else, resulting in some strange paradoxes." - CBS Worldwide Inc. 60 Minutes, 1 Aug 2004.)

For further reading on this subject check out the Musical Savants section on the Musical Curiosities page of MusicBizAustralia.com.

Greg Foster

2008 Greg Foster


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