The Case of the 'Sudden' Savant

Darold Treffert MD

Savant syndrome, whether associated with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or other developmental disability, most often is present from birth and surfaces during early childhood. However, recently more instances of “acquired” savant syndrome have been reported in which savant-like abilities emerge, sometimes at a prodigious level, following central nervous system (CNS) injury or disease in later childhood or even adult life in previously non-disabled persons. I recently received an e-mail that describes what might be called the “Sudden” savant-an otherwise normal person who suddenly and unexpectedly acquires savant-like abilities.

A 28-year-old gentleman from Israel wrote the following:

“I remember thinking every now and then throughout my life ‘I wonder how it feels to hear a song and just ‘play’ it’, wondering what it takes. I’d sit with a musical instrument, trying to figure out how to play. I had come to develop some mechanical skill, i.e., remembering certain chords and efficiently reproducing them, but I didn’t really know what I was doing. I could play simple popular songs from rote memory, but I couldn’t ‘understand’ what I was playing. The only musical talent I had was distinguishing between what I called “the happy chord” and “the sad chord” (major and minor). I had no idea what other more complex chords were, I just played them from rote memory. I started noticing as time went by that there are certain things that are musically similar in all songs…but I couldn’t really explain it to myself.

“A most amazing thing happened to me about 2 years ago at age 26½. While sitting in front of a piano at my friends’ wine store at the local mall, just playing the keys, trying to figure out what’s what and who’s who, all of a sudden I felt things ‘come together in my head.’ It’s a little hard to describe what went on in my head, but among other things, I suddenly (just like that) realized what the major scale was, what it’s chords were, and more importantly, where to put my fingers on the keyboard in order to play a certain part of the scale. The final ingredient in my gift, I noticed, was the ability to instantaneously recognize harmonies of the scales in songs I knew and reproduce them on the piano, as well as a somewhat less strong ability to reproduce melody by quickly figuring out how high or low the next note is, i.e. interval recognition.

“Suddenly, at age 26½, after what I can best describe as a ‘just getting it’ moment, it all seemed so simple. I started playing every song I knew from memory right there. Suddenly people around and my friends stopped what they were doing, looked at me, and said ‘whoa…..look at him play!!!’ They, as well as I, were amazed at how just a few moments ago I was playing random chords on the keyboard, when all of a sudden I started playing like I had been a well-educated pianist.

“After this day, my ability with the guitar also advanced to a whole new level, since I no longer had to technically memorize chords for songs. All I had to do, like on the piano, was memorize the chords of the scale on the guitar, and I could instantly play the right harmonies.

“I started looking for resources regarding what just happened to me, wondering how I can develop this skill. I read the amazing article about Leslie Lemke, and this led me to your site about savants. Like Leslie Lemke, I never studied piano, neither did I study theory.

“I am a student with a high IQ and SAT scores… no developmental disabilities at all. After I got this gift, I searched for some music theory sites on the net. To my amazement, most of what they had to teach I already knew after my ‘just getting it’ moment! I’m a little baffled myself as to how I could know something I never studied… maybe after my brain heard songs all my life it derived the ‘rules of music’ out of comparisons…?”

This gentleman then goes on to describe the following abilities:

“instantaneously recognize harmonies from memory”

“play any song I know, on any key (I was limited to the intuitively laid out C major key when I started; after memorizing the other keys by playing their scales and chords over and over a few minutes a day for a few weeks, I learned to reproduce songs on any key). I ‘hear the song in my head’ and I can recognize the harmony and melody and play it even spicing it up with some improvisation.”

“recognize more and more complex harmonies. I also have the ability to reproduce melody, although it is not as strong as my harmony ability. Whereas I am perfectly sure where to put my fingers to reproduce harmony (instantaneous recognition of harmony and chord functions), I use a combination of interval-recognition (how higher or lower in the next note?) and scale-degree recognition (which note, in the scale, am I to play now? Easy to do with root notes) to play melody. ”

“it seems I can ‘see’ the musical composition of the song, and then ‘see’ where the elements fit on the key I’m playing on the piano. Then it’s a matter of putting my fingers there.”

“I do not have perfect pitch. My relative pitch, however, is close to perfect.”

“I have good musical memory. I can hear a song once, and reproduce the harmony with great accuracy. I can also remember the melody, and reproduce it too, although with less accuracy, depending on how complex it is: Simple melodies made entirely of diatonic notes (note belonging to the classic major scale) are usually perfectly reproduced, whereas more complex melodies prove to be a challenge.”

“I break songs down into bass/harmony/melody components, then reproduce them. That’s how I understand songs: Bass, Harmony, Melody. The more a song Conforms to the Major scale, I can more easily reproduce it. The farther it strays and the more modulations it has, I have more trouble keeping up. I can play pop songs, harmony and melody, with perfect precision even after hearing them once; jazz songs, however, prove to be a challenge.”

How common is this ‘sudden savant’ phenomenon? I would be interested in hearing about similar experiences in art, music or math or any other savant skills.

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