The Head Injury and Becoming a Musical Savant - Ooh, Interesting! Fascinating Facts

June 01, 2018

When we bump our head, all too often we experience a slight headache, perhaps nurse a bump or bruise and then go on with our day. For Derek Amato (and a select few individuals like him), the result of bumping his head was completely different; he became a musical savant.

What is a savant? In the simplest terms, it is a learned person, somebody who is distinguished in a particular art, science or discipline. Ordinarily, someone is born with the ability to do something amazing - Willard Wigan is a fascinating example (more on him next week!) - but there have been instances where an ability to do something incredible came out of a brain altering accident. This is certainly the case with Derek Amato.

Derek was 39-years-old in 2006. By his own admission, he didn’t have a musical bone in his body, had never learned to read sheet music and had never even sat at a piano. Whilst that last claim is a tad hyperbolic, we should probably hone in on the basics of his case – he wasn’t a pianist and there was never any reason to believe that might change. That summer though, Derek found himself visiting friends in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where he ended up throwing a ball around by a pool. Asking his friend to throw so that he could five for the ball, Derek severely misjudged his approach and slammed his head into the concrete floor of the pool.

At this point, you might think that he immediately fell unconscious and woke up in a hospital bed. Close but not quite! Derek wasn’t knocked out cold from his ordeal and instead rose for air, knowing that something was wrong. He couldn’t hear anything despite the fact he could see that his friends’ lips were moving. This lasted for a moment or two before he lost unconsciousness suffering from severe concussion.

After four days of sleep, Derek was transferred to his mother’s house to recuperate further and on the fifth day of healing, he popped round to a friend’s house wrongly claiming to be a professional baseball player from Arizona (wrong on both counts – Derek lived in Denver). Noticing a piano, Derek sat down and began to play…and played like a pro. He had acquired a gift that allowed his brain to compose music around the clock. Although he still can’t read notes, Derek can improvise like the very best pianists of his generation as his brain deciphers the keys in ‘black and white blocks’, which somehow allows him to play perfectly.

The music flows through him and as Derek describes it, “[it’s] like the ghost of Beethoven jumped into my body.” There is a downside however; he now suffers from debilitating headaches that can continue for days at a time, a sensitivity to light and sound and moments where he completely passes out due to overstimulation of his senses.

Would you trade a calm life for one where you now have a gift but can’t experience life’s simple pleasures? Perhaps not. Derek Amato might not have his ability forever – savants who acquire a gift overnight can also lose the ability overnight – but for the past twelve years he has been able to play the piano and enjoy it. As Derek put it in 2013,“Hey, if it goes away, I’ve had seven beautiful years to enjoy it.”



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By Henry Fosdike