The Accident and the Musical Savant

If you don’t know what arpeggios are, don’t feel bad — I had to Google it, and I don’t feel bad, so you probably shouldn’t either. It’s a musical term; “a broken chord” (itself “a chord broken into a sequence of notes”) in which “the notes that compose a chord are played or sung in rising or descending order,” per Wikipedia. If that only gives you a glib understanding of the term, don’t worry; you’re no worse off than Derek Amato, then 39-years-old, was in 2006.

At the time, Amato knew nothing about musical composition — he had never played an instrument or the like. But that changed suddenly. Five days after a swimming accident, he became a master composer, able to make a piano do things that even veteran pianists may find difficult.

That summer, Amato, a Denver resident, was in Sioux Falls, South Dakota visiting his hometown. He connected up with some old friends; the group decided to hang out in a pool and throw a football around. Amato asked his buddy to set himself up for a diving catch but got a little too fancy. Instead of his hands catching the ball, he misjudged the play, and his head slammed into the concrete floor of the shallow pool. When he came up, he knew something was immediately wrong. He told Psychology Today, “I thought my ears were bleeding [it was just pool water, though] and I couldn’t hear anything. My friends were talking, but I could only see their lips move.”

And then, he lost consciousness. He was, ultimately, brought to the emergency room where he was diagnosed with a severe concussion. Then was sent home to his mother’s house for a few days to recuperate, and for the next four days he mostly slept. On the fifth day — still suffering side effects from the injury — he decided he had to get moving. Thinking he was a professional baseball player (he wasn’t) in Arizona (nope) who was late for spring training, Amato left his mom’s house. He thankfully didn’t go to the ballfields more than a thousand miles away; instead, he ended up at his childhood friend Rick’s house. That’s where the magic happened.

Rick had either a piano or electric keyboard (reports vary) and Amato, once at the house, did something he had never done before — he sat down to play the instrument. Before this point, Amato says, he’d never touched a piano before; while that’s likely an exaggeration, it’s fair to say he had never had a piano lesson nor even tried in earnest to read sheet music. But when Amato sat down that day at Rick’s house, what came out of his fingers was nothing short of a masterpiece. Somehow, Amato’s brain injury had given him the ability to improvise at the piano at an expert level.

He describes his condition — his “gift”? — as if his brain is composing music around the clock. His mind’s eye sees the music as a never-ending series of white and black blocks which, he says, follow no clearly discernible pattern; another part of his brain translates those blocks into the instructions his body needs to turn it into music, through the piano keys.

“It’s almost like the ghost of Beethoven jumped into my body and kind of took over — and I just kind of went crazy,” he told Uproxx. (If you want to see Amato in action, that link goes to a YouTube video.) The music just kind of flows through him despite his lack of knowledge about the discipline; about ten years after the accident, he told NPR that “he [still] can’t read music or even play ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.'” He can, however, improvise with the best of them.

There’s a downside to the miracle, though — debilitating headaches that last for days, memory and hearing loss, sensitivity to light and sound, and episodes of passing out from overstimulation in otherwise normal environments. Per the Psychology Today article, “while he is still adventurous, he no longer walks calmly through life. He is constantly plagued by a nervous energy that he can only get relief from through playing. He rarely sleeps more than a few hours. Then he wakes up and just has to get going.” It’s likely that Amato, if he could choose, would rather not have this otherworldly power at the keys.

But for now, he’s enjoying the upside. Amato knows that his skills could disappear like they appeared — suddenly.  And he seems okay with that. In 2013, he told the Huffington Post “I’ve had seven years [as a savant]. Not too many people get to see this much life in seven years. I’ve been pretty lucky. Hey, if it goes away, I’ve had seven beautiful years to enjoy it.” And so far, now nearly a dozen years since the accident, it hasn’t.

Bonus fact: Amato’s situation is extraordinarily rare — but it’s not unique. In 1994, a doctor named Tony Cicoria was struck by lightning, causing his heart to apparently stop. He was brought back by a passerby and suffered severe memory loss, from which he recovered within a few weeks and everything seemed normal again. But a few days later, he too was overcome by the desire to play the piano despite barely playing beforehand. (He had taken some lessons as a child, but only a few, and that was about 30 years prior.) Per Wikpedia, “his head was flooded with music that seemed to come from nowhere.” He’s still a surgeon, but on the side, he’s now a successful pianist and composer.

From the Archives: The Musical Savant: Another member of the Amato/Cicoria club. (And apparently, my titling scheme is a bit repetitive.)