The Musical Savant

Derek Paravicini was born on July 26, 1979. He is autistic and, due to oxygen therapy received at birth — which was required as he was born at only 25 weeks — is blind and suffers from a variety of learning disabilities. He can, however, hear, which is incredibly important. Why?

Because Paravicini is a musical genius. He can play a piece of music on the piano after hearing it just once.

At only five years old, he started taking piano lessons at the Linden Lodge School for the Blind in London. By nine, he had his first public concert. And it wasn’t just some recital by a grammar school kid. As seen in the video below (also available here), Paravicini is an incredibly gifted pianist — the video, a promo of a segment from 60 Minutes, opens with him at the piano. But watch for even half a minute and you’ll see that Paravicini’s awe-inspiring piano playing abilities do not extend beyond that point. When host Leslie Stahl asks him to hold up three fingers, he can’t.

Paravicini’s piano abilities are not based on rote memorization alone. Rather, he has a highly adaptable understanding of music generally (most likely — how he thinks is a mystery), and is able to combine elements from the vast library of music stored in his head. For example, in the same 60 Minutes segment, Stahl asks him to play the song YMCA by the Village People. He does, dutifully, and then Stahl changes the rules, asking him to transform the song into a “Russian dance.” The result: as seen at the 1:17 mark here, exactly what Stahl asked for. Further, he is able to synthesize the musical output of entire ensembles and translate it into a playable (by him, at least) piano concerto.

Unfortunately, this gift is not enough to make Paravicini an independent, otherwise-functional adult. While he is capable of drawing an audience — paying customers, at that — he’s unable to handle his own financial affairs, even now at age 33. His now-divorced parents still care for him in that regard.

Bonus fact: One song Paravicini almost certainly cannot play? Circus Gallop, a song composed in the early 1990s to test electronic musical instrument software, requires 21 notes to be played simultaneously, and Paravicini simply does not have enough fingers to perform it. (Watch and hear it in action, on a player piano, here.)

From the ArchivesMozart Versus the Pope: Mozart was a musical genius, too.

Related: “In the Key of Genius” by Adam Ockelford, an authorized biography of Paravicini. Six reviews, each of five stars, and available on Kindle. Also, “Echoes of the Sounds to Be,” Paravicini’s album. 11 songs, downloadable as mp3s.

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