The Musical Genius – Derek Paravicini

Most people are at least somewhat familiar with savant syndrome (savantism). Some savants can do difficult calculations in their head (I hear they are also excellent drivers… excellent drivers), while some can remember every song they have ever heard and play it back on a piano. Derek Paravicini (born 1979) is more than that–he has been called the “super savant.” He not only can play back every song he’s ever heard (over 10,000), but he can improvise among the best in the world.

Derek Paravicini was born quite prematurely, at 25 weeks. He is blind and severely autistic. He does not know his birthday and he can barely tell his left from his right. He can only dress/feed himself with a great deal of assistance. But let me tell you, sit him down at a piano and the boy can play. It seems that most of his brain is dedicated to music. It is not known whether his brain was born functioning this way, or if his neuron paths have slowly reconfigured (a feat thought impossible until recently) throughout his life. Here is an excerpt from his Wikipedia article:

Though autism is thought to be the source of Derek’s extraordinary musical ability, his blindness may contribute. Because Derek is blind, the part of his brain that would normally be used for sight and light detection could be used for extra auditory ability. Derek is able to, with a great deal of precision and accuracy, detect and recognise not just one but multiple notes played at once (so far he can distinguish over 20 notes).

Most “normal” people, even the ones with an extremely keen musical sense (ie, perfect pitch), can only distinguish 2 or 3 notes at once. Being able to distinguish over 20 notes is way off the charts. Incredible.

I first saw a little 20 minute piece about Derek on NOVA as part of a larger episode about music and the brain. A search on YouTube brought up video about Derek put together by Ben Gooder. This TV special is phenomenal. It is 47 minutes, so it has to be split up into five parts on YouTube. The video goes into a lot more than just Derek’s history and talent. A little bit of neurology and related information spread throughout. The piano playing itself isn’t what makes it interesting, it’s the whole picture. The portrait of a man who can not cross the street or open a bag of chips, but when he sits down at a piano, he has a level of understanding that can’t be fathomed.

His only short-coming (and I feel like an ass for even saying that) is that he doesn’t quite have a handle on all the emotions of music, though he is much better than other savants in this area. He more than makes up for it. He’s the best improv musician I’ve ever seen. The musical limitations of his mind have yet to be discovered. You don’t have to believe me; Jools Holland says the same sorts of things in the video (his opinion regarding piano expertise is worth 20 of my opinions). The icing on the cake for me is that Derek’s favorite piano pieces are from the early 20th century.

“Even though it’s hard to believe, I think music is an inherent part of the universe.”
–David Pinto, founder of Academy of Music for the Blind

I couldn’t agree more.

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