Jazz musician Pat Martino, subject of the Wellcome Trust-funded documentary Martino Unstrung

Say hello, wave goodbye

Musical interests can fade away – or suddenly appear

In 1980, legendary jazz guitarist Pat Martino had an apple-sized knot of blood vessels removed from his brain. The operation was a success but left Martino with severe amnesia. He had no memory of his past life as a guitarist. Years later, he picked up the guitar again and gradually revived dormant musical skills.

Car accidents and strokes can also instantly destroy someone’s musical appreciation – or a highly specific aspect of it. Bizarrely, some people actually gain musical obsessions and skills after brain damage. In his book ‘Musicophilia’ the neurologist Oliver Sacks describes how a man struck by lightning developed a consuming desire to hear and play music. He taught himself to play the piano and now composes music.

A speculative idea is that damage to the brain releases (or ‘disinhibits’) a block on musical processing in the brain. Normally, the brain dampens down music networks as it has so many other tasks to attend to. If this inhibition is lost, music may flood the brain.

An echo of this may be seen in people with unusual mental abilities. Children with Williams syndrome are highly sociable and have a natural affinity for music (though not necessarily a high ability). People with the condition have lost a set of genes on chromosome 7, and have characteristic abnormalities in brain structure. US singer Gloria Lenhoff has Williams syndrome, cannot subtract five from twelve or write her name legibly, and has an IQ of 55, but has a repertoire of hundreds of songs in a dozen languages. She cannot read music but has memorised each and every song.

Even more extraordinary are musical savants, people born mentally disabled but with astonishing musical abilities. They can play pieces of music almost perfectly after hearing them only once. Musical savants are often blind and have perfect pitch.

Lead image:

Jazz musician Pat Martino, subject of the Wellcome Trust-funded documentary ‘Martino Unstrung’.

Ian Knox

Further reading

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Music, Mind and Medicine’ in June 2009 and reviewed and updated in July 2014.

Genetics and genomics, Neuroscience, Psychology, Health, infection and disease
Music, Mind and Medicine
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development