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Music and the MindEssays in honour of John Sloboda$
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Irène Deliège and Jane Davidson

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780199581566

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: March 2015

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:osobl/9780199581566.001.0001

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Another exceptional musical memory: evidence from a savant of how atonal music is processed in cognition

Another exceptional musical memory: evidence from a savant of how atonal music is processed in cognition

Chapter:
(p.237) Chapter 13 Another exceptional musical memory: evidence from a savant of how atonal music is processed in cognition
Source:
Music and the Mind
Author(s):

Adam Ockelford

Publisher:
Oxford University Press
DOI:10.1093/acprof:osobl/9780199581566.003.0013

This chapter builds on the empirical work reported by Sloboda, Hermelin, and O’Connor in 1985, in which a musical savant (‘NP’) attempted to learn a tonal piece by Grieg and a whole-tone composition by Bartôk. NP’s error rate was 8% in the former and 63% in the latter, suggesting his ability to reproduce music (at least in the short term) was confined to tonal music and was structurally based. In the current study, a second savant (‘DP’), publicly renowned for his capacity for reproducing many thousands of pieces from memory, attempted to learn an atonal piece by Schoenberg and a specially composed tonal ‘equivalent’, which as far as possible matched the original in terms of global structure, number of notes, frequency of occurrence of melodic intervals, density, and rhythmic complexity. The results showed that DP too, despite having absolute pitch and the ability to disaggregate simultaneous clusters of four pitches with 100% accuracy, found the atonal music more difficult to memorize than the tonal. Indeed, he imposed conventional structures on the Schoenberg piece, altering pitches so they fitted within a quasi-tonal framework. The implications for DP’s creativity are discussed, and the potential contribution of the findings to the ongoing debate on the place of ‘compositional’ and ‘listening’ grammars in the musical experience.

Keywords:   musical savants, tonal music, atonal music, compositional grammar, listening grammar, musical experience

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