How can musicians keep playing despite amnesia?

Pianist's hands

Scientists are trying to understand how amnesiacs can lose all memory of their past life - and yet remember music. The answer may be that musical memories are stored in a special part of the brain.

When British conductor and musician Clive Wearing contracted a brain infection in 1985 he was left with a memory span of only 10 seconds.

The infection - herpes encephalitis - left him unable to recognise people he had seen or remember things that had been said just moments earlier.

But despite being acknowledged by doctors as having one of the most severe cases of amnesia ever, his musical ability and much of his musical memory was intact.

Now aged 73, he is still able to read music and play the piano and once even conducted his former choir again.

Now researchers believe they are closer to understanding how musical memory is preserved in some people - even when they can remember almost nothing of their past.

Clive Wearing conducting the Europa Singers in Arezzo, Italy, 1984 Clive Wearing conducting a choir seven months before his illness

At a Society for Neuroscience meeting in Washington this month, a group of German neurologists described the case of a professional cellist, referred to as PM, who contracted herpes encephalitis virus in 2005.

He was unable to retain even simple information, such as the layout of his apartment.

But Dr Carsten Finke of Charite University Hospital in Berlin says he was "astonished" that the cellist's musical memory was largely intact and that he was still able to play his instrument.

The brain's medial temporal lobes, which are largely destroyed by severe cases of herpes encephalitis are "highly relevant" for remembering things such as facts and how, where and when an event happened.

"But this case and also the Clive Wearing case suggest that musical memory seems to be stored independently of the medial temporal lobes," Dr Finke says.

Musical therapy

He has also studied the case of a Canadian patient who in the 1990s lost all musical memory after having surgery that damaged another part of the brain known as the superior temporal gyrus.

Start Quote

When the music stops he falls back into this abyss”

End Quote Deborah Wearing

This has led him to conclude that the structures of the brain used for musical memory "might be the superior temporal gyrus or the frontal lobes".

Dr Finke says more research is needed to confirm this hypothesis.

"But what is really new in this case is that we could show that in such a severe and dense amnesia there's still an island intact of memory, the musical memory," he says.

Dr Finke thinks it may be possible to use this to improve PM's rehabilitation and that of other amnesiacs.

"It's very interesting to know that in these patients the memory is intact at all, so it could be used as a gateway to these patients. You could think about maybe coupling special music to activities like taking medication.

"They can also do musical therapy, starting to play music again and by doing this gaining some quality of life," he says.

Such techniques should be applicable to both musicians and non-musicians as they share the same memory systems.

"We know that musicians have differently adapted brains - some areas of the brain are larger than in non-musicians, but it's not so easy to think that they develop a new system," he says.

Damaged lobes

Musical memory isn't necessarily the same as other types of memory, says Dr Clare Ramsden a neuro-psychologist with Britain's Brain Injuries Rehabilitation Trust, which is studying the case of three musicians, including Mr Wearing.

Clive Wearing and his wife Deborah at the piano Clive Wearing plays well, but he has no memory of having played before

"That's potentially because it isn't just knowledge. It's something you do," Dr Ramsden says.

Different aspects of playing music involve different parts of the brain, she has concluded.

"The research we're doing is starting to show that people with damage to mainly their frontal lobes, their musical skills are affected differently to people like Clive whose medial temporal lobes are damaged.

"Clive can still play and read music, but people with frontal lobe injuries might have difficulty reading and performing a piece of music for the first time, but are better at pieces they already know," Dr Ramsden says.

Prof Alan Baddeley of the University of York, who has written study papers on Mr Wearing, said he was not surprised by the findings of the German team.

"PM's case is a very good example that memory isn't unitary, that there's more than one kind of memory," he said.

"Amnesia doesn't destroy habits, but sufferers do lose the ability to acquire and retain information about new events."

Handel's Messiah

Clive Wearing's wife Deborah has written a book, Forever Today, about how their lives have been affected by his amnesia. She says all his musical skills are still intact.

Clive and Deborah on their wedding day in 1983 Clive and Deborah Wearing were married in 1983

"If you give Clive a new piece of music he sight reads it and plays it on the piano, but you can't say he's learnt it," she told the BBC World Service.

But she adds: "Clive has no knowledge of ever having played the piano or whether he still can."

He has lived in specialist residential care since 1992, having spent his first seven years of illness in a secure psychiatric unit.

"Even though he's had a piano in his own room for 26 years he doesn't know it until it's pointed out to him."

Ms Wearing says her husband's performance does improve, when he plays a piece regularly, even though he has no memory of having played the piece or anything else before.

Extract from Clive Wearing's diary in 1990 Extract from Clive Wearing's diary in 1990, where he records the moment he woke up over and over again

However, she says he does remember things he has known all his life or performed regularly. "He learnt Handel's Messiah as a child and can still sing it," she says.

She says he remembers her and their mutual love and that music is a wonderful pastime for both of them.

"Music is a place where we can be together normally because while the music's going he's totally himself. He's totally normal.

"When the music stops he falls back into this abyss. He doesn't know anything about his life. He doesn't know anything that's happened to him ever in his life."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    I wonder if the "earworm" effect has something to do with this. I frequently have music, even songs I've not heard in years going around my head. Sometimes it is a name, but processed rhymthically, like a mantra.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    In my opinion, this isn't such a mystery. The memory of the act of playing the instrument is probably stored in the motor cortex and parietal lobe whereas the recognition of the musical notes is the result of interaction between the visual cortex and the language recognition areas of the pre-frontal cortex. As such, the memory of the actual music is irrelevant.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    16.grumpy old man - it's the same part of the brain that us blokes use to remember pointless sporting statistics & their ilk.

    We usually remember things that are most important to us better than more ephemeral experiences - whilst it's a gross stereotype men & women simply give more importance to different things.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    Given Clive Wearing's lack of psychological continuity and the absence of temporal overlaps in his conceptual framework, does he still qualify as a person or self in the philosophical sense? If not, then perhaps the only thing that qualifies any of the rest of us as being persons or selves is that very same "illusion" of psychological continuity created by our brains.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    I feel desperately sad for Mr Wearing and hope that he and his wife still find happiness, but I can't honestly understand all the negativity towards Samantha. All she has done is comment on the care that Mr Wearing has received - because she didn't understand his situation, not because she is a rude or uncaring individual. Quite the reverse, in actual fact. Be kind, don't criticise!

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    15. frogeyesimon - same here!

    These experts should also investigate whether women really do have an additional area of memory where they store details of every wrong-doing by their partner, which they can recall at will during future arguments.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    It has always fascinated me that I seem to have the ability to hear a piece of music for the first time in many years and feel that I can recall almost every intonation nad detail. I wish I could do it as well with faces and text.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    My mother died recently, having suffered with Alzheimer's for many years. She was entirely unable to remember people or events and yet could sing along to old tunes, which she also seemed to find comforting. She could even remember the lyrics. Other sufferers in her care home also loved to sing along to music. Perhaps music has a more important effect on the memory than is currently realised.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Really interesting article. I found the diary wake up extracts quite moving.

    It sounds like a horrible version of Groundhog day. It seems such a shame that the musically talented may never necessarily unlock and share their full potential.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    "She says he remembers her and their mutual love and that music... for both of them."
    Such beautiful pathos to this story. He remembers what he was most emotionally involved with. I wish there were a way we could train ourselves to forget the many negative feelings and reactions we hold on to so pointlessly, and that really get in the way of living positive emotions and interactions with others.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    @samantha at #1: Clive wakes up every 30 seconds in a strange room with only strangers around, and no memory of his own life. As he physically recovered from the infection, he fell, mentally, into profound depression (I know I would). In addition, the infection had damaged his ability to control himself emotionally. This is a recipe for a great risk of severely hurting others or himself.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    1.Samantha Pia Owen - people who suddenly can't remember their everyday lives often get, understandably, freaked out by it & can often lash out at those caring for them because they are scared & can't work out what is going on.
    You can see just this effect on stroke wards the length & bredth of country on a daily basis & it makes loved ones lives almost impossible when under near constant attack

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Not sure.
    I WOULD like to know why this - along with sport - is the only topic to comment on.
    Can we have some real say bbc?

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    I am 51 years old, have a particularly rotten short term memory, but I can remember every piece of music I have ever played (cornet in brass band) or sung (as soloist or chorally).

    Music is like "riding a bicycle" it is never forgotten. It's not just about sounds and structure, but it is linked into emotion too!

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    Musical memory must be where you keep all those words to songs you knew in your youth, and why people in nursing homes can still remember the words. Totally separate to the usual sort of memory: it would be interesting to know if the sense of smell was the same, as certain smells are very evocative of a particular time and place. Perhaps all these sensory memories are stored in the same place?

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    I can recall strings of numbers like 'phone numbers only when the set is associated with a particular tune. In the view of some of the research findings published in Dr. V.S. Ramachandran's book, ' The Tell Tale Brain ' , it is possible that we have a separate centre for musical memory.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    Although I can not explain how or why, apparently music can go to yet another plane. As an instrumentalist I eventually became competent in technique, but then I spent a year with a teacher who brought my understanding to an altogether different level, one where the flute became my musical voice, an extension of me, far beyond technique.

    Literally, I could then play without thought, as I now do.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    My father was a child prodigy on the piano, from the age of three, and a professional musician all his life. When he developed Alzheimer's Disease, although his short term memory was almost nil, his playing was largely unaffected, and he still played beautifully. In fact, he had himself convinced that the assisted living facility where he lived was his "gig," and he had been hired to play there.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Does he cook? Does food bring him back? The taste buds may reveal many things to medical science. One would hope that the experts have investigated every eventuality. Remember that "ex" is something that was and a "spert·" is nothing more than a long drip. God bless the man and help him heal himself.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    I wonder if someone with a disorder like that could learn to remember people by drawing or sculpting them.


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