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 81.

    Our 2 daughters are music graduates yet we both graduated in chemistry. However our milkman was always singing and I don't ever remember him calling for his money???!!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 80.

    59.BobP - visit the New Scientist website & look up their article form some months ago about the "paradox of common sense" - it explains beautifully why research like this is needed (and also social research) because the obvious is rarely as obvious as you think it is. Indeed it often leads us far astray......

  • rate this

    Comment number 79.

    It reaffirms for me how important it is for children to sing or learn an instrument - it may end up as the last meaningful part of their life.

  • rate this

    Comment number 78.

    @ 17 lordsmallybear
    Thank you for your kindness, I have re-read my post and fail to see what I said wrong. oh well.
    @ 10 Little_Old_Me
    "You can see just this effect on stroke wards the length & breadth of country on a daily basis"
    Ok so violent stroke victims are not put in a secure psychiatric unit, Why was Clive? and for 7 years! This is wrong, this is not how we should treat people like Clive.

  • rate this

    Comment number 77.


    I should imagine this phenomena wouldn't occur in modern day R&B singers whos 'music' is eminently forgettable."

    My mum used to say that about Pink Floyd ;-)

  • rate this

    Comment number 76.

    My Dad has Alztheimers and can no longer speak legibly. He gets very confused about where and when he is too sometimes. He does perfectly remember his big band jazz and Souza music, which he whistles and hums perfectly by himself. If you play him music, he really responds to it and has no difficulty recognising his favourite tunes.

  • rate this

    Comment number 75.

    I should imagine this phenomena wouldn't occur in modern day R&B singers whos 'music' is eminently forgettable.

  • rate this

    Comment number 74.

    Yes it is true with music, but not confined to it only. I have seen person with this problem , moment see a football just move like well trained player and run with the ball, I have seen in other faculty in drawings, or chanting a perticular prayer as normal person can do. I feel Yoga of Patanjali sutra and Ayurvedic textes deal more clearly about this better than modern sincere research work.

  • rate this

    Comment number 73.

    For what it is worth, I play piano and classical guitar and very quickly forget songs I have learned. This may well be because I was classically trained and so taught so sight-read. Either way, both my musical and general memory is pretty atrocious.

  • rate this

    Comment number 72.

    I have long been fascinated by the links between music and memory. As at teacher I used it to help children to learn and retain information, and as a VERY mature adult I have learned to play two musical instruments and quickly learn and retain music and lyrics, particularly through hearing them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 71.

    Clive Anthony Curtis
    I don't know about tasting in colour, but as far as I can remember, I iave always heard in colour.... middle C is bright red, D, blue, E is green, F is yellow and G is brown. The notes become darker in the lower register and lighter as it becomes higher.
    My wife uses a similar system, she categorises most things in life by colour. Perhaps there is a clue here...

  • rate this

    Comment number 70.

    I have a terrible memory (possibly caused by a motorbike accident, but I can't remember what I could remember before, if you see what I mean), yet I can remember my guitar music without a problem. And, bizarrely, I can remember almost all the rules from when I was and Guard and Signalman on the railway 30 years ago. Ask me what time an appointment is next week and I'll as 'what appointment'!

  • rate this

    Comment number 69.

    I don't know about tasting in colour, but as far as I can remember, I iave always heard in colour. I don't read music very well but I identify note on the piano in colour. For example: middle C is bright red, D, blue, E is green, F is yellow and G is brown. The notes become darker in the lower register and lighter as it becomes higher.

  • rate this

    Comment number 68.

    My Mom visited a supposed Alzheimer's patient who could not recognize herself in the mirror, but immediately recognized my mom by her voice and had a pleasant, normal, conversation. Guessing that's how she recognized all of her family - by familiar voices.

  • rate this

    Comment number 67.

    Oliver Sacks, Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, patient had distorted vision, used little tunes to get through the day including shaving with a razor.

  • rate this

    Comment number 66.

    Why ? no... but there are people who's brain achieves a different sense of our worldly environment to what you or I may experience.

    A snake, tends to sample its environment by taste (tongue) some blind people also manage this!

    A number of fish have electrical sensors so that they can feel their environment / prey in complete darkness

    Some people can taste colour!

  • rate this

    Comment number 65.

    @44.TV news isnt the only news
    Amazing that we attuned to a similar thought at the same time.

    Another interesting fact is that while a person may have a very difficult and uncontrollable stammer, they (usually ??) have no such problem when it comes to singing.

    I do not know this to be fact... what do tests suggest?
    anyone enlighten us?

  • rate this

    Comment number 64.

    I really don't see the point of remembering things. Names, birthdays, the highway code. Just write it down, it'll be fine.

  • rate this

    Comment number 63.

    I am pretty poor in respect to short term memory, however, one note from a song I have heard and I will remember it immediately. I have also played music since childhood and would concur with the pianists appraisal, that when I play guitar muscle memory takes over, if I find a old riff I have not played for many years its best to let the fingers do the thinking / remember the patterns.

  • rate this

    Comment number 62.

    With regards to the link between mathematics and music/memory some have been making. My Grandad had Alzheimer's and near the end of his life, would replace words with number ("Can you get am a glass of 32 form the 14"). And he would always use the same number for each word- like a new language. Does anyone know a medical reson why he may have done this at all?


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