The Inner World of Music, Radio 4

From damaged baby to musical savant – a talent that's off the scale

Derek Paravicini was born extremely prematurely. "I'm terribly sorry, you've had a miscarriage," the doctor told his mum. Then, his sister recalled, "my mother heard this noise". Oxygen therapy left the baby blind and brain-damaged, and as if that wasn't enough to be going on with, he later developed autism. Now he needs 24-hour care. As we were told this, on the soundtrack was a fantastic jazzed-up piano version of "Greensleeves", full of intricate runs, a mad explosion of moods. It was Derek.

Darold Treffert, who's been studying savants for 40 years – we don't call them "idiot savants" any more – believes that there are only around 100 what he calls "prodigious" savants in the world, and Derek is one. He can play any tune he's ever heard, in any key, in any style. The composer Matthew King, investigating these extraordinary abilities, played him a tune he'd written for him.

Derek instantly gave a close but not note-perfect rendition. Then he began to improvise, playing with the melody, stretching it out with embellishments and curlicues. As King said, "the original melody emerges, but enhanced".

Adam Ockelford has been working with Derek for 25 years, since first meeting him as a four-year-old. "He seemed to be playing every note at the same time, with his fist and his elbows," he remembered. Then in the middle of the chaos, Ockelford heard the strains of "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina". In Ockelford's eyes "he went from madman to genius in 10 seconds".

King's brief wasn't just to look at extraordinary abilities. Derek learns whole pieces at once, gradually filling in structure and detail, the piece slowly coming into focus "like a photo in a developing tray", and work done at Roehampton University indicates that that's what we all do in a lesser way when we listen to music, recreating pieces in our brain as we remember them. Derek's abilities are derived from the same building blocks as us but enhanced many times over.

Not that we all necessarily have an inner Oscar Peterson: part of the Paravicini package is his exuberance and joyfulness, which probably has nothing to do with any brain damage he's suffered. But, Ockelford suggests, we can be inspired by "his unbounded freedom, that joy of sound-making". And there may potentially be something of Derek in all of us – head injuries have sometimes led to a massive surge in musical ability. "Savants often know things they've never learnt," says Treffert, "which means they've come with the music chip factory-installed. They seem to know things beyond their own existence." Jamie Cullum, eat your heart out.

As well as Derek's story, I'd also intended to review Alan Bennett on Tuesday's Front Row, talking about his new play The Habit of Art. Nice idea – except that the BBC iPlayer had the previous Tuesday's programme still hanging around. Perhaps they need to cultivate the habit of keeping their website up to date.

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