Type of Spiritual Experience
A description of the experience
As quoted in The Singing Neanderthals – Steven Mithen
I will focus on one particular musical savant, known as Eddie, whose case history has been recounted by Leon Miller, a psychologist specializing in childhood disability at the University of lllinois. In 1985, Miller was invited by a teacher at a day school for the multiply handicapped to meet Eddie, a five-year-old boy who had just begun attending the school and was able to play the piano surprisingly well.
Eddie appeared as a fragile child, bony, thin and small for his age; his speech was echolalic - when spoken to he would frequently simply repeat what he had heard. He wore thick glasses and walked hesitantly with his feet splayed, but when the teacher mentioned the word 'piano', Eddie smiled excitedly and went purposefully to the music room. He climbed onto the stool, found the keys and began to play, his head tilted back at the ceiling with an intent expression on his face.
Eddie played the Christmas carol 'Silent Night' and Miller was impressed: the melody was well articulated, the tempo appropriate and there was a nice rolling broken chord figure in the bass. Although Eddie had difficulty holding a pencil, his hands were at home on the keyboard. As his fourth and fifth fingers on each hand were weak, he supported these with other fingers so that he could strike the keys firmly. When his rendition was finished, Miller and the teacher clapped enthusiastically. Eddie smiled in appreciation.
This was Miller's first encounter with Eddie, one that he later described as 'unexpected and dramatic'. On his next visit, he tested Eddie's musical abilities, suspecting that he might simply have learnt 'Silent Night' by intensive practice. Miller played 'Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star', a melody with which Eddie was familiar. But rather than playing it in the key of C, Miller played it in G, A flat and F sharp. In each case Eddie was asked to try the melody on his own, and his playing reflected the transposition to the new key with no hesitation. After Miller had once again played 'Twinkle, Twinkle' in the key of C, Eddie was no longer content just to repeat the melody.
Instead, he added several left-hand chords and transposed the piece into a minor key with several unexpected modulations in its harmonic structure, using minor thirds rather than the major thirds of the original. In effect, Eddie - a five-year-old boy with severe sight, hearing and learning difficulties, who had hardly any linguistic abilities and was physically underdeveloped and disabled - had generated an entirely new version of the piece………………..
Miller describes how one Christmas he introduced Eddie to the full orchestral version of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker suite:
'After each segment Eddie ran to the piano, giving his rendition. These were always faithful to the style and ambience of the original. The Sugar Plum Fairy was light and delicate, the Cossack Dance exuberant.'
Eddie was thus able to capture the gist of the pieces he played, showing an understanding of their general, abstract qualities as well as their particulars…………..
I must cite one further passage from Miller's book. This describes a walk with Eddie when he was nine years old, by which time his language, personality and physical abilities had improved markedly since Miller's first encounter with him when he was five. He had begun attending a new school and now had a music teacher who took him to recitals, where Eddie could sometimes play with the professional musicians. This teacher's experience of working with Eddie provides a fascinating appendix to Miller's own studies, and among her recollections is the following:
‘I found that a walk with Eddie is a journey through a panorama of sounds. He runs his hand along metal gates to hear the rattle; he bangs on every lamp post and names the pitch if it has good tone; he stops to hear a car stereo; he looks into the sky to track airplanes and helicopters; he imitates the birds chirping; he points out the trucks rumbling down the street. We go into a small store and I hardly notice the radio in the background, but he reports to me ‘That man is singing in Spanish.' If it is aural Eddie is alert to it and through the aural he is alert to so much more.'
The source of the experienceOther ill or disabled person
Concepts, symbols and science items
Activities and commonsteps
OverloadsListening to sound and music
SuppressionsAutism, savantism and other forms of PDD
Listening to beating sounds
Listening to music