At first glance, she was elderly and delicate – a woman in her 90s with a declining memory. But then she sat down at the piano to play.
“Everybody in the room was totally startled,” says Eleanor Selfridge-Field, who researches music and symbols at Stanford University. “She looked so frail. Once she sat down at the piano, she just wasn’t frail at all. She was full of verve.”
Selfridge-Field met this woman, referred to as ME to preserve her privacy, at a Christmas party around eight years ago. ME, who is now aged 101, has vascular dementia: she rarely knows where she is, and doesn’t recognize people she has met in the last few decades. But she can play nearly 400 songs by ear – a trick that depends on tapping into a memory of previously stored musical imprints – and continues to learn new songs just by listening to them. She has even composed an original piece of her own.
ME’s musical talent, despite her cognitive impairments, inspired Selfridge-Field to spend the last six years observing her, and she presented her observations today at the International Conference on Music Perception and Cognition in San Francisco, California.
In harmony with music
ME experienced a stroke-like attack when she was in her 80s, and a few years later was diagnosed with vascular dementia. She struggles most to remember events and encounters that are recent, and her memory is selective, focusing on specific periods – such as her childhood between the ages of 3 and 8. She can recognize people that she met before the age of about 75 to 80. She is never quite sure of her surroundings.
But these problems don’t seem to hold back her piano-playing. ME performs regularly at assisted-living facilities around California, playing songs from across the genres, including ragtime, show tunes, pop music and gospel. “Her sense of memory and the richness of her harmonic arrangements is really very impressive,” says Selfridge-Field. “What’s going on in her mind is the big unanswered question.”
ME was born in Tennessee in 1914, and learned to play the piano and violin as a child. She later picked up other instruments, such as the trombone. Hoping to become a band or orchestra teacher, she earned two degrees in music education and spent a stint as a violinist in a women’s orchestra. But work as a music teacher was hard to find in the Depression-era southern US, and ME largely set music aside when she moved with her husband and sons to Florida in 1946.
Today, ME claims not to know how to read music, though it seems unlikely that she wouldn’t have learned during her musical education. Instead, she says she just finds the starting note and her fingers do the rest.
There have been other cases of people who, despite age and cognitive problems, display a strong grasp of music. In his book Musicophilia, Oliver Sacks recounts the case of a man with severe dementia who still knew the baritone part of many songs from his a cappella singing group, as well as a woman in her 80s who, despite advanced Alzheimer’s, could perform blues songs.
Melodic intonation therapy – repeating phrases in a rhythmic or sing-song tone – has proven helpful for some people who otherwise struggle to speak because of a brain condition. They might still be able to sing Happy Birthday, for example.
When it comes to music in general, we don’t have a great sense of where it exists in the brain,” a neurologist at the University of California, San Francisco. But evidence suggests that music is more diffusely located in the brain than language networks. That might be a reason why it’s able to sustain itself for such a long period in folks that happen to be developing dementia.
It’s difficult to evaluate how unusual ME’s condition is without more information, Brain scans could shed some light on the regions of her brain that were damaged, and perhaps why she still retains her musical skill, but her doctor doesn’t think this procedure would be worth the risk.
Selfridge-Field has begun searching for other examples of elderly people with extraordinary musical skills, keeping track of – among others – a barbershop quartet with an average age per member of about 93.
ME is a wonderful example of an indomitable human spirit, and somebody who was gifted earlier in life and has maintained those gifts.