Derek Amato’s brain injury leads to musical gift

Derek Amato
Derek Amato became a “sudden musical savant” after hitting his head on a swimming pool. From the Hidden Brain podcast.

How Derek Amato’s head injury due to a swimming pool accident led to him becoming an “acquired musical savant” is a fascinating story that I think you’ll want to hear.

Amato’s story is told on “Stroke of Genius: How Derek Amato Became a Musical Savant,” episode #21 of the NPR Hidden Brain Podcast.

Amato, now 49, suffered a massive concussion in 2006 when he hit the top left side of his face on the pool after he dove into the pool to catch a small football. After spending the night in the hospital and then having five days of rest, he visited a friend and spotted the friend’s small electronic keyboard and decided to try it.

He explained that “my fingers just went crazy” and he played for five hours — with no music.

When Amato was a child, he sat beside his grandmother when she played the organ at church. He played the drums as a high school student. But he had no keyboard training.

Amato describes his musical ability as a “gift from God,” which he used to fear would suddenly be gone one day.

Listening to the podcast is a reminder of how the mind works is so intriguing. One of the researchers who was interviewed about Amato’s sudden musical gift discussed how an injury to the left side of the brain, such as in Amato’s case, can lead to a response in the right side of the brain, which controls music, art and math.

You’ll want to hear Amato play — including his impromptu composition inspired by the wall in NPR Studio 1.