A 101-year-old American woman rarely knows who she is. She struggles to remember recent memories and isn’t always aware of her surroundings. But she can still play nearly 400 songs on the piano by ear and is able to learn new songs by listening to them—and even compose her own.
The woman, known as ME, was diagnosed with vascular dementia, a common form of dementia, soon after her stroke-like attack in her Eighties. The disease is associated with a gradual loss of mental ability, which makes ME’s musical ability all the more remarkable.
Eleanor Selfridge-Field, a researcher at Stanford University, first came across ME at a Christmas party eight years ago. “Everybody in the room was totally startled,” Selfridge-Field told New Scientist. “She looked so frail. Once she sat down at the piano, she just wasn’t frail at all. She was full of verve.”
ME was born in Tennessee in 1914. She first learned to play the piano as a child when she came across her six-year-old cousin playing and tried to emulate it. ME went on to gain two degrees in music education. And though her disease has impacted most of her memory—she has selective memory on specific periods during her childhood—she still has a remarkable grasp of musical ability.
Her repertory is largely made up of popular music, which was common in the American South during ME’s formative and early adult years. ME is also able to play songs popularized in Broadway shows and hymns.
ME’s condition shines a light on just how complex the human mind is—and the challenges of treating dementia. Though Selfridge-Field has been studying ME for under a decade, she still isn’t sure how she’s not only able to play so many songs, but also able to create entirely new melodies.
She presented her observations of ME’s unusual ability to the International Conference on Music Perception and Cognition (pdf) in San Francisco.