Musical memory in a patient with severe anterograde amnesia

J Clin Exp Neuropsychol. 2012;34(10):1089-100. doi: 10.1080/13803395.2012.728568. Epub 2012 Oct 4.


The ability to play a musical instrument represents a unique procedural skill that can be remarkably resilient to disruptions in declarative memory. For example, musicians with severe anterograde amnesia have demonstrated preserved ability to play musical instruments. However, the question of whether amnesic musicians can learn how to play new musical material despite severe memory impairment has not been thoroughly investigated. We capitalized on a rare opportunity to address this question. Patient S.Z., an amateur musician (tenor saxophone), has extensive bilateral damage to his medial temporal lobes following herpes simplex encephalitis, resulting in a severe anterograde amnesia. We tested S.Z.'s capacity to learn new unfamiliar songs by sight-reading following three months of biweekly practices. Performances were recorded and were then evaluated by a professional saxophonist. S.Z. demonstrated significant improvement in his ability to read and play new music, despite his inability to recognize any of the songs at a declarative level. The results suggest that it is possible to learn certain aspects of new music without the assistance of declarative memory.

Publication types

  • Case Reports
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Amnesia, Anterograde / physiopathology*
  • Humans
  • Learning / physiology*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Music*
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Psychomotor Performance / physiology*
  • Time Factors