New learning of music after bilateral medial temporal lobe damage: Evidence from an amnesic patient

Jussi Valtonen, Emma Gregory, Barbara Landau, Michael McCloskey

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Scopus citations


Damage to the hippocampus impairs the ability to acquire new declarative memories, but not the ability to learn simple motor tasks. An unresolved question is whether hippocampal damage affects learning for music performance, which requires motor processes, but in a cognitively complex context. We studied learning of novel musical pieces by sight-reading in a newly identified amnesic, LSJ, who was a skilled amateur violist prior to contracting herpes simplex encephalitis. LSJ has suffered virtually complete destruction of the hippocampus bilaterally, as well as extensive damage to other medial temporal lobe structures and the left anterior temporal lobe. Because of LSJ's rare combination of musical training and near-complete hippocampal destruction, her case provides a unique opportunity to investigate the role of the hippocampus for complex motor learning processes specifically related to music performance. Three novel pieces of viola music were composed and closely matched for factors contributing to a piece's musical complexity. LSJ practiced playing two of the pieces, one in each of the two sessions during the same day. Relative to a third unpracticed control piece, LSJ showed significant pre- to post-training improvement for the two practiced pieces. Learning effects were observed both with detailed analyses of correctly played notes, and with subjective whole-piece performance evaluations by string instrument players. The learning effects were evident immediately after practice and 14 days later. The observed learning stands in sharp contrast to LSJ's complete lack of awareness that the same pieces were being presented repeatedly, and to the profound impairments she exhibits in other learning tasks. Although learning in simple motor tasks has been previously observed in amnesic patients, our results demonstrate that non-hippocampal structures can support complex learning of novel musical sequences for music performance.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number694
JournalFrontiers in Human Neuroscience
Issue numberSEP
StatePublished - Sep 3 2014


  • Anterograde amnesia
  • Brain damage
  • Hippocampus
  • Learning
  • Memory
  • Music performance
  • Single-patient study

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Neurology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health
  • Biological Psychiatry
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


Dive into the research topics of 'New learning of music after bilateral medial temporal lobe damage: Evidence from an amnesic patient'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this