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Musical Illusions and Phantom WordsHow Music and Speech Unlock Mysteries of the Brain$
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Diana Deutsch

Print publication date: 2019

Print ISBN-13: 9780190206833

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: June 2019

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780190206833.001.0001

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PRINTED FROM OXFORD SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (oxford.universitypressscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2021. All Rights Reserved. An individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in OSO for personal use. date: 25 October 2021

The Mystery of Absolute Pitch

The Mystery of Absolute Pitch

A Rare Ability That Involves Both Nature and Nurture

(p.82) 6 The Mystery of Absolute Pitch
Musical Illusions and Phantom Words

Diana Deutsch

Oxford University Press

Chapter 6. discusses absolute pitch (or “perfect pitch”)—the rare ability to name a musical note in the absence of a reference note. It is argued that acquiring absolute pitch requires exposure to certain environmental influences during a critical period early in life. This ability is associated with early musical training—and the earlier the onset of training the stronger the association. The author and her coworkers have found at music conservatories and universities in the United States and China that the earlier students had begun taking music lessons, the greater the probability that they possessed absolute pitch. We also found that the prevalence of absolute pitch is much higher among people who speak a tone language—in which the meaning of a word changes depending on the pitch or pitches in which it is spoken. It is therefore argued that when babies learn to speak a tone language, they automatically associate pitches with words, and so develop absolute pitch for the words they hear. Therefore when they begin taking music lessons, their brain circuitry for absolute pitch is already in place. Speakers of non-tone languages are therefore at a disadvantage compared with tone-language speakers for acquiring absolute pitch. Further work by the author and colleagues also point to a genetic factor in acquiring absolute pitch. Also discussed are the neurological correlates of absolute pitch, and its presence in some autistic savants, and in people who are blind. It also considers the decline of absolute pitch with aging, and distortions in absolute pitch judgment under certain medications.

Keywords:   Mozart, absolute pitch, perfect pitch, speech, critical period, tone language, music conservatory, neuroanatomy, musical training, intonation

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