ISCA Workshop on Plasticity in Speech Perception (PSP2005)

Senate House, London, UK
June 15-17, 2005

Sensitive Periods for Absolute Pitch

Glenn Schellenberg

University of Toronto Mississauga, Canada

I review research that attempts to demystify Absolute Pitch (AP), the rare ability to identify or produce a musical tone (e.g., middle C, concert A) in isolation. The traditional view is that listeners switch from absolute to relative pitch processing early in life: Those who continue to process absolute pitch have exposure to music lessons within a sensitive period (usually before age 7) as well as the appropriate genetic makeup. Genetics is also used to explain the higher prevalence of AP in Asian populations. As traditionally defined, AP cannot be found in listeners without musical training because they have no names for tones. We developed a new paradigm that allowed us to test untrained listeners with ecologically valid musical materials (excerpts from familiar instrumental recordings) and no naming requirements. On each trial, listeners heard two versions of the same excerpt: one at the original pitch level and one shifted upward or downward in pitch. Their task was to identify the original. Listeners included children and adults of European and Asian ancestry. The results indicate that: (1) untrained listeners have accurate memory for pitch, (2) accurate pitch memory is evident across development, (3) pitch memory is superior in Asian samples, and (4) the Asian advantage is due to non-linguistic environmental factors rather than genetics. In short, the so-called sensitive period for acquiring AP is not a sensitive period for pitch memory, but, rather, a sensitive period for attaching arbitrary labels to isolated auditory events.

Full Paper

Bibliographic reference.  Schellenberg, Glenn (2005): "Sensitive periods for absolute pitch", In PSP2005, 206.