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News Release

December 23, 2002
For Immediate Release
Contact: Brian Weaver
202.783.2077 ext. 3022
bweaver@psychologicalscience.org
Potential for Acquiring Absolute Pitch Based on Time and Genetics

Absolute pitch, the ability to name or produce a note of particular pitch in the absence of a reference note, is considered to be extremely rare in Western culture. It is a mysterious and extraordinary gift possessed by such musical geniuses as Mozart, Beethoven, and Bach. However, native speakers of Mandarin and Vietnamese, two tone languages, have been found to exhibit an extraordinarily precise form of absolute pitch in enunciating words, leading researchers to suggest that absolute pitch may have evolved as a feature of speech.

"Absolute pitch, which has traditionally been viewed as a musical faculty, originally evolved to subserve speech," proposes University of San Diego psychologist Diana Deutsch in the December issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science, a journal of the American Psychological Society. "As a corollary, I am also proposing that absolute pitch for speech and absolute pitch for music share common brain mechanisms."

There is considerable evidence that absolute pitch is acquired during the first year of life, part of the critical period in which infants acquire other features of speech. Studies indicate that musicians who started taking music lessons before the age of four were more likely to have absolute pitch than musicians who started musical training after the age of nine.

"The acquisition of absolute pitch by rare individuals may be associated with a critical period of unusually long duration," proposes Deutsch, extending to the age at which the child may begin taking music lessons.

The involvement of a critical period, however, may only be part of the picture, said Deutsch. Musicians with absolute pitch tend to have greater asymmetry in an area of the brain that is critical to speech processing than among other individuals. This asymmetry emerges before birth, evidence that there is a genetic predisposition to absolute pitch.

Current Directions in Psychological Science is a journal of the American Psychological Society and features articles by leading psychology researchers on important issues of broad public interest. The American Psychological Society's mission focuses on the advancement of research and science-based psychology in the public's interest.

For more information on the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science, and to obtain copies of the report, visit the APS Web site at www.psychologicalscience.org. For additional information, contact Deutsch at ddeutsch@ucsd.edu or Brian Weaver at the information above.

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