Absolute Pitch, Speech, and Tone Language: Some Experiments and a Proposed Framework
DIANA DEUTSCH, TREVOR HENTHORN, MARK DOLSON

Abstract

Absolute pitch is generally considered to reflect a rare musical endowment; however, its characteristics are puzzling and its genesis is unclear. We describe two experiments in which native speakers of tone languages——Mandarin and Vietnamese——were found to display a remarkably precise and stable form of absolute pitch in enunciating words. We further describe a third experiment in which speakers of English displayed less stability on an analogous task. Based on these findings, and considering the related literatures on critical periods in speech development, and the neurological underpinnings of lexical tone, we propose a framework for the genesis of absolute pitch. The framework assumes that absolute pitch originally evolved as a feature of speech, analogous to other features such as vowel quality, and that speakers of tone language naturally acquire this feature during the critical period for speech acquisition. We further propose that the acquisition of absolute pitch by rare individuals who speak an intonation language may be associated with a critical period of unusually long duration, so that it encompasses the age at which the child can take music lessons. We conclude that the potential to acquire absolute pitch is universally present at birth, and that it can be realized by enabling the infant to associate pitches with verbal labels during the critical period for speech acquisition.

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