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Perfect Pitch: Autism's Rare Gift

Marina Sarris
Interactive Autism Network at Kennedy Krieger Institute
Date Published: 
July 2, 2015

Photo of piano keys, for article on autism and perfect pitchHenny Kupferstein made the discovery after singing aloud in a college music class. The instructor played the starting note on the piano to cue each student before he or she sang, but when it was her turn, Ms. Kupferstein didn't wait for a piano cue. She just sang. Afterward, the teacher asked her if she had perfect pitch.

"I didn't know what that meant, so I mumbled, 'I dunno,'" Ms. Kupferstein recalled. "But when I left the class, I Googled it and was shocked to learn that the rest of the world couldn't understand what they were hearing. I felt an immediate pity for them. Then I wondered if the [perfect pitch] was because of my autism."

Researchers are wondering that, too. A growing number of studies have found that people with autism are more likely to have this rare gift – or at least some version of it – than the general population.1-6 "Absolute pitch," as it is technically called, is the "ability to instantly and effortlessly identify the pitch of a tone without the use of a reference tone,” according to one common definition.7

Someone who possesses this can hear a single note and tell if it's an A or B-flat. "This remarkable ability exists in a small fraction of the population and appears to be the result of an innate predisposition, combined with musical exposure and training, probably within a critical period during childhood," according to an article published by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.7

Those who are not musically inclined may think of absolute pitch as the auditory equivalent of looking at a blue wall, then going to a paint store and selecting the precise shade of blue from memory.

Absolute pitch is controversial. Researchers and music teachers may define and test for it differently. "There is not a reliable test of absolute pitch ability for use in musically untrained persons," said Sandy Stanutz Ph.D., who recently received a Grammy Foundation grant to research pitch, music memory and autism. Some researchers define absolute pitch as occurring along a spectrum of abilities to discriminate between tones, while others believe you either have it or you don't. It differs from the more common "relative pitch," which is the ability to distinguish a C, for instance, when someone plays an A by calculating the interval between the notes. Musicians learn relative pitch as part of their training.

From 1 to 5 people per 10,000 have absolute pitch, according to estimates.8 Perfect pitch occurs in musicians at higher rates, from less than 1 percent up to 11 percent, according to some studies.9-10 It runs in families, suggesting a genetic link, and occurs most often in people who had musical training before age 6.

It is unclear how many people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have perfect pitch, although it's believed to be higher than the rate found in the general population. Many studies have examined superior pitch abilities in autism, but not necessarily strictly-defined perfect pitch, complicating efforts to say how common it is in autism.

Absolute pitch fascinates some researchers because it may hold a clue to some of the genes involved in autism and, more broadly, to how the human brain develops. Understanding the musical abilities of the autistic brain also may point to potential therapies.11

In a recent study of musical abilities, Dr. Stanutz found that children with autism performed better than typically developing children in musical games that tested their pitch discrimination and music memory. The children, ages 7-13, were asked to tell if two tones were the same or slightly different, when they were alone or part of a melody. The children also had to remember melodies over a week's time. The children with autism displayed a "striking" ability to recall the melodies, including one boy who didn't look like he was paying attention.1

"Whether this ability is across the board, or occurs in a subset of people with autism, memory for pitch and melody could be developing differently," she said in an interview. "We don't know yet if it's absolute pitch." She hopes to develop a reliable test for absolute pitch for children with her new research.

Recognizing pitch in a child with autism

There is no disability when it comes to music. He's way ahead of most people.

Photo of Brandon Beck, pianist, courtesy of Howard County Autism SocietyRabbi Joanne Heiligman knew her son had an unusual relationship to music – and sound – since infancy. Like many children with autism, young David disliked the sound of blenders, vacuums and other appliances with motors. But he loved his father's harp, tinkering with a keyboard, and listening to sing-a-long videos. At age 4, David heard a leaf blower outside his home, went to the keyboard, and played the note matching the sound made by the leaf blower. That's when his mother knew he had exceptional pitch ability, which was confirmed by registered music therapist Susan Rancer in California. Now 22, David tunes pianos, plays guitar and other instruments, and looks for music gigs near his home outside Baltimore. "There is no disability when it comes to music. He's way ahead of most people," his mother said.

For Pamela Beck, her "a-ha" moment also involved a keyboard and her youngster with autism. Young Brandon Beck used to love watching the movie "Beethoven," about a dog that likes to hear Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, over and over again. One day Mrs. Beck heard Brandon playing the Fifth Symphony on their keyboard. He had never had a music lesson, nor had she taught him how to turn on the keyboard. "He figured out how to decode the song with one finger. It was very strange," she said. Later, she said, "we noticed if we could sing a song to him, he could play it without any sheet music, without any lessons."

Brandon later took piano lessons at a community college and also the prestigious Peabody Institute in Baltimore. His teachers told his mother that he has perfect pitch, a trait also shared by his sister, who does not have autism. (About a quarter of the close relatives of people with absolute pitch have it, too.8, 9) Brandon, now 30, performs with the Gumbo Ensemble at the Music Institute at Howard Community College in Maryland.

Tracking superior pitch

Photo of guitarResearchers have tried to track – and explain – superior pitch discrimination in autism. It's hard to draw definitive conclusions because many studies involved less than 100 subjects, used different methods, or did not specifically look for absolute pitch.

In 2009, British researchers found that 20 percent of the 72 teens with autism they studied had a superior ability to distinguish pitch.3 Other studies found superior pitch to be more widespread in ASD. "Children with ASD were exceptionally sensitive to changes in pitch contours" compared to other children, one British study concluded.5 Canadian researchers found better pitch discrimination in people with autism, but not Asperger's, although other studies have not made a distinction between different diagnoses along the autism spectrum.4

Psychologist Deborah A. Fein took her pitch discrimination study a step farther than others. She compared children with autism to two different groups: typically-developing children and children who used to have an ASD diagnosis but now have no symptoms. The children with autism outperformed both of the other groups. But this superior pitch ability can be a two-edged sword: "better discrimination was associated with greater symptom severity," she and co-author Inge-marie Eigsti said.2

What explains pitch and autism?

Researchers have used two theories to explain why people with autism may have superior pitch or other perceptual abilities. According to "weak central coherence theory," people with autism have a heightened ability to perceive details but struggle to compile information together into a larger whole.1, 12 Perfect pitch may be an "extreme and rare example" of this "piecemeal information processing," a tendency of people with autism to focus on parts – a single tone, in this instance – rather than the whole.8

Another theory, called "enhanced perceptual functioning," suggests that parts of the brain involved in sensory perception are overdeveloped, and take precedence over other brain processes in autism.1, 13

One study of musicians showed that those with perfect pitch had an asymmetry to their brain's planum temporale, which is part of an area known for language function.14 This structural difference led to other research into musicians with perfect pitch. For instance, are they more likely to have some characteristics found in autism?

One study found that the musicians with perfect pitch were more likely to be "socially eccentric" and to process information piecemeal, than other musicians. Perfect pitch may be associated with certain language and behavior traits that are below the threshold for autism. Those researchers, who included Susan E. Folstein, speculated "that the gene or genes that underlie [absolute pitch] may be among the genes that contribute to autism."8 Dr. Folstein was a co-author of the first twins study showing a genetic cause for autism.

A Danish study of musicians, however, did not find piecemeal information processing in those with perfect pitch. The musicians had more problems with imagination and shifting attention – similar to people with autism – but their social and communication scores were typical.15

While the source and meaning of perfect pitch in autism may be open to debate, many agree that people with autism do not differ from others in their enjoyment and understanding of music.16, 17

In a new study from India, researchers scanned the brains of children with and without autism as they listened to words being spoken and also being sung. Perhaps not surprisingly, the functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scans showed that the brain structures involved in speech processing did not activate as much in autism as in the control group. But both groups had the same level of activation when listening to words being sung to them. "Our results thus demonstrate the ability of song to overcome the structural deficit for speech across the autism spectrum" while pointing to reasons why song-based interventions might help children with autism, according to the scientists.11

This sung-word study confirms what some teachers and music therapists have suspected. Years ago, a speech-language therapist helped Brandon Beck improve his speech by playing piano and singing with him, his mother said.

And today, Ms. Kupferstein teaches music with a special focus on nonverbal and special-needs students. A graduate student, she brings to her lessons her own experiences with sensory processing differences and sensitivities, along with perfect pitch. "I'm living the sensory experience inside my students' heads," she said.

She will start teaching a new student by expanding upon the notes he plays on the piano. "For example, if they play an E, I will respond with playing a C and G together. This instills an association that they are contributing to the environment with a sound that they can create. When they have perfect pitch, they can do that very efficiently without effort," according to her website. Most of her students have perfect pitch, especially those with autism, she said. She and a colleague found perfect pitch in a majority of people they tested when they used a special, nonverbal pitch-matching test developed by Susan Rancer.18

Music is important to the autism community: it empowers students and helps her "non-verbal clients to be valued in a speaking world as abled beings,"19 she explained.

Photo of Brandon Beck at the piano reprinted with permission of the Howard County (MD) Autism Society and the Beck family.

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References: 
  1. Stanutz, S., Wapnick, J. & Burack, J. A. (2014) Pitch discrimination and melodic memory in children with autism spectrum disorders. Autism, 18(2), 137-147. Abstract.
  2. Eigsti, I-M. & Fein, D.A. (2013) More is less: Pitch discrimination and language delays in children with optimal outcomes from autism. Autism Research, 6, 605-613. Abstract.
  3. Jones, C.R.G., Happe, F., Baird, G., Simonoff, E., Marsden, A.J.S., Tregay, J., Phillips, R. J., Goswami, U., Thomson, J. M. & Charman, T. (2009) Auditory discrimination and auditory sensory behaviours in autism. Neuropsychologia 47, 2850-2858. Abstract.
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