Research study finds near-100% correlation between autism and perfect pitch
Interview with Henny Kupferstein
Interviewer: Shanti Kurada
What gave you the impetus to study the relation between autism and perfect pitch?
My music professor in college asked me if I had perfect pitch. I had no idea what that meant and immediately googled it to learn more. I was astounded to find out that there were so many similarities between perfect pitch characteristics and my autistic traits.
While training in Music Therapy, I read a piece by Susan Rancer, a Music Therapist in the Bay Area, that gave me a strong desire to study these two worlds and their potential connections. Through my research, I was thrilled to find a near-100% correlation between autism and perfect pitch.
In your opinion, what strength do autistic people possess that may make them more adept at recognizing pitch? What does the literature suggest?
Literature suggests that the autistic brain does not integrate sensory information in the same way as the neurotypical brain. The brain receives sounds, and pictures, but does not know what to do with it. Instead of assigning meaning to sensory data, it relies on longer reaching neurons in each sensory area to make sense of the given stimuli. This contributes to heightened perceptions such as perfect pitch within the auditory cortex.
Not surprisingly, all of my autistic students have an inborn ability surrounding pitch recognition. In my work, I help students engage this gift to stimulate connections to under-reached areas (e.g. math, reading comprehension, speech, etc.).
Please explain the terms Perfect Pitch, Absolute Pitch, and Relative Pitch.
Absolute Pitch (or AP) is just the scientific term for perfect pitch. They both mean the same thing: an ability to recognize a tone just heard without a reference.
Relative Pitch (RP) is the ability to name a pitch heard in relation to a previous tone. For example, the teacher plays a middle C, and then plays a different note immediately after. The student can identify the second note based on its interval of musical spacing from one note to another.
What methods were historically used to test pitch recognition in autistic individuals? What were the advantages/disadvantages of these methods? How have these methods been modified in current times?
Previous studies asked autistic participants to point to animal pictures matching a sound just heard, or move a stick figure up or down a computer animation of a staircase to symbolize a musical scale. The idea there was to use the documented visual and spatial strengths as a means for testing what the participants heard.
While these visual and spatial strengths exist, there may have been limitations for subjects in communicating the tones they recognized via symbols. In contrast, I focused my research on the sound/response correlation within music. I intentionally used a piano-matching test designed to make the task accessible to people who have been excluded from previous research due to communication differences.
What about typical development? Please explain how typically developing children tend to perceive pitch.
Well for example, typical people go to a concert, and hear a “song”, the complete and bigger picture. I go to a concert, and hear a collection of pitches. The anatomical brain differences determine how the brain prioritizes the sensory information: The traffic cop inside our brain is differentiating sounds and saying: “You’re important, you’re important, you’re not important” while the autistic brain concludes quickly and by saying, “You’re under attack, you’re under attack”!
Typically developed children use pitch perceptions to enhance their comprehension and make sense of the information received. When sound is the core component of communication, the autistic language centers in the brain compensate by catching every other word. This is often diagnosed as a Central Auditory Processing Disorder (CAPD). Some individuals may see this as simply scattered processing, but I see it as a meta-power of compartmentalized strengths.
Briefly describe the participants in your study and how they were tested.
We chose to test autistic and non-autistic people using the same method. There were a total of 118 people tested. We tested 68 typically developed people, 38 autistic, and 12 with other developmental disorders. Their ages ranged from 5 to 67 years old. Our only requirement was six or more piano lessons so that the basics of musical language was established.
Everyone was tested in a room with two pianos side by side. The tester blocked her hand from view with a book, and played a random note. The participants were directed to play back that note on their piano: “Can you play this for me on the piano?” and the autistic participants did so effortlessly. The test lasted about a minute or two (until 8-15 notes were matched). Those who took their time to find the matching note were often off by as many as 15 keys in either direction. Those with AP were spot on without any hesitation.
These participants also had many other differences in their learning styles, reading comprehension, and math skills, which inspired further research for us.
Please describe the results of this study.
The results were pretty remarkable. Thirty-seven of the thirty-eight autistic participants demonstrated AP with our piano-matching test, proving a near-100% correlation between autism and absolute pitch. Even more exciting was the fact that more than half (53%) of the others also demonstrated AP. This means that half the world potentially has it, autistic or not. Yet, the widespread belief is that AP is a ‘phenomenon’ and occurs ‘only 1 in 10,000’ or ‘only very smart people have it’ – these appear to be myths.
Our results found that AP does not correlate with any training or even with IQ. Currently, testing for AP is not a method for intelligence testing. In my opinion, AP should be understood as an inborn gift, one that can be accessed and built-upon with specialized music therapy.
Figure 1. Absolute Pitch and Musical Training by group. Left bars of each cluster indicate the percentage of subjects from each group who received substantial musical training, as deﬁned by >30% of one’s lifetime. Right bars of each cluster indicate the percentage of subjects in each group who demonstrated Absolute Pitch in our pitch-matching paradigm.
What implications does this study have on the teaching of music to people with autism? How should the teaching methods and goals be modified to tap into this amazing ability?
Great question! This study aims to inform educators on how to teach to the non-visual learner—more than half of the population. For any student with absolute pitch (with or without autism) the goal is reading music for the purpose of playing, rather than playing by ear, to stimulate a ripple effect of development beyond music.
Students with perfect pitch are generally already picking out songs by ear before they consider any type of musical training. Decoding the musical notation and then playing them expands pitch-based thinking to the visual-spatial and motor realms. The fundamentals of theory and musicianship must be ingrained while also satiating their need for creating quality sound. Over time, posture and fingering organize themselves to contribute to a more fluid and musical-sounding production. We never work on scales and other exercises that are out of context of the music they are learning.
What about autistic individuals who are non-verbal, have poor fine motor skills, and are ‘locked’ in their bodies? Some of them have demonstrated a very high intelligence much later in life, after they’ve been given a mode of communication such as being taught to type. Once they’re able to type, would introducing them to piano be a logical step?
A person is only locked in their bodies until they can communicate their innermost ideas. I specialize in non-verbal autistic students and cannot assume they are “low functioning” or “severely impaired”. Rather, by finding them to have AP, I can teach to their gift and presume competence instead of pathologizing and “fixing” what is broken, which is a common practice in more traditional therapy sessions.
As for typing, instruction is mutually reinforcing. Pre-typers become more fluid in their typed communication, while experienced typers begin to use more than just their index finger for pointing. The excitement that students feel at having their gift engaged inspires motivation to keep their motor planning in use. The key with non-verbal autistic students as with all students with absolute pitch is the recognition that this gift drives the creation of music as the ultimate motivation.
Music is a rich language ripe for communication. Lessons serve to enhance these expressions with the discipline of theory and technique to best convert ideas into a language that is familiar to their listeners. Motor skill progress is an essential part of this process but comes as a welcome by-product of teaching to the gift of absolute pitch. Whether parental support is hand-over-hand or phased out, AP drives the motor planning, executive function, eye tracking, and attention span to have an exciting, engaging reason to keep going. The method makes the joy of learning achievable to all levels of ability.
Henny Kupferstein is a graduate student and autism researcher who gives Skype piano lessons to non-verbal and autistic students around the world. A frequent presenter, Henny is also a consultant for parents and educators. She can be contacted via http://www.hennyk.com