Autism, Perfect Pitch, and Learning the Piano

  • Henny Kupferstein, BS

    Music Consultant

    Almost every parent dreams of affording their child the opportunity to study piano. For parents of autistic children, this dream can be realized through dignified channels of planning. Music educators (piano teachers) are not trained to work with students who have diverse learning needs outside of the age-old system. Additionally, music therapists do not teach an instrument in the classical tradition. Rather, they work on “increasing eye contact,” “responding to name when called,” and other such non-musical goals. As a result, autistic students often do not have the opportunity for their musical gifts to be realized.


    In many schools, a student with an IEP, enrolled in an ensemble, will be put in the corner to play the triangle. Yet, these individuals are often the most musically talented in the room; the specific cerebral differences of autism manifest itself within the overarching leanings of cortical auditory perception. This type of detail-oriented information-processing lends itself to preeminence for fine arts (music) over whole-words (language), often resulting in the phenomenon of perfect pitch, and synaesthesia.


    In the scientific literature, “absolute pitch” is defined as an ability to name or match an exact tone without a reference point, in roughly 1 in 10,000 of the population. This definition has evolved into the stereotype of the perfect pitcher who walks down the street and announces, “That car horn is a C sharp”! Absolute pitch can present itself in a variety of ways, oftentimes without the note-naming abilities. In cultures where the western diatonic scale is unfamiliar, note-naming is a moot criteria. Similarly, with non-verbal students, methods for testing their gift must to be redefined.


    Teaching such a student requires that the teacher understand why he rushes through his playing, drops his head down to the keys, looks up and away when improvising, and struggles to track the notes on the page . When the student hears every sound in the environment with finely tuned perception, the sound experience is dramatically different for them compared to others.   Susan Rancer is a music therapist who understands this. Herself a perfect pitcher, Susan works with clients one-on-one to teach in a highly specialized manner. Almost all her autistic students have perfect pitch, which allows them to blaze through their journey towards impressive achievements in musical improvisation, composition, and performance.


    One such success story is Sam Rubin, a talented baritone and emerging prodigy in theatre, film, and opera. Sam has been working with Susan since the age of four, when he was non-verbal, and excluded from many typical learning opportunities. For Sam and other students with autism, the intrigue of the multisensory experience from tactile playing and auditory perceptions combined, becomes the motivator for plowing through the lesson.


    This specific method affords the individual the gift of demonstrating their intellect to family, friends, and teachers. A school district can easily recognize such competence as indicative of higher levels of sophistication. Then, the educational team can justify taking steps to assume competence and mainstreaming to regular education.


    Music isn’t what makes us smarter; it is the process of learning it that does. The practice and discipline in refining one’s instrumental technique involves hand-eye coordination and fine and gross motor skills. Working on these systems each week through harmony and rhythm stimulates pattern recognition as translated from symbols. These associations of the musical notes open the brain up to quantitative reasoning abilities, which carry over to every area of life. This is how music can help bring about dignity for the student with exceptionalities. It also helps enhance the student’s social awareness in peer settings, so that he or she can make a unique contribution to the interacting group. In the broadest sense, social change can be brought about through equal access and inclusion for arts and education. And music education is a perfect catalyst for neuro-diverse educational opportunities for all.


                Henny Kupferstein is a prolific composer and true scholar at heart. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree for Music Leadership in Society. Henny is presently in private practice and is a frequent presenter and consultant to parents and educators on the subjects of music, perfect pitch, autism, and sensory integration.   Henny can be reached at



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