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Absolute pitch: a model for understanding the influence of genes and development on neural and cognitive function

Abstract

Absolute pitch (AP), the ability to identify or produce the pitch of a sound without any reference point, is discussed here as a possible model system for understanding the neurobiology of complex cognitive functions. AP is of interest because it may reflect an atypical organization of sensory representations. Indications are that it depends on both genetic factors and exposure to musical training during childhood, supporting the idea of a sensitive period. Functional and structural neuroimaging studies suggest special roles for working memory and associative memory mechanisms in AP, and results from these studies indicate that there may be structural markers of AP in asymmetries of cortical areas. AP seems to depend on the nervous system's response to experiential, maturational and genetic factors, making it a good candidate model for understanding how these interactions play out in cognitive development generally.

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Figure 1: Distributions of pitch-name responses to randomly presented tones, plotted as distance from correct response (e.g., a response of “C-sharp” to the target tone “C” would be a distance of one semitone).
Figure 2: Images from PET and fMRI.

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Acknowledgements

Research supported by funding from the International Foundation for Music Research and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. Helpful comments on the manuscript were provided by P. Bermudez and D. Levitin.

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Correspondence to Robert J Zatorre.

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Zatorre, R. Absolute pitch: a model for understanding the influence of genes and development on neural and cognitive function. Nat Neurosci 6, 692–695 (2003). https://doi.org/10.1038/nn1085

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