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Last Updated: Wednesday, 14 July, 2004, 17:15 GMT 18:15 UK
Early blindness music skill link
Ray Charles
Ray Charles went blind during childhood
People who lose their sight early in life often go on to develop superior musical ability, researchers say.

It was known that people who were blind were very good at orientating themselves using sound.

But a University of Montreal study in Nature found people who went blind when they were very young were particularly good at detecting changes in pitch.

The finding could help explain the talents of musicians such as Ray Charles, who went blind as a child.

Performance boost

Researchers compared the ability of 26 blind and sighted adults aged 21 to 46 to judge whether two sounds were rising or falling in pitch.

e need to be careful not to stereotype blind children
Adam Ockelford, RNIB
Some had gone blind before the age of two, others between the ages of five and 45.

It was found that blind people who lost their sight at an early age performed better than those who were sighted.

This was true even when the speed of change was increased 10 times.

It was found that the younger the onset of blindness, the better the performance.

Blind participants also found the task easier than sighted individuals when the frequency difference between the tones was reduced.

The researchers, led by Pascal Belin said their findings were in keeping with the theory that the brain is more "plastic", capable of adapting and changing, during the period of early development in the first two years of life.

Writing in Nature, they said: "Early-blind subjects were better than both late-blind and sighted subjects at determining the direction of pitch change."

Adam Ockelford, the Royal National Institute for the Blind's deputy director of education and employment said: "RNIB's own research has shown that babies who are born blind or who lose their sight in the first few months of life are more likely to develop absolute pitch.

"To put this in perspective, around 1 in 10,000 of the population as a whole has the ability to recognise or reproduce pitches in isolation. However among a group of blind children studied in London in the late 1980's, 40% had absolute pitch.

"Despite this, we need to be careful not to stereotype blind children - there is more to musicality than absolute pitch and we can't assume that all will grow, or indeed want to grow, into the talents of Stevie Wonder or Andrea Bocelli."


SEE ALSO:
Perfect pitch may help babies speak
20 Feb 01  |  San Francisco
More children hit by blindness
23 Oct 03  |  Health


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