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San Francisco Tuesday, 20 February, 2001, 09:18 GMT
Perfect pitch may help babies speak
Babies are better than adults at recognising notes
By Jonathan Amos in San Francisco

It is likely that everyone is born with perfect pitch and then loses it as they grow older, for the simple reason that we do not need such a refined sense of hearing to go about our daily lives.

This theory has been put forward by psychologists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, US, who think perfect, or absolute, pitch - the ability to precisely recognise musical notes - is what actually helps babies to learn to speak.

Once this task is achieved, perfect pitch is lost - unless it is deliberately cultivated in some way, either by learning a musical instrument or by speaking a language that conveys subtle meaning with different tones.

The Wisconsin-Madison team presented their research to the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

'Standard impulse'

As part of their studies, the researchers played adults and eight-month-old babies long sequences of musical notes.

They found that if they changed the sequence only slightly, the adults could not tell the difference - but the babies could.
Janney Saffran with parent and baby
The babies were played musical notes

The US team said they could tell this because it was well documented that babies got bored if they heard the same thing too often - their attentions strayed.

The team called it the "standard impulse in infants": what's new is interesting, but what's familiar - or previously learned - is less engaging.

In the experiments, Professor Jenny Saffran and colleagues found that if they played the babies a slightly new series of notes after repeating the old sequence a few times, the babies would recognise this and give the music their full attention again - proof that they had a precise grasp of what each tone sounded like.

Professor Saffran told the AAAS meeting that the ability to precisely recognise tones helped babies when they were learning to speak.

She said she had no idea why most people later lost the ability, which probably happened while they were still in childhood.

Maintain the skill

"My guess is because this ability isn't terribly useful," she speculated.

"So, unless you're a musician, where remembering pitch could be effective, or learning a tonal language like Vietnamese or Chinese, where the pitches tell you something about the meaning of words, remembering the pitch of a word can be very distracting."
Jenny Saffran
Psychology professor Jenny Saffran: Perfect pitch theory

With absolute pitch, it may be a case of use it or lose it.

Professor Saffran said there were many studies indicating that people who learned musical instruments at a very young age had a higher incidence of absolute pitch.

There were also studies showing a higher incidence among people who were blind, since the pitch of a moving car or a person's footsteps could provide important spatial cues.

Prof Jenny Saffran
A focus on relative pitches helps us navigate better our environment
See also:

22 Feb 00 | Washington 2000
26 Jan 99 | Anaheim 99
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