Research Concerning Pitch Development & the Cognitive Benefits of a Music Education

Learn more about research that inspires Prodigies

Absolute Pitch Development

Learn about pitch development in children

Benefits of a Music Education

Learn about the many benefits of music lessons

One’s potential to learn is never greater than at the moment of birth. The early years of life are crucial for establishing a foundation for lifelong music development. A child’s musical experiences from birth to age five have a particularly profound impact on the extent to which she will be able to understand, appreciate, and achieve in music as an adult.”

– Gordon Institute for Music Learning

Research About Absolute Pitch Education in Young Children

Musical Benefits in Tonal Languages

“We found a very clear difference between the two populations,” Deutsch said. “In Mandarin speakers, perfect pitch appears to be not rare, but rather a readily acquired ability.”

“The study results, Deutsch said, ‘are very like what you would expect if you were dealing with a speech-related system. Tone appears to be analogous to vowel quality and other linguistic features acquired during infancy.'”

“‘The findings support the notion that babies can acquire perfect pitch as part of learning a language, which can later generalize to musical tones,’ Deutsch said.”

-Tone Language Translates To Perfect Pitch: Mandarin Speakers More Likely To Acquire Rare Musical Ability

The Taneda Method

“A child can be expected to learn absolute pitch before they are 4½ years old.”

“The best time to begin training is between 3-3½.  Parents often don’t think of their children as “teachable” at this age, and neglect the best time for learning absolute pitch.”

“A positive atmosphere is crucial. Preschool children can only be taught if the material is made entertaining and fun, so that the children will want to play. Teaching preschool children should never involve mechanical drilling or rote lessons.”

-The Taneda Method for Absolute Pitch Education: We Hear and Play

The Findings of Diana Deutsch

Radiolab Podcast Featuring Diana Deutsch

Radiolab Podcast About Musical Language

“When we name a color, for example as green, we do not do this by viewing a different color, determining its name, and comparing the relationship between the two colors. Instead, the labeling process is direct and immediate. Consider, also, that note naming involves choosing between only 12 possibilities; namely the 12 notes within the octave…  This should not be difficult; indeed, it should be trivial for professional musicians…”

“The evidence strongly indicates that the problem is not one of long term memory for pitch, but is instead related to verbal labeling, and so to speech processing.”

“At best, Brady’s report underscores the extreme difficulty of acquiring absolute pitch in adulthood, in contrast with its unconscious and effortless acquisition in early childhood.”

“There is considerable evidence that absolute pitch is associated with early musical training – and the earlier the musical training the stronger the association. In a large scale survey10, 40% of respondents who began music lessons before age 4 stated that they possessed absolute pitch, and this percentage decreased with increasing age of onset of music lessons, so that only 3% of those who began music lessons after age 9 stated that they possessed the ability.”

“Lennenberg11 was the first to argue persuasively that the acquisition of speech involves a critical period. Learning a second language after puberty is self-conscious and labored; and even following many years of experience, a second language that is learned in adulthood is generally spoken with a ‘foreign accent’…For example, children who were socially isolated early in life, and so were deprived of the opportunity to acquire speech, were unable to acquire normal language when they were later placed in a normal environment…The timeframe for absolute pitch acquisition, as a function of age of onset of music lessons, appears to be remarkably similar to that for the acquisition of a second language.”

“The case for a link between absolute pitch and speech is strengthened by consideration of tone languages, such as Mandarin, Cantonese, and Vietnamese. In these languages, words take on entirely different meanings depending on the [tone] which they are enunciated. This contrasts with nontone languages such as English, in which pitch is employed to convey prosody and emotional tone, but is not involved in determining the meaning of individual words. For example, in Mandarin the word ‘ma’ when spoken in the first tone means ‘mother’, in the second tone means ‘hemp’, in the third tone means ‘horse’, and in the fourth tone means a reproach. So pitches in such languages are employed to create verbal features, analogous to consonants and vowels. Analogously, when people with absolute pitch identify the sound of the note F# as ‘F#’, or the note B as ‘B’ they are also associating a pitch with a verbal label.”

“Given the evidence on critical periods for the acquisition of speech, we can then hypothesize that such circuitry is developed very early in life, during the period in which infants acquire other features of their native language. So if the opportunity to form such associations is unavailable during this critical period, these associations later become very difficult to acquire. Indeed, it has even been argued that when infants acquire nontone languages, they learn to disregard absolute pitches, since individual words in nontone languages carry the same meaning regardless of the pitch level in which they are pronounced. I and my colleagues have therefore been examining the conjecture that absolute pitch is initially acquired by tone language speakers as a feature of speech, and that its rarity in speakers of nontone languages such as English can be explained by the lack of opportunity to acquire it in infancy.”

-Absolute Pitch, The Psychology of Music, Diana Deutsch

“Because pitch is critically important to conveying meaning in tone languages, we would expect that, in such languages, the pitch range of a person’s speaking voice would be particularly consistent across time. And indeed, as described in the entry on Absolute Pitch, we found that speakers of the tone languages Mandarin and Vietnamese were remarkably consistent in the pitches with which they pronounced the same list of words on different days.”

-The Pitch of Speech in Two Chinese Villages, Diana Deutsch

“This finding indicates that AP is associated with an unusually large auditory memory span, including memory for speech sounds, and this in turn could facilitate the development of connections between pitches and their spoken labels early in life. The finding could therefore explain why some nontone language speakers acquire AP while most others, with equivalent age-of-onset and duration of musical training, do not do so.”

-Absolute Pitch is Associated with a Large Auditory Digit Span: A Clue to its Genesis, Diana Deutsch

“To address this question, Deutsch and her colleagues compared 115 advanced music students from Rochester, New York, with 88 students from Beijing. In results to be presented at the meeting of the Acoustical Society of America in San Diego on November 17, the scientists found that the Mandarin speakers were much more likely to have absolute pitch than were English speakers who had started musical training at the same age. For example, 60 percent of Beijing students who had begun studying music between the ages of four and five years old passed a test for absolute pitch, whereas only 14 percent of the American students did.”

-Speaking Tonal Languages Promotes Perfect Pitch

The Importance of Starting Early

“Previous studies have suggested that early musical training is the single most important factor for the development of AP (Takeuchi and Hulse 1993). Our study confirmed the importance of early musical training for the development of AP, since nearly all self-reported AP possessors stated that their formal musical training had begun at age X6 years. The correlation between early musical training and AP could be explained by a developmental critical period for AP, during which the brains of some individuals are particularly amenable to the establishment of new circuits or to the fine-tuning of pre-existing circuits involved in pitch perception. The existence of such a critical period has been demonstrated for singing behavior in songbirds and for language development in humans (Doupe 1993; Neville 1991).”

-Absolute Pitch: An Approach for Identification of Genetic and Nongenetic Components

Brain Function

“In people with absolute pitch, the neurophysiological activity in the frontal and auditory cortex are synchronized, which suggests a close functional connection.”

“The results are not only important to understand absolute pitch, but also efficient auditory processing: “Auditory perception doesn’t only depend on the integrity of the auditory cortex, but also especially on the linking of the auditory cortex with superordinate brain structures that process memory information,” sums up Jäncke. Based on these results, it might be possible to develop training measures…”

-Two Brain Regions Join Forces for Absolute Pitch

“The Absolute Pitch musicians had a significantly larger auditory cortex capable of representing distinct tones without a reference note. “

-Pitch Perfect: Brain Differences Behind a Rare Musical Ability

“Researchers have tried to identify the mechanisms underlying this ability. A 2008 study at McGill University found that those with absolute pitch had a greater amount of grey matter in a brain region near the right auditory cortex that has been previously shown to have a role in the processing of pitch. In addition, cortical thickness in absolute pitch individuals is greater in the right auditory cortex and in parts of the prefrontal cortex that are activated during musical tasks. This suggests that those with absolute pitch have stronger brain activity in these brain regions.”

-The Science of Perfect Pitch

“It follows from this perspective on AP that the genetic/biological contributions (presumably existing to varying degrees throughout the larger population) give rise to a number of interacting features, including the ability to retain isolated information, a cognitive predilection towards field-independent/narrow attention processing [3], and perhaps an auditory system capable of rendering unusually salient and rich descriptions of the stimuli [4].”

“The first suggestion of distinguishing anatomy came by way of an in vivo study by Schlaug et al. [9] showing that the typical leftward hemispheric asymmetry of the surface area of the planum temporale (first shown in 1968 by Geschwind and Levitsky in post-mortem brains) was exaggerated in the brains of Absolute Pitch musicians compared to their non-Absolute Pitch musician cohort.”

-The Absolute Pitch Mind Continues to Reveal Itself

The Benefits of a Music Education

“Research indicates the brain of a musician, even a young one, works differently than that of a nonmusician. “There’s some good neuroscience research that children involved in music have larger growth of neural activity than people not in music training. When you’re a musician and you’re playing an instrument, you have to be using more of your brain,” says Dr. Eric Rasmussen, chair of the Early Childhood Music Department at the Peabody Preparatory of The Johns Hopkins University, where he teaches a specialized music curriculum for children aged two months to nine years.”

“A study published in 2007 by Christopher Johnson, professor of music education and music therapy at the University of Kansas, revealed that students in elementary schools with superior music education programs scored around 22 percent higher in English and 20 percent higher in math scores on standardized tests…”

“Music makes your kid interesting and happy, and smart will come later. It enriches his or her appetite for things that bring you pleasure and for the friends you meet.” While parents may hope that enrolling their child in a music program will make her a better student, the primary reasons to provide your child with a musical education should be to help them become more musical, to appreciate all aspects of music, and to respect the process of learning an instrument or learning to sing, which is valuable on its own merit.”

-PBS: The Importance of a Music Education

“With music lessons, because there are so many different facets involved–such as memorizing, expressing emotion, learning about musical interval and chords–the multidimensional nature of the experience may be motivating the [IQ] effect,” said study author E. Glenn Schellenberg E. Glenn Schellenberg , of the University of Toronto at Mississauga.”

“I really think you’ll find the strongest effects for young children,” Rauscher said. “That’s not to say that you won’t find anything in adults, but I think it would be a lot harder and would really take a lot longer.”

Forbes: Piano Lessons Make Your Smarter

“…it is very interesting that the children taking music lessons improved more over the year on general memory skills that are correlated with non-musical abilities such as literacy, verbal memory, visiospatial processing, mathematics and IQ than did the children not taking lessons. The finding of very rapid maturation of the N250m component to violin sounds in children taking music lessons fits with their large improvement on the memory test. It suggests that musical training is having an effect on how the brain gets wired for general cognitive functioning related to memory and attention.”

-First Evidence That Musical Training Affects Brain Development in Young Children

“Our work explores how musical training affects the way in which the brain develops. It is clear that music is good for children’s cognitive development and that music should be part of the pre-school and primary school curriculum.”

-How Music Influences Brain Development

“Musicians are often reported to have enhanced neurophysiological functions, especially in the auditory system. Musical training is thought to improve nervous system function by focusing attention on meaningful acoustic cues, and these improvements in auditory processing cascade to language and cognitive skills.”

“Children who completed 2 years of music training had a stronger neurophysiological distinction of stop consonants, a neural mechanism linked to reading and language skills. One year of training was insufficient to elicit changes in nervous system function; beyond 1 year, however, greater amounts of instrumental music training were associated with larger gains in neural processing.”

-Music Enrichment Programs Improve the Neural Encoding of Speech in At-Risk Children

A sensitive period for musical training has also been proposed based on evidence that early-trained musicians demonstrate advantages over late-trained musicians for musical tasks such as rhythm synchronization and pitch identification, as well as differences in brain structure, particularly in motor regions (Takeuchi and Hulse, 1993Schlaug et al., 1995Amunts et al., 1997Steele et al., 2013). Recent studies from our laboratory have shown that musicians who begin training before age seven perform better on auditory and visual Rhythm Synchronization Tasks (RSTs) even when groups are matched for years of experience, formal training and hours of current practice (Watanabe et al., 2007Bailey and Penhune, 20102012). More recently, we have also shown that early trained musicians have greater gray matter in the pre-motor cortex and greater white matter integrity in the corpus callosum (Bailey et al., 2013Steele et al., 2013). 

-The Relationship Between the Age of Onset of Musical Training and Rhythm Synchronization Performance: Validation of the Sensitive Period Effects

“Recent reviews (Costa-Giomi, 2012Schellenberg and Weiss, 2012) confirm that in addition to being good listeners, musically trained individuals exhibit enhanced performance on tests of verbal abilities, including vocabulary, phonological awareness, reading, and spelling. Music training is also associated positively with performance on tests of spatial abilities and non-verbal reasoning. Because these associations extend across different cognitive domains, they implicate domain-general processes. Indeed, even after accounting for demographic variables, music training is associated positively with performance on tests of auditory and visual memory (Jakobson et al., 2008Degé et al., 2011b), and with IQ (Schellenberg, 20062011a,bSchellenberg and Mankarious, 2012).”

“The idea that a potentially enjoyable activity such as learning to sing or to play a musical instrument could have beneficial side-effects on cognitive functioning is obviously appealing.”

-Music Training, Cognition and Personality

“From an early age, musicians learn complex motor and auditory skills (e.g., the translation of visually perceived musical symbols into motor commands with simultaneous auditory monitoring of output), which they practice extensively from childhood throughout their entire careers. Using a voxel-by-voxel morphometric technique, we found gray matter volume differences in motor, auditory, and visual-spatial brain regions when comparing professional musicians (keyboard players) with a matched group of amateur musicians and non-musicians.”

-Brain Structures Differ Between Musicians and Non-Musicians

“Learning to play an instrument is a highly complex task that involves the interaction of several modalities and higher-order cognitive functions and that results in behavioral, structural, and functional changes on time scales ranging from days to years.”

-Musical Training as a Framework for Brain Plasticity: Behavior, Function, and Structure

“Here we report the effects of two interactive computerized training programs developed for preschool children: one for music and one for visual art. After only 20 days of training, only children in the music group exhibited enhanced performance on a measure of verbal intelligence, with 90% of the sample showing this improvement. These improvements in verbal intelligence were positively correlated with changes in functional brain plasticity during an executive-function task. Our findings demonstrate that transfer of a high-level cognitive skill is possible in early childhood.”

-Short-Term Music Training Enhances Verbal Intelligence and Executive Function

Musical Illusions, Perfect Pitch and Other Curiosities with Diana Deutsch

Diana Deutsch, Professor of Psychology at UC San Diego, presents several musical illusions that she has discovered, showing that people can differ strikingly in the way they hear simple musical patterns. She also explains why perfect pitch is rare in most populations, but not among speakers of tonal languages, such as Mandarin.

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