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infants and pitch

Title: infants and pitch
Annemarie Seither-Preisler wrote:
The findings by Saffran appear to be very revealing in this respect, showing that young infants at the age of 8 months, unlike adults, primarily rely on absolute pitch cues.
Saffran, J. R. & Griepentrog, G. J. Absolute pitch in infant auditory learning: evidence for developmental reorganization. Dev Psychol 37, 74-85 (2001).
Saffran, J. R. Musical Learning and Language Development. Ann NY Acad Sci 999, 397-401 (2003).
In summary, these results suggest that absolute pitch is a primary perceptual mode that is heavily superseded by relative pitch (probably in the course of language acquisition).  Early musical training or learning a tonal language like Thai or Japanese may help to prevent this edging out-process, with the consequence that certain subjects retain the ability to perceive absolute pitch throughout life. Verbal categorizations of notes may be helpful in this respect, but it would be misleading to take them for the main underlying cause.

A paper by Sandra Trehub suggests that infants are also sensitive to relative pitch:

Trehub SE (2001) Musical predispositions in infancy. Ann NY Acad Sci, 930: 1-16 2001.

In searching for this ref, I just found another of Trehub's demonstrating the ability of non-musicians to discriminate recordings of instrumental themes from popular TV shows in their correct key, from those transposed up or down by only one or two semi-tones. They conclude that "Adults' reportedly poor memory for pitch is likely to be a by-product of their inability to name isolated pitches."

Schellenberg, EG and Trehub, SE (2003) Good pitch memory is widespread. Pyschological Science, 14 (3): 262-266.

Susan Hall
Dalhousie University