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absolute pitch, tone language, and genetics

Dear Bob and others,

In  our 2006 paper referred to by Roy showing a far higher prevalence of AP among speakers of tone language compared with intonation language, we suggested, as a possible alternative to our hypothesis based on early exposure to tone language, that this difference might be genetic in origin. Gregersen et al (2000) had carried out a survey of students in U.S. music schools, and found a higher prevalence of AP among those of East Asian origin than among Caucasians, and this had been interpreted as indicating that AP has a genetic origin. Unfortunately,  Gregersen et al had omitted to state that the large majority of their East Asian respondents had spent their early childhood in East Asia, and so would have had an East Asian language as their first language. Trevor Henthorn and I reanalyzed their original data, and found that, taking those respondents with early childhood in U.S. or Canada, there was no difference in prevalence of AP between East Asians and Caucasians. However, there was a huge difference in prevalence of AP between the East Asians with early childhood in East Asia and Caucasians with early childhood in the U.S. or Canada – and also between the East Asians with early childhood in East Asia, and East Asians with early childhood in the U.S. or Canada. Our reanalysis showed that, far from indicating a genetic origin, the data of Gregersen et al point strongly to an environmental factor as a strong determinant of AP.

 The Asian groups that were considered by Gregersen et al. were Chinese, Japanese, and Korean.  The Chinese group would have spoken Mandarin or Cantonese – both tone languages. In addition, Japanese is a pitch stress language, in which the meaning of certain words changes depending on the pitch relationship between the syllables. This is also true of certain dialects of Korean, such as the South Kiengsang dialect. So an account in terms of the early acquisition of pitch as a feature to convey lexical meaning provides a logical explanation of their findings.

 With reference to the clustering found by Athos et al, it is unfortunate, given this evidence, that they did not consider language as a factor, as this could have contributed to the clustering. In addition, there is a clear critical period for the acquisition of AP, and this could also have contributed  – this was not addressed either.  It appears premature to jump from the clustering data reported by Athos et al. to the conclusion that AP is genetically based.

 I would be happy to email pdfs of our papers on the subject to anyone who is interested. In addition, the papers can be downloaded from: 



 Deutsch, D., Henthorn, T., Marvin, E., & Xu H-S. Absolute pitch among American and Chinese conservatory students: Prevalence differences, and evidence for a speech-related critical period. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 2006, 119, 719-722.

 Deutsch, D. The enigma of absolute pitch. Acoustics Today, 2006, 2, 11-19

 Henthorn, T. & Deutsch, D., Ethnicity versus Early Environment: Comment on 'Early childhood music education and predisposition to absolute pitch: Teasing apart genes and environment' by Peter K. Gregersen, Elena Kowalsky, Nina Kohn, and Elizabeth West Marvin (2000). American Journal of Medical Genetics, Part A, 143A:102-103, 2007

 Best wishes,

 Diana Deutsch


Professor Diana Deutsch
Department of Psychology                          
University of California, San Diego
9500 Gilman Dr. #0109            
La Jolla, CA 92093-0109, USA

858-453-1558 (tel)
858-453-4763 (fax)


On Aug 29, 2007, at 9:21 AM, Robert Zatorre wrote:

I would agree with Roy's point that the whole issue of AP is complicated, so let's not look for simple solutions. The paper by Deutsch et al is very interesting, but note that its results can be used just as well as evidence either for genetics or for early tone-language exposure, since the higher incidence of AP was found in ethnically Chinese students as compared with non-Chinese; so they were comparing two populations with different genomes as well as different language histories.

As for the PNAS study, it also presents very interesting and valuable data, and I like the web-based approach they used. However, I wonder if the two subpopulations seen in the distribution are somehow a consequence of the recruiting system used. People were not entered into the test randomly, rather they self-selected to participate, and people who know they have AP would naturally want to test themselves to see how they score. Could it be, therefore, that the over-representation of AP in the distribution represents a sampling bias?


Robert J. Zatorre, Ph.D.
Montreal Neurological Institute
3801 University St.
Montreal, QC Canada H3A 2B4
phone: 1-514-398-8903
fax: 1-514-398-1338

Roy Patterson wrote:
Absolute pitch is a complicated phenomenon. Readers of the auditory list should not be fooled by the seeming simplicity of the ongoing discussion of the past few days. I would recommend balancing the nature views expressed with the interaction of nature and nurture suggested in the paper by Diana Deutsch and collaborators in JASA last year. The reference and abstract are pasted in below.
Regards Roy P
Martin Braun wrote:
You mean, why do so few people develop a cognitive version of absolute
pitch? Well, there are many who are waiting for the answer. Just two days
ago there appeared a large-scale survey in PNAS. Perhaps the most compelling
new result is the clear bimodal distribution of the trait. Either people
have it, or they do not have it, with very little in between. This indicates
the possibility of a relatively simple genetic origin of the trait, which
means that the answer may not be too far down the road.

Absolute pitch among American and Chinese conservatory
students: Prevalence differences, and evidence
for a speech-related critical period (L)a)
Diana Deutschb_
Department of Psychology, University of California, San Diego, La Jolla, California 92093
Trevor Henthorn
Department of Music, University of California, San Diego, La Jolla, California 92093
Elizabeth Marvin
Department of Music Theory, Eastman School of Music, Rochester, New York 14604
HongShuai Xu
College of Music, Capital Normal University, Beijing, 10037, China
_Received 12 September 2005; revised 20 November 2005; accepted 21 November 2005_
Absolute pitch is extremely rare in the U.S. and Europe; this rarity has so far been unexplained. This paper reports a substantial difference in the prevalence of absolute pitch in two normal populations, in a large-scale study employing an on-site test, without self-selection from within the target populations. Music conservatory students in the U.S. and China were tested. The Chinese subjects spoke the tone language Mandarin, in which pitch is involved in conveying the meaning of words. The American subjects were nontone language speakers. The earlier the age of onset of musical training, the greater the prevalence of absolute pitch; however, its prevalence was far greater among the Chinese than the U.S. students for each level of age of onset of musical training. The findings suggest that the potential for acquiring absolute pitch may be universal, and may be realized by enabling infants to associate pitches with verbal labels during the critical period for acquisition of features of their native language. © 2006 Acoustical Society of America. _DOI: 10.1121/1.2151799_
PACS number_s_: 43.75.Cd _NHF_ Pages: 719–722