Absolute Pitch May Require a Bigger Auditory Cortex

MedicalResearch.com Interview with:

Keith Schneider PhD Director, Center for Biomedical and Brain Imaging Associate Professor Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences University of Delaware

Dr. Schneider

Keith Schneider PhD
Director, Center for Biomedical and Brain Imaging
Associate Professor
Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences
University of Delaware

MedicalResearch.com: What is the background for this study? What are the main findings? 

Response: Absolute pitch is the ability to name a musical note in isolation.  It is rare in the population, approximately 1/10,000 people have it.  The neural mechanisms of this ability have not been clear.  It is not known whether people with absolute pitch encode auditory frequencies differently, or whether absolute pitch derives from the same sensory encoding but different memory connections.

We tested 20 people with absolute pitch, 20 matched musicians with the same number of years of musical training, age of onset of musical training, and number of hours of practice per week, as well as 20 controls with minimal musical training.

The main findings are that people with absolute pitch have larger early auditory cortex—primary auditory cortex was enlarged about 50% relative to the other two groups, which did not differ significantly from each other.  We also found that the tuning bandwidth of the individual voxels in the early auditory cortical areas was broader in people with absolute pitch.

That is, these small bits of the brain responded to a wide range of frequencies than those in the other two groups.  This suggested to us that people with absolute pitch might imply what is known as “ensemble encoding”.  That is, they use a larger network of neurons to encode sounds.  

MedicalResearch.com: What should readers take away from your report? 

Response: Ours is the first study to suggest that people with absolute pitch might encode sounds differently in the brain, rather than just having more strongly developed connections to their memory. 

MedicalResearch.com: What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this work? 

Response: We would like to look at the subcortical auditory areas to determine how early in the auditory stream the changes are evident in people with absolute pitch.  We are also interested in studying a population of people with amusia, which is a profound deficit in musical perception.

MedicalResearch.com: Is there anything else you would like to add?

Response: Yes, one limitation of our study was that we do not understand the cause and effect yet.  We observed that people with absolute pitch have enlarged early auditory cortex, but we don’t know yet whether this is a cause or effect of absolute pitch.  It could be that people who are predisposed to absolute pitch might have larger auditory cortex to begin with, or it is also possible that the cortex enlarges due to musical training.

No disclosures.


Larissa McKetton, Kevin DeSimone and Keith A. SchneiderLarger auditory cortical area and broader frequency tuning underlie absolute pitch. Journal of Neuroscience, Feb. 11, 2019; DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1532-18.2019 


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