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J Child Psychol Psychiatry. 2003 May;44(4):543-51.

Pitch memory, labelling and disembedding in autism.

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Department of Psychology, Goldsmiths College, University of London, New Cross, London, UK.



Autistic musical savants invariably possess absolute pitch ability and are able to disembed individual musical tones from chords. Enhanced pitch discrimination and memory has been found in non-savant individuals with autism who also show superior performance on visual disembedding tasks. These experiments investigate the extent that enhanced disembedding ability will be found within the musical domain in autism.


High-functioning children with autism, together with age- and intelligence-matched controls, participated in three experiments testing pitch memory, labelling and chord disembedding.


The findings from experiment 1 showed enhanced pitch memory and labelling in the autism group. In experiment 2, when subjects were pre-exposed to labelled individual tones, superior chord segmentation was also found. However, in experiment 3, when disembedding performance was less reliant on pitch memory, no group differences emerged and the children with autism, like controls, perceived musical chords holistically.


These findings indicate that pitch memory and labelling is superior in autism and can facilitate performance on musical disembedding tasks. However, when task performance does not rely on long-term pitch memory, autistic children, like controls, succumb to the Gestalt qualities of chords.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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