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J Acoust Soc Am. 2009 Apr;125(4):2398-403. doi: 10.1121/1.3081389.

Absolute pitch among students in an American music conservatory: association with tone language fluency.

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  • 1Department of Psychology, University of California, San Diego, La Jolla, California 92093, USA.


Absolute pitch (AP), the ability to name a musical note in the absence of a reference note, is extremely rare in the U.S. and Europe, and its genesis is unclear. The prevalence of AP was examined among students in an American music conservatory as a function of age of onset of musical training, ethnicity, and fluency in speaking a tone language. Taking those of East Asian ethnicity, the performance level on a test of AP was significantly higher among those who spoke a tone language very fluently compared with those who spoke a tone language fairly fluently and also compared with those who were not fluent in speaking a tone language. The performance level of this last group did not differ significantly from that of Caucasian students who spoke only nontone language. Early onset of musical training was associated with enhanced performance, but this did not interact with the effect of language. Further analyses showed that the results could not be explained by country of early music education. The findings support the hypothesis that the acquisition of AP by tone language speakers involves the same process as occurs in the acquisition of a second tone language.

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