Identification of Changes along a Continuum of Speech Intonation is Impaired in Congenital Amusia

Front Psychol. 2010 Dec 27;1:236. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2010.00236. eCollection 2010.


A small number of individuals have severe musical problems that have neuro-genetic underpinnings. This musical disorder is termed "congenital amusia," an umbrella term for lifelong musical disabilities that cannot be attributed to deafness, lack of exposure, or brain damage after birth. Amusics seem to lack the ability to detect fine pitch differences in tone sequences. However, differences between statements and questions, which vary in final pitch, are well perceived by most congenital amusic individuals. We hypothesized that the origin of this apparent domain-specificity of the disorder lies in the range of pitch variations, which are very coarse in speech as compared to music. Here, we tested this hypothesis by using a continuum of gradually increasing final pitch in both speech and tone sequences. To this aim, nine amusic cases and nine matched controls were presented with statements and questions that varied on a pitch continuum from falling to rising in 11 steps. The sentences were either naturally spoken or were tone sequence versions of these. The task was to categorize the sentences as statements or questions and the tone sequences as falling or rising. In each case, the observation of an S-shaped identification function indicates that amusics can accurately identify unambiguous examples of statements and questions but have problems with fine variations between these endpoints. Thus, the results indicate that a deficient pitch perception might compromise music, not because it is specialized for that domain but because music requirements are more fine-grained.

Keywords: congenital amusia; pitch; prosody; speech.