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Music and speech perception in children and adults with neuro-developmental disorders                                                      


Authors name and university affiliation:

Pamela Heaton, Professor of Psychology, Goldsmiths College, University of London, New Cross, London, SE14 6NW

Names and Affiliations of other researchers involved in the project

Dr Rory Allen, Goldsmiths College, Ms Jennifer Mayer (PhD candidate), Goldsmiths College, Ms Amy Fancourt (PhD candidate), Goldsmiths College



Whilst there has been considerable interest in the cognitive and language difficulties characterizing disorders like Autism and Specific Language Impairment (SLI), it is only in recent years that researchers have turned their attention to the question of whether corresponding deficits in music perception will be observed in these groups.   Research carried out in our lab and elsewhere has revealed  considerable sparing of music listening skills in autism and we are currently interested in the question of why this is not the case for those aspects of speech that would appear to rely on similar neural and cognitive mechanisms.  Evidence of an unusually high incidence of absolute pitch and increased sensitivity to  fundamental pitches  in non-musical sounds, suggests that people with autism are abnormally sensitive to pitch cues. This may interfere with their ability to attend to the semantically vital phonetic components of speech, such as formants, which are independent of fundamental frequency. We hypothesise that delayed language onset inhibits the development of separate neural pathways for processing phonetic and pitch information in speech and contributes to down-stream difficulties in decoding language.         

Speech processing involves separate analysis of semantic and pragmatic language components. In non-tonal languages, semantic information is encoded via rapidly varying spectral characteristics of speech such as formants, which are analysed predominantly in the left hemisphere. Pitch and timbre are processed mainly in the right hemisphere. We suspect that the compromised long-range connectivity characteristic of autism may lead to a less efficient mechanism, whereby formants and pitch are processed together in the same hemisphere, leading to difficulties in disembedding semantically relevant components of speech (formants) from semantically irrelevant aspects (pitch). We are currently  exploring this hypothesis through well-established behavioural methods but with a novel application to this field, such as acoustic analogues of the Stroop paradigm.

A second strand of our autism research builds on findings showing that perception of musical emotions is spared in this group.  Difficulties in understanding emotions on faces and in voices have been well documented in autism, and we are currently exploring how music may be used to remediate these.

Theoretical accounts of SLI have implicated deficits in memory and perception in the language impairments characterizing the disorder.  As such difficulties are likely to influence perception of music we are currently investigating perception of pitch, melody and rhythm in groups of children with this diagnosis.  


14th April, 2011

Contact details: 

E-mail:  P.Heaton@gold.ac.uk.  Tel: +44 (0)20-7919-7883




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