Pitch is a central part of music learning. As teachers, we may need to help students identify pitches, play them on an instrument, sing them, understand how they relate to one another, listen for tuning, and the list goes on. When we teach students with exceptionalities, it’s important to know that some students may perceive pitch differently from others. Over the past few decades, researchers have studied how people diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) perceive pitch compared to other individuals. They have found some similarities, but also some key differences. Because pitch perception is such a crucial part of music learning, understanding the findings of these studies is important for teachers with autistic students. In this article, we’ll summarize the research on ASD and pitch perception: individual pitches, chords, intervals, and melodic contour. Then we’ll discuss how this information can help you when teaching ASD students.
Individual pitches: Studies suggest that many people with ASD are significantly better at identifying and remembering individual pitches compared to people without an ASD diagnosis (1). Many are also better at detecting small changes in pitch on a single note (2). It is often thought that absolute pitch, which is the ability to quickly identify single pitches, is more common among individuals with ASD (3). However, it is hard to know for sure based on the current data (4). Still, it seems clear that many people with ASD do have the ability to hear individual pitches, remember them, and recall them much more easily than the average person without an ASD diagnosis (5).
Chords: Researchers have also studied how people with ASD perceive the individual notes within a chord compared to people without an ASD diagnosis. For example, if a chord is played with all the notes in it, and then played again with one note removed, children with ASD tend to be better at identifying which note was removed (5; 6). This suggests that those children are able to hear individual notes in the chord more clearly than others.
Intervals: In contrast to individual pitches, studies have shown that people diagnosed with ASD generally have roughly the same ability to perceive and identify intervals as people without an ASD diagnosis (7).
Melodic contour: Finally, some studies have been done on how well people with ASD perceive melodic contour (whether the notes go up or down). These studies have had mixed results. Some have found that this ability is more or less the same for people with ASD as everyone else (7; 8), while others have found that people with ASD do better (9).
In sum, the research suggests that people with ASD tend to be better at identifying, remembering, and telling the differences between individual pitches compared to people without ASD. Similarly, they are often better at perceiving individual notes that are part of a chord. These abilities don’t require any special musical training or environment: it is just a part of how those individuals hear (10). They’re not thought to be related to an autistic person’s social or verbal skills, but there may be a connection to their non-verbal intelligence (11; 12). When it comes to “big-picture” perception, like intervals or melodic contour, the research suggests that individuals with ASD tend to be more similar to other people. To use a metaphor, they can perceive the individual trees very well, but it’s unclear how well they perceive the whole forest. Researchers have several different theories to try to explain this phenomenon, but there is still a lot of debate about why this is and how it connects to findings from neuroscience and other areas (1).
An important disclaimer!!!: It’s worth noting that most of the participants in these studies belong to a selective group of people diagnosed with ASD: namely, those labeled as “high functioning” (formerly known as Asperger’s Syndrome) (13). This is a problem because ASD is a diverse diagnosis: people diagnosed with ASD can have many different characteristics (11). That means the participants in studies do not necessarily represent the entire group of people diagnosed with ASD. Therefore, we can’t know for certain how well these studies can be extended to other people on the autism spectrum. For example, some studies have found that very strong pitch abilities only apply to some of their ASD participants: if you remove those individuals from the rest of the group, then the ASD and non-ASD groups have similar abilities (8). It’s important to keep this in mind before making any generalizations about all people with an ASD diagnosis.
Implications for music education:
So what does all this mean for us as music educators teaching students with ASD…?
Students with an ASD diagnosis are more likely to have strong pitch abilities than other students, particularly when it comes to identifying pitches, memory, and tuning. These abilities may extend to hearing intervals and melodic contour, but they won’t necessarily. A lot of the research has been done on people with ASD who do not have any music training, so it remains to be seen how much students can improve those skills through music lessons. ASD students with strong pitch abilities may prefer to learn primarily by ear, as opposed to reading notes. As a teacher, it is important to apply a strengths-based approach, and to balance any aspects of learning that may be more challenging for them (e.g., note reading, technique) with those that come easily, like learning by ear or aural skills. You can do lots of fun games with students that allow them to use their pitch processing skills!
However, it is important to note that individuals with ASD are very diverse. While many of them have absolute pitch, many of them do not. Some have average, or even poor pitch skills compared to other students. That means teachers should not assume that every student with an ASD diagnosis will have enhanced pitch abilities, and that they will learn best when taught by ear. We should also be careful not to make assumptions about their pitch abilities based on other characteristics, like social or verbal ability. Instead, we can use our knowledge of this topic to guide us, while still evaluating each student as an individual and teaching according to their unique needs.
1. Ouimet, T., Foster, N. E., Tryfon, A., & Hyde, K. L. (2012). Auditory-musical processing in autism spectrum disorders: a review of behavioral and brain imaging studies. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1252(1), 325-331.
2. Stanutz, S., Wapnick, J., & Burack, J. A. (2014). Pitch discrimination and melodic memory in children with autism spectrum disorders. Autism, 18(2), 137-147.
3. Heaton, P. (2009). Assessing musical skills in autistic children who are not savants. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 364(1522), 1443-1447.
4. Carden, J., & Cline, T. (2019). Absolute pitch: Myths, evidence and relevance to music education and performance. Psychology of Music, 47(6), 890-901.
5. Heaton, P. (2003). Pitch memory, labelling and disembedding in autism. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 44(4), 543-551.
6. Altgassen, M., Kliegel, M., & Williams, T. I. (2005). Pitch perception in children with autistic spectrum disorders. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 23(4), 543-558.
7. Heaton, P. (2005). Interval and contour processing in autism. Journal of autism and developmental disorders, 35, 787-793.
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9. Jiang, J., Liu, F., Wan, X., & Jiang, C. (2015). Perception of melodic contour and intonation in autism spectrum disorder: Evidence from Mandarin speakers. Journal of autism and developmental disorders, 45, 2067-2075.
10. Heaton, P., Williams, K., Cummins, O., & Happé, F. (2008). Autism and pitch processing splinter skills: A group and subgroup analysis. Autism, 12(2), 203-219.
11. Jamey, K., Foster, N. E., Sharda, M., Tuerk, C., Nadig, A., & Hyde, K. L. (2019). Evidence for intact melodic and rhythmic perception in children with autism spectrum disorder. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 64, 1-12.
12. Chowdhury, R., Sharda, M., Foster, N. E., Germain, E., Tryfon, A., Doyle-Thomas, K., … & Hyde, K. L. (2017). Auditory pitch perception in autism spectrum disorder is associated with nonverbal abilities. Perception, 46(11), 1298-1320.
13. Chen, Y., Tang, E., Ding, H., & Zhang, Y. (2022). Auditory Pitch Perception in Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 65(12), 4866-4886.