Deficits of congenital amusia beyond pitch: Evidence from impaired categorical perception of vowels in Cantonese-speaking congenital amusics

Caicai Zhang, Jing Shao, Xunan Huang

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36 Citations (Scopus)


Congenital amusia is a lifelong disorder of fine-grained pitch processing in music and speech. However, it remains unclear whether amusia is a pitch-specific deficit, or whether it affects frequency/spectral processing more broadly, such as the perception of formant frequency in vowels, apart from pitch. In this study, in order to illuminate the scope of the deficits, we compared the performance of 15 Cantonese-speaking amusics and 15 matched controls on the categorical perception of sound continua in four stimulus contexts: lexical tone, pure tone, vowel, and voice onset time (VOT). Whereas lexical tone, pure tone and vowel continua rely on frequency/spectral processing, the VOT continuum depends on duration/temporal processing. We found that the amusic participants performed similarly to controls in all stimulus contexts in the identification, in terms of the across-category boundary location and boundary width. However, the amusic participants performed systematically worse than controls in discriminating stimuli in those three contexts that depended on frequency/spectral processing (lexical tone, pure tone and vowel), whereas they performed normally when discriminating duration differences (VOT). These findings suggest that the deficit of amusia is probably not pitch specific, but affects frequency/spectral processing more broadly. Furthermore, there appeared to be differences in the impairment of frequency/spectral discrimination in speech and nonspeech contexts. The amusic participants exhibited less benefit in between-category discriminations than controls in speech contexts (lexical tone and vowel), suggesting reduced categorical perception; on the other hand, they performed inferiorly compared to controls across the board regardless of between- and within-category discriminations in nonspeech contexts (pure tone), suggesting impaired general auditory processing. These differences imply that the frequency/spectral-processing deficit might be manifested differentially in speech and nonspeech contexts in amusics—it is manifested as a deficit of higher-level phonological processing in speech sounds, and as a deficit of lower-level auditory processing in nonspeech sounds.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0183151
JournalPLoS ONE
Issue number8
Publication statusPublished - 22 Aug 2017


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