Meta-analytic evidence for the non-modularity of pitch processing in congenital amusia

Dominique T Vuvan, Marilia Nunes-Silva, Isabelle Peretz
Cortex; a Journal Devoted to the Study of the Nervous System and Behavior 2015, 69: 186-200
A major theme driving research in congenital amusia is related to the modularity of this musical disorder, with two possible sources of the amusic pitch perception deficit. The first possibility is that the amusic deficit is due to a broad disorder of acoustic pitch processing that has the effect of disrupting downstream musical pitch processing, and the second is that amusia is specific to a musical pitch processing module. To interrogate these hypotheses, we performed a meta-analysis on two types of effect sizes contained within 42 studies in the amusia literature: the performance gap between amusics and controls on tasks of pitch discrimination, broadly defined, and the correlation between specifically acoustic pitch perception and musical pitch perception. To augment the correlation database, we also calculated this correlation using data from 106 participants tested by our own research group. We found strong evidence for the acoustic account of amusia. The magnitude of the performance gap was moderated by the size of pitch change, but not by whether the stimuli were composed of tones or speech. Furthermore, there was a significant correlation between an individual's acoustic and musical pitch perception. However, individual cases show a double dissociation between acoustic and musical processing, which suggests that although most amusic cases are probably explainable by an acoustic deficit, there is heterogeneity within the disorder. Finally, we found that tonal language fluency does not influence the performance gap between amusics and controls, and that there was no evidence that amusics fare worse with pitch direction tasks than pitch discrimination tasks. These results constitute a quantitative review of the current literature of congenital amusia, and suggest several new directions for research, including the experimental induction of amusic behaviour through transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) and the systematic exploration of the developmental trajectory of this disorder.

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