Memorial Lecture at 150th: Diana Deutsch / Two Perceptual Puzzles: Audio Illusions and Perfect Pitch

AES 150th Convention
May 25-28, 2021

Diana Deutsch presented the Richard C. Heyser Memorial Lecture during the 150th Convention


Two Perceptual Puzzles: Audio Illusions and Perfect Pitch

Illusions are often regarded as entertaining anomalies that shed little light on the normal process of perception. In this talk I argue that the contrary is true. Just as the failure of a piece of equipment provides important clues to its successful operation, so illusions provide important information about the brain mechanisms that generally enable us to perceive the world correctly.

Some auditory illusions show that people can differ strikingly in how they hear even simple musical patterns. These differences occur as strongly among expert musicians as among people without musical training. In illusions involving stereo sound – such as the octave illusion, the scale illusion, and the glissando illusion – striking perceptual disagreements tend to arise between right-handers and left-handers, showing that they reflect differences in brain organization. In contrast, perception of the tritone paradox varies with the language or dialect to which the listener has been most frequently exposed.

The speech-to-song illusion demonstrates a strong relationship between speech and music. A spoken phrase is made to morph perceptually from speech to song, without transforming the sounds in any way, or by adding any musical context, but simply by repeating the phrase several times over. The illusion shows that the boundary between music and speech is fragile, and an explanation for the illusion is proposed.

Perfect pitch – the ability to name a musical note when it is presented out of context – is also discussed. This ability is very rare in the Western world, where non-tone language is spoken, but is far more prevalent among speakers of tone languages such as Mandarin, in which the meaning of a word depends on the pitch (or pitches) in which it is spoken. The reasons for this advantage to tone language speakers are discussed.

The talk is accompanied by sound demonstrations.



Diana Deutsch is Professor of Psychology at the University of California, San Diego. She is internationally known for the musical illusions and paradoxes that she discovered; these include the octave illusion, the scale illusion, the glissando illusion, the tritone paradox, the cambiata illusion, the phantom words illusion and the speech-to-song illusion, among others. She also explores memory for music, and how we relate the sounds of music and speech to each other. In addition, she studies absolute pitch (i.e., perfect pitch)- why some people possess it, and why it is so rare.

Deutsch has over 200 publications, including Musical Illusions and Phantom Words: How Music and Speech Unlock Mysteries of the Brain (2019), The Psychology of Music, (1st edition, 1982; 2nd edition (1999), 3rd edition (2013). She was Guest-Editor of a Special Issue of the Journal of the Audio Engineering Society, entitled “Auditory Illusions and Audio” (1983). She has created two compact discs Musical Illusions and Paradoxes (1995) and Phantom Words and Other Curiosities (2003).

Deutsch has been elected a Fellow of the Audio Engineering Society,  the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Acoustical Society of America, the Society of Experimental Psychologists, the  Association for Psychological Science, and four divisions of the American Psychological Association: Division 1 (General Psychology ), Division 3 (Experimental Psychology) , Division 10 (Society for the Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts) , Division 21 ( Applied Experimental and Engineering Psychology).  She was elected Governor of the Audio Engineering Society, Chair of the Section on Psychology of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, President of Division 10 of the American Psychological Association (Society for the Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts), and she served as as Chair of the Society of Experimental Psychologists. She was awarded the Rudolf Arnheim Award for Outstanding Achievement in Psychology and the Arts by the American Psychological Association in 2004, the Gustav Theodor Fechner Award for Outstanding Contributions to Empirical Aesthetics from the International Association of Empirical Aesthetics in 2008, the Science Writing Award for Professionals in Acoustics by the Acoustical Society of America in 2011, and the Gold Medal Award by the Audio Engineering Society  in 2016.

At the time Deutsch began researching the psychology of music, the empirical study of music was in its infancy. Deutsch promoted the field through many professional organizations, where she gave invited lectures and organized symposia, for example, at the Audio Engineering Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Acoustical Society of America, the American Psychological Society, and the American Psychological Association. She often placed this new field in historical context, for example in her book chapter Psychology and Music, in which she argued against the prevailing rationalistic approach to musical issues. In 1990, Deutsch founded the Society for Music Perception and Cognition, and served as its Founding President in 1990-1992, continuing as President through the Second International Conference on Music Perception and Cognition, which was held in Los Angeles. In 1983, she founded the journal Music Perception, as a forum for psychologists, neuroscientists, engineers, music theorists, and composers to exchange ideas and report new findings; she served as the journal’s Founding Editor from 1983 to 1995. Her edited volume The Psychology of Music, 1982 (2nd ed. 1999; 3rd ed., 2013) is the standard Handbook for the field.

Deutsch is highly sought after as a public speaker. She has given public lectures, for example, at The Kennedy Center for Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., The Exploratorium in San Francisco, the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center in San Diego, The Skeptic’s Society in Pasadena, IRCAM in Paris, the Vienna Music Festival, The Festival of Two Worlds, in Spoleto, and The Royal Swedish Academy of Music in Stockholm. Deutsch’s work is often featured in newspapers and magazines worldwide, including Scientific American, New Scientist, New York Times, The Washington Post, U.S. News and World Report, The Daily Mail, Globe and Mail, The Guardian, Huffington Post, The Telegraph, ScienceNow, National Geographic, Pour La Science (France) Spiegel (Germany), Die Welt (Germany), Forskning (Norway), NZZ am Sonntag (Switzerland) and many others. She is frequently interviewed on radio, such as NBC (particularly Radiolab), BBC, CBC, ABC, German Public Radio, Italian Public Radio (RAI) and Austrian Public Radio. She has appeared on television episodes of NOVA, Redes TV (Spain), BBC, and the Discovery Channel, among others. Her illusions have been exhibited in numerous museums, such as The Exporatorium, The Boston Museum of Science, The Denver Museum of Nature and Science, The Franklin Institute, and other museums worldwide.

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