Open Access Research article

Impaired pitch identification as a potential marker for depression

Michael Schwenzer*, Eva Zattarin, Michael Grözinger and Klaus Mathiak

Author Affiliations

Department of Psychiatry, Psychotherapy and Psychosomatic Medicine, RWTH Aachen University, Pauwelsstr. 30, D-52074 Aachen, Germany

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BMC Psychiatry 2012, 12:32  doi:10.1186/1471-244X-12-32

Published: 19 April 2012



Impaired auditory performance has been considered as marker for depression. The present study tested whether pitch perception is affected in depression and whether the impairment is task-specific or reflects global dysfunction.


Twelve depressive in-patients and 12 non-depressive participants, half of the sample women, volunteered. The participants performed pitch identification using a four-choice reaction task, pitch contour perception, and pitch discrimination.


During pitch identification but not during pitch contour perception or pitch discrimination, depressive patients responded less accurate than non-depressive participants (F = 3.3, p = 0.047). An analysis of covariates revealed that only female but not male depressive patients identified pitches poorly (Z = −2.2, p = 0.025) and inaccurate pitch identification correlated with high scores in the Beck Depression Inventory in women (r = −0.8, p = 0.001) but not in men (r = −0.1, p = 0.745). Patients did not differ from controls in reaction time or responsiveness.


Impaired pitch perception in depression is task-specific. Therefore, cognitive deficits in depression are circumscribed and not global. Reduced pitch identification in depression was associated with female sex. We suggest that impaired pitch identification merits attention as a potential marker for depression in women.

Depression; Non-verbal processing; Pitch identification; Motivation; Sex effect