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Development in Children’s Interpretation of Pitch Cues to Emotions


  • Funding for this research was provided by NSF Graduate Research Fellowship and NSF IGERT Trainee Fellowship grants to C.Q., NSF grant HSD-0433567 to Delphine Dahan and D.S., and NIH Grant R01-HD049681 to D.S. Many thanks to Swingley lab members Jane Park, Katie Motyka, Allison Britt, Alba Tuninetti, Gabriella Garcia, Rachel Weinblatt, and Rachel Romeo. This research would not have been possible without the support of John Trueswell and his lab members Katie McEldoon, Ann Bunger, and Alon Hafri, who helped us run our experiments at Philadelphia preschools. We also thank members of the Institute for Research in Cognitive Science at the University of Pennsylvania and three anonymous reviewers for their suggestions. Finally, sincere thanks go to the children, parents, and preschool administrators and teachers who supported this research.

concerning this article should be addressed to Carolyn Quam, Department of Psychology, University of Arizona, 1503 E. University Blvd., P.O. Box 210068, Tucson, AZ 85721. Electronic mail may be sent to


Young infants respond to positive and negative speech prosody (A. Fernald, 1993), yet 4-year-olds rely on lexical information when it conflicts with paralinguistic cues to approval or disapproval (M. Friend, 2003). This article explores this surprising phenomenon, testing one hundred eighteen 2- to 5-year-olds’ use of isolated pitch cues to emotions in interactive tasks. Only 4- to 5-year-olds consistently interpreted exaggerated, stereotypically happy or sad pitch contours as evidence that a puppet had succeeded or failed to find his toy (Experiment 1) or was happy or sad (Experiments 2, 3). Two- and 3-year-olds exploited facial and body-language cues in the same task. The authors discuss the implications of this late-developing use of pitch cues to emotions, relating them to other functions of pitch.