Perfect Pitch and the Brain
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Perfect Pitch and the Brain

Perfect pitch, the ability to recognize tones without a reference tone, is a pretty rare ability. Recent research has been focusing on specific brain areas and genes, as well as the attention to detail people exhibit.

Perfect Pitch

What do Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, Jimi Hendrix and Ella Fitzgerald have in common? They all reportedly possessed the ability know as perfect (or absolute) pitch. This means they were able to name musical tones without the need of a reference tone.

There are several estimates for the prevalence of the ability, but one of the most often mentioned ones is that 1 in every 10.000 people in the U.S. and Europe possess the ability. Since there seems to be a correlation between the native language and the prevalence of perfect pitch, some cultures, where the meaning of words depends, among others, on tone, such as Chinese, have a higher prevalence.

Pitch in the Brain

Brain studies have shown that, in people with perfect pitch, a zone in the left brain hemisphere is more active when they listen to music. It is possible that this brain area analyses and filters sounds as they enter through the ear. It is the same zone that is responsible for the processing of language. According to the researchers, this brain area possesses a ‘template’ that links tones that are stored in the brain to a certain label.

But why do some people have this ‘template’ and others don’t? That’s where the genes come in. Through investigating families that exhibited perfect pitch, researchers have been able to identify four zones in the genome that are involved in the development of the ability. However, no genetic disposition has proved to be strong enough to function as an ‘on-off’ button, meaning that whether or not perfect pitch develops depends on more traits. It has been proposed that these genes might be responsible for an abundance of white matter in the brain areas responsible for auditory processing. Another possibility is that the genes make it easier to develop a template.

It’s All in the Details

Attention to detail also seems to play a role. Research on children has shown that those with perfect pitch perform much better than average on tasks that demand attention to detail. This seems logical, as the ability to focus more on separate notes than on the patterns linking the notes, which enables them to classify the tones easier. The development of perfect pitch also seems to be easier when children are exposed to a musical education at a young age, as young brains are more ‘malleable’ and will more quickly develop a ‘template’.

References

  • Ross, D.A. & Marks, L.E. (2009). Absolute Pitch in Children prior to the Beginning of Musical Training. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. 1169, pp. 199 – 204.
  • Wilson, S.J.; Lusher, D.; Wan, C.Y.; Dudgeon, P. & Reutens, D.C. (2009). The Neurocognitive Components of Pitch Processing: Insights from Absolute Pitch. Cerebral Cortex. 19(3), pp. 724 – 732.

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Comments (1)

As both a lifelong musician and one with perfect pitch, this has been a topic of conversation among my fellow players more times than I can begin to count. Two things for certain, it is both a gift and a curse (if either Jaggar or Richards had perfect pitch, they couldn't harmonize the way they do), and far more than one in 10,000 posess the ability. In fact, as we have often concluded, the number is more like one in 1,000, and is an ability that can be nurtured, often by putting your time in learning songs from scratch--by ear.

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