Perfect Pitch, Memory and Musical Genius
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Perfect Pitch, Memory and Musical Genius

Why does having perfect pitch seem to be so closely tied to musical genius? (Part of) the answer might lie in the extensive musical memory perfect pitch can provide.

Perfect Pitch and Genius?

Investigating the roots of the perfect pitch ability is certainly very interesting, but it does not seem to answer one of the most intriguing questions. Why is this ability so closely tied to musical genius? This is not as obvious as it seems, because several musicians with this ability have some issues to deal with concerning music. Perfect pitch makes music easier to understand, but provides some difficulties when a piece has to be played a few notes higher or lower. As people with perfect pitch focus on the individual notes, and not on the link between the notes (such as people with relative pitch), this can be quite challenging.

Musical Memory

Yet there are a few subtle effects that can tip the scale to musical genius. It has been found that people with perfect pitch have a significantly better long-term memory for musical pieces. This has been confirmed by brain studies that observed the brain activity of people with perfect pitch who were listening to the same melody over and over again, each time with subtle variations in tone. Musicians possessing perfect pitch showed a larger reaction to the changes, which might indicate that they remember the original pieces better and even anticipate the notes that still have to be played.

This ability could be a partial explanation as to why Mozart was able to completely write out the composition Miserere by Gregorio Allegre after hearing it only once, or why Jimi Hendrix reportedly could learn the complete repertoire of a band after only one practice session. On top of this, having perfect pitch frees some space in the working memory, allowing the musician to focus on the ‘finer’ aspects of a musical piece.

Practice and Musical Genius

Of course, none of this means that someone with perfect pitch is a guaranteed musical genius. There are more factors at play here. Perfect pitch allows people to ‘understand’ music relatively easy in comparison to people who do not possess the ability, but to truly become a musical genius, dedication and lots of hours of hard work are required, for people with or without perfect pitch. Perfect pitch is only a useful tool, not a prerequisite or guarantee for musical genius.

References

  • Bermundez, P. & Zatorre, R.J. (2009). The absolute pitch mind continues to reveal itself. Journal of Biology. 8(75), doi: 10.1186/jbiol171.
  • Schulze, K.; Gaab, N. & Schlaug, G. (2009). Perceiving pitch absolutely: Comparing absolute and relative pitch processors in a pitch memory task. BMC Neuroscience. 10(106), doi: 10.1186/1471-2202-10-106.

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