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Perfect pitch

Perfect pitch

The myth of "perfect" pitch. Very few possess it, but others still hold on to the hope that they may be able to "learn" it along the way. The fact is, only one in 1,000 or even 10,000 people has it. Scientists are currently investigating whether it can be inherited or acquired.


It is typical for humans to want something unique: sharper senses, higher intelligence, greater knowledge. Even in early childhood, we begin to compare ourselves to others, to use the slightest thing to gain an advantage—or sometimes we just have to accept that others are simply better at some things than us. Coveting keen eyes, a powerful sense of smell and better hearing are no exception. And if there are accolades to be had for "perfect pitch," then we want them too.


What does it mean to have "perfect" pitch?

The term perfect pitch refers to the ability of a person to identify any tone precisely without the need for any aids. For example, a person with perfect pitch can quickly tell whether someone is playing or singing in B, A, F sharp or C sharp. Someone with "relative pitch" would always need a comparison tone, for example a tuning fork. And, as you would expect, the majority of humanity consists of relative listeners.

But is perfect pitch always innate? Or is it a skill we need to develop? Scientists have been considering these questions for a long time. Their findings over the past few decades have been both extensive and diverse, yet they still cannot give a conclusive response. In China, for example, there is a much greater concentration of people with perfect pitch than in the rest of the world—among music students, the proportion of people who possess perfect pitch could even be as high as 60%. So what makes China different?

The first clue is the language. Mandarin is a very tonal language that requires a high level of accuracy in pitch. Therefore, anyone who learns the language from an early age possesses a lot of the qualities associated with perfect pitch. In addition, researchers found that 50% of Chinese musicians come from a household in which one parent was also considered to have perfect pitch. So perhaps it is possible to both inherit and develop perfect pitch?


So does it depend on which areas are stimulated in the brain?

According to the thesis of three scientists from the USA and Canada, we must always look to the human brain to understand how perfect pitch works. These scientists recently turned to magnetic resonance imaging to try to develop a better understanding. Their research subjects were made up of three categories: musicians proven to possess perfect pitch, musicians proven not to possess perfect pitch and amateur musicians.

During an MRI, the researchers played sounds for the participants and observed which areas in the brain were stimulated. While the participants with relative pitch displayed a more homogeneous result, those with perfect pitch displayed simulation in much larger areas of the brain (both in the auditory cortex and in the primary auditory center)—with particularly high stimulation in the nerve cells responsible for frequency processing. It seems that the ability to process frequencies is the key to perfect pitch, with the neurons in the corresponding areas working more closely together and forming networks more quickly.

However, our original question still stands: Neurons notwithstanding, can you train yourself to have perfect pitch or is our brain activity determined by our genes? Even if brain research is the key to solving the riddle, there is still much we don't yet understand about the mysteries of perfect pitch.


Photo: David Hall via Unsplash

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