The Musical Gift of Absolute Pitch, Also Called Perfect Pitch, May Lie in the Genes
By Miranda Hitti WebMD Medical News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD
Aug. 27, 2007 -- Got perfect pitch? You might be genetically blessed with that musical ability, a new study shows.
Perfect pitch, also called absolute pitch, doesn't mean you can hit a high C -- or nail any other note. Perfect pitch isn't about performing; it's about identifying a musical tone without hearing a reference tone.
Perfect pitch is a rare ability that's "outside the ken of most humans," write researchers including Jane Gitschier, PhD, of the University of California at San Francisco.
Gitschier and colleagues posted a perfect pitch survey on their web site and invited anyone to participate.
Testing for Perfect Pitch
The survey presented a perfect-pitch test. In the test, people played 72 tones through their computers and tried to identify each tone after hearing it for only one second.
During a three-year period (July 2002 through July 2005), 2,213 people took the test; 44% of them scored in the "perfect pitch" range.
That percentage may sound pretty high for a rare gift. People with perfect pitch may have flocked to the web site. Most people who participated had at least six years of musical training.
The data show that people either have perfect pitch or they don't, with little gray area between those two groups.
That finding suggests that perfect pitch "could be governed by the influence of only one or a few genes," write the researchers. Exactly which genes remains to be seen.
Pitch Perception and Age
The study also shows that pitch perception may fade gradually with age. But even youngsters with perfect pitch didn't necessarily ace the tone test.
For instance, people with perfect pitch correctly identified G-sharp only 52% of the time.
They may have misclassified G-sharp as A (the next note on the scale) because, as musicians, they're used to hearing A, which is the universal tuning note, according to the researchers.
Gitschier and colleagues liken perfect pitch to the ability to precisely name subtle shifts in color -- say, the difference between the yellow of lemon sherbet and a sunflower.
The study appears in this week's early online edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Curious about the perfect pitch test? Take it yourself on the researchers' web site at http://perfectpitch.ucsf.edu/.