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Posted by on May 22, 2013 in Articles, new articles | 2 comments

Start ‘Em Young: Two Studies on the Mystery of Perfect Pitch

Start ‘Em Young: Two Studies on the Mystery of Perfect Pitch

by Melissa Wimbish

Ahhh…what a mystery indeed. What is your take on perfect pitch? Sometimes I think it would make my learning-music-life so much easier. But, is that just a stereotype?

Let’s here it from you perfect pitchers out there! Does it make anything easier? Or just more annoying? Please leave a comment below and tell us what we’re missing out on here in un-perfect land.

This article was originally posted in the February 1998 New York Times:

Perfect Pitch Is Linked To Training Before Age 6

WHAT does it take to develop the mysterious ability called perfect pitch? The right genes plus early music training, a study suggests.

Perfect pitch, or absolute pitch, is the ability to hear a tone all by itself and immediately know what it is — a C sharp, for example — or to be able to recall such a tone. Most musicians have relative pitch: they can identify a note by recognizing the distinctive sounds of different distances, or intervals, between other notes.

Earlier studies have suggested that genetics and early music training is important for developing perfect pitch. The new study is based on a survey of more than 600 musicians.

Nearly all of the musicians surveyed who had perfect pitch said they had started their music training by the age of 6. The older the musicians were when they started training, the less likely they were to have perfect pitch. (Continue reading here…)

This article was originally published in the October 2012 Huffington Post:

Research Shows The Note May Be In Your Genes

Perfect pitch is one of those traits we often associate with music greats or child prodigies. For some time, scientists have known what it is — the ability to re-create or identify a specific musical note based on memory alone — but not precisely how an individual acquires the ability. But new research is shedding light on this music world mystery.

According to a recent study conducted by University of California professor Diana Deutsch, genes play a large role in obtaining perfect, or absolute, pitch. The announcement was made this week at a meeting of the Acoustical Society of America (ASA), when Deutsch and her colleague Kevin Dooley stated that the rare trait might have just as much to do with genetics as it does with early musical training.

Past research identified early exposure to musical training as a factor that contributes to the development of perfect pitch. This has been particularly true for speakers of tonal languages, like Mandarin, who have traditionally been far more likely to develop a trained ear after early and extensive music lessons than speakers of non-tonal languages, like English. Deutsch and Dooley were especially interested in how, then, non-tonal speakers came to demonstrate perfect pitch.

In order to explore the idea, the researchers conducted a study involving 27 English speaking adults, all of whom had been exposed to musical training before the age of six; however, only seven out of 27 had perfect pitch. They tested all 27 of the subjects’ memory abilities using a technique known as digital span, which measures how many digits a person can remember and immediately recall in the correct order. In the test, the digits are presented in two ways: visually and auditorily. The visual test presents the digits on a computer screen and the auditory test sounds off the digits through a set of headphones.

Deutsch’s digit span test showed that the seven subjects with perfect pitch outperformed all other subjects in the audio portion. But in the visual test, the two groups displayed the similar aptitudes. What does this mean, you ask? Deutsch and Dooley point out that auditory digit span has previously been identified as a genetic component, drawing the conclusion that memory abilities passed on through genes could explain why only some of the children exposed to musical training actually develop a gift for identifying tones.

“Our finding therefore shows that perfect pitch is associated with an unusually large memory span for speech sounds,” said Deutsch in a statement released by ASA, “which in turn could facilitate the development of associations between pitches and their spoken languages early in life.” (Continue reading here…)

Cover photo: Huffington Post 

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  1. I am, by no means a perfect pitcher however I know someone is is a near-perfect-pitcher. I took voice lessons from her grandpa and he was always saying that it is a double-edged sword. That if they are solo a capella they are great but if, say the piano accompanying them is just teeny-tiny, tiny-teeny off-pitch, then they just cannot match it. Whereas the rest of us can figure out that “gauging by the intro to my aria, I need to sing a hint sharper than usual” the perfect pitch people cannot do that, apparently.

  2. I mean, it does make some things easier- things like knowing what key you’re in, knowing what notes you’re hearing without having to count intervals, and hearing music in your head and being able to notate that immediately, I suppose. It would also be useful if you’re trying to sing something atonal with few reference pitches to hang on to. However, it does have drawbacks. Historical tunings, for instance, and having to drift with a choir that slowly drifts flat can be difficult to deal with. Also, perfect pitch extends beyond just the musical world, to the everyday world: car horns, train whistles, humming refrigerators, elevators dinging, ambulance sirens… these all become pitches with labels attached to them. Not that there’s anything that weird about all of that… but if something is making a loud noise that’s G sharp, and maybe 1/3 of a semitone sharp, that can get old very fast. Or maybe two elevators landed on the same floor, and simultaneously ding an A that’s just a hair sharp, while the other dings an A that’s just a hair flat. This can also be quite annoying.
    All in all, while it’s a helpful trait, it’s something that can be a hindrance and quite an annoyance at times, at least if one doesn’t learn to cope with the problems that may arise from it, or some of the problems that arise from it. Alternate tuning systems are something that perfect pitchers can learn to cope with for sure, as are drifting choirs. We can learn to be flexible too, but it takes more time and conscious effort. But if one wants to be the best possible musician they can be, they need to learn how to work with others, and how to cope and work with the skills that they have.

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