A Moment of Science

The Mystery Of Absolute Pitch

What does it mean to have "perfect pitch," and what factors determine whether or not someone has it?

A man listening to headphones

Photo: David Goehring (flickr)

People with absolute pitch can recognize any note without comparison to a reference pitch.

Most trained musicians have no trouble with relative pitch – the ability to identify intervals or to name a note given a reference pitch. With music theory instruction and ear training, it is easy to develop this useful hearing skill.

What Is Absolute Pitch?

But imagine if you could hear a tune and identify the tones without a reference pitch for comparison. Imagine if you could effortlessly identify the pitch of any car horn or telephone ring.

People with absolute pitch — also called “perfect pitch” — can do just this.

Like many seemingly inherent abilities, absolute pitch has been the subject of a nature-versus-nurture debate.

The Pieces Of The Puzzle

While the basis of this cognitive phenomenon is uncertain, many hypotheses have been made about the roots of absolute pitch.

In studies, absolute pitch has been found to be more common among speakers of tonal and pitch-accent languages such as Mandarin and Korean. Having absolute pitch has also been shown to have a correlation with early musical training.

These results suggest that developing tonal perception during the critical period of auditory development could be important to attaining absolute pitch.

At the same time, however, a genome-wide study of families with absolute pitch revealed a linkage to a gene on chromosome 8q24.21. So, clearly, multiple factors are at play here.

Nature And Nurture

Most researchers agree that the potential to deveolop absolute pitch is something that you’re born with: You either have it or you don’t. Pseudo-absolute pitch can be attained but it must be constantly practiced and reinforced.

Absolute pitch can seem like an otherworldly talent usually associated with musical prodigies, and whether the ability itself is a product of nature or nurture can be a contentious issue.

With research pointing to both genetic and environmental factors, the answer seems to be a little bit of both.

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Shaina Pan

Shaina Pan studies Neuroscience and English at Indiana University. She is a violinist, an internet junkie and an avid procrastinator. In her free time, she enjoys reading books, eating candy and playing chamber music.

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