Perfect Pitch in Humans Far More Prevalent Than Expected
August, 26, 2008
For Dr. Lee Bartel – Music and the Brain 2122H
A Summary, Review and Response
Researchers at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music and Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences have developed a unique test for perfect pitch. Tests for perfect pitch have in the past require that the subjects have already had some musical training, this new test can be used on non-musicians and is based on a technique used to discern how infants would recognize words in a language they are learning. Because of this new test, non-musicians can be tested for perfect pitch and prevalence in all humans can now be measured. The researchers have found that perfect pitch is widespread in the animal kingdom and is very rare in humans. Previous studies have shown that animals like birds can identify a series of pitches based on relation to each other. The test created by the researchers requires the participants to listen to groups of three notes with the groups played in a continuous stream in random order for more than 20 minutes. The team also transposed some of the original note groups to a different key with the knowledge of the test subjects. Students who used perfect pitch to identify notes heard the transpositions as a new group of notes they’d never heard before and students who relied on relative pitch heard the notes and automatically recognized them as familiar – seeming to sound like the same group heard before. The test results showed a number of non-musicians who used perfect pitch to identify groups of notes but did not know they had perfect pitch.
The researchers are not investigating the other cognitive abilities of the new group of listeners with perfect pitch and are trying to determine what might distinguish them from the more numerous listeners with relative pitch.
This new test to determine perfect pitch is very interesting as it now can include people who have not had any musical training. I was surprised to hear that the researchers found that many more subjects without musical training had perfect pitch. I would be interested in knowing the correlation between people with perfect pitch and genetics and cultural background. Studies have already been conducted on the prevalence of perfect pitch in people who speak using tonal languages, I wonder if there is a connection with genetics and perfect pitch as well. Perhaps there is a perfect pitch gene out there somewhere?