Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Perfect Pitch: An unexplainable phenomenon or a musical gene?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dtj01-u2sa0 (June 25, 2008)

Follow-up Source:
The American Journal of Human Genetics: Genome-wide Study of Families with Absolute Pitch Reveals Linkage to 8q24.21 and Locus Heterogeneity


At the University of California in San Francisco, Dr. Jane Gitschier is investigating the genetics of perfect pitch. The statistics state that one in ten-thousand people have perfect pitch. Roy Bogas, a child-prodigy classical pianist in San Francisco featured in this video, uses colour analogy to describe this instantaneous recognition of pitches without a reference tone. When identifying colors, there is no thought process behind it, it “just is.” People like Roy who are born with perfect pitch don’t necessarily retain it. Research indicates that childhood environment is crucial. Dr. Gitschier’s hypothesis is that the perfect pitch ability is not solely dependent on genes. She believes that this ability is in part dictated by genetics and her goal is to find the genes responsible for this trait. For her study, in order to do genetic mapping, Dr. Gitschier used participants with perfect pitch who also had a relative with this ability. So far her results indicate that if a person has perfect pitch, had early musical training, and also had a sibling who had early musical training there is a 50 percent chance the sibling will also have perfect pitch because they have the same genetic make-up. It’s presumably going to be a gene that has a simple DNA variant that gives rise to this ability. However, it may also be more than one gene. Dr. Gitschier’s goal is to use the results to figure out what this gene(s) is – how it leads to this ability, then use this information to see what other organisms may have this gene; Perhaps, she wonders, there is an association between this gene and other traits?

Upon a follow-up of Dr. Gitschier’s perfect pitch study, I found the latest results she has published in the American Journal of Human Genetics 2009. The results indicate that absolute pitch is genetically heterogeneous. These findings were based on a study with 73 multiplex absolute pitch families.


There have been endless studies on the question of whether perfect pitch is innate or if it is learned in early musical training. The title of the video is what drew me in because I am very curious to know if in fact research has discovered whether this trait is genetic or not. However, I was slightly disappointed to discover that even after 3 years of the on-going study with perfect pitch families, no conclusive results had been obtained. This may be a moot point because all researchers inevitably seem to come to the same conclusions when conducting studies on the basis of perfect pitch. This then makes me wonder if we will ever be able to find a decisive answer for what and why perfect pitch occurs in only “one-in ten-thousand people”? As a music educator, I am hoping that further studies in the area will indicate that a majority (if not all) of the perfect pitch ability stems from the type of early musical training received. If future research indicates this is the case, this will have an impact on the ways that music is taught at an early age, whether it is through the use of more ear-training or singing exercises.


Leila said...

Thanks a lot for the beautiful topic Lisa. I really enjoyed reading and watching it. I believe species traits are the result of their genes and environment ( here; learning music). I don't think a perfect pitch without training and praticing will be recognized,neither a person without perfect pitch gene will get this ability with an ordinary practice. But I still don't have a precise definition for "Perfect pitch" in my mind. Who is called to have a perfect pitch, and what level of music knowledge do persons participated in this study have?

Lucas Marchand said...

I was having an interesting conversation the other day with someone in our class about how perfect pitch is dispersed among students in music programs. First, it seems that the rate of perfect pitch in university music students is much higher than the average population which could be an argument in favor of it being something we learn. Second, it seems that there is an uneven distribution of perfect pitch among different types of instrumentalist. My own experience is that I have known many violinist and pianists with perfect pitch but there seem to be fewer numbers in other instruments. Again, this could favor perfect pitch being a learned skill. In most schools it seems that it is hardest to get in as a violinist or pianist since there is so much competition. The students who started their instruments at a young age are likely to get into university programs.

Perfect pitch is the ability to recognize the precise frequency of a note without first hearing a reference pitch. For example someone with perfect pitch can hear a note out of the blue and be able to name that pitch. For most people (myself included) we can guess at what we think the note is, but need to hear a reference pitch to be sure. Perfect pitch is like the aural equivalent of knowing exactly which way north is without the help of a compass. Your question brings up to the other side of the argument. Although I haven't witnessed this myself, I have heard stories of relatively unmusical people discovering that they have perfect pitch later in life. These people usually discover by accident that they think about pitch differently from most other people. In these rare cases, there must be some other factor at play. Perhaps genetics.

Michael Kolk said...

This subject is also of interest to me... there seems to be agreement on the idea that perfect pitch must be developed through training, while some people may have more of an innate ability to develop it than others. What I haven't heard addressed is the degree of a person's absolute pitch recognition. For example, having played guitar since I was quite young, I can quite accurately tune it (to a=440) without a reference tone, and recognize pitches played on it. This must be because I recognize the timbres of the notes of the guitar, because I've tried to recognize pitches played on the piano and have been far less successful. This ability has developed over years, and I suspect that people with much better absolute pitch than me have just developed it faster and to a higher degree. I suppose the researchers have designed their test to identify what they consider to be "perfect" pitch, but this makes it seem like either you have it or you don't... I feel that this ability must be found in varying degrees in everyone, probably depending on both genes and musical training. I also wonder if researchers have considered the role of timbre in pitch recognition.