so you can thank your parents for perfect pitch

Posted: 8/28/2007 11:31:20 AM

From: Kansas City MO USA

Joined: 11/26/2006

One gene may be key to coveted perfect pitch

By Julie SteenhuysenMon Aug 27, 5:23 PM ET

Musicians and singers work for years to develop their sense of pitch but few can name a musical note without a reference tone. U.S. researchers on Monday said one gene may be the key to that coveted ability.

Only 1 in 10,000 people have perfect or absolute pitch, the uncanny ability to name the note of just about any sound without the help of a reference tone.

"One guy said, 'I can name the pitch of anything -- even farts,"' said Dr. Jane Gitschier of the University of California, San Francisco, whose study appears in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

She and colleagues analyzed the results of a three-year, Web-based survey and musical test that required participants to identify notes without the help of a reference tone. More than 2,200 people completed the 20-minute test.

"We noticed that pitch-naming ability was roughly an all-or-nothing phenomenon," she said.

That lead researchers to conclude that one gene, or perhaps a few, may be behind this talent.

Gitschier said those with perfect pitch were able to correctly identify both piano tones and pure computer-generated tones that were devoid of the distinctive sounds of any musical instrument.

She said people with perfect pitch were able to pick out the pure tones with ease. And they also tended to have had early musical training -- before the age of 7.

"We think it probably takes the two things," she said.

They also found that perfect pitch tends to deteriorate with age.

"As people get older, their perception goes sharp. If a note C is played, and they're 15, they will say it's a C. But if they're 50, they might say it's a C sharp."

"This can be very disconcerting for them," Gitschier said.

The most commonly misidentified note, based on the study, is a G sharp. That may be because G sharp is overshadowed by A, its neighbor on the scale, they said. A is often used by orchestras in the West as a tuning reference.

Gitschier said she and her colleagues were focusing on identifying the gene responsible for perfect pitch, which will involve gene mapping. Then they will try to figure out what is different in people with absolute pitch.

"We'll have to play it by ear, so to speak," she said.
Posted: 8/28/2007 1:21:49 PM

From: Bristol, United Kingdom

Joined: 12/30/2006

Several terrified Thereminists immediately demanded that all living musicians lacking this gene be sent to build Radiola replicas in Gulags. Assertions by supreme court judges that they relieve their thongs of rusty metal and broken glass was met with quiet grumbling in an email that approximately five people opened.

In other news, a gene was discovered that represents a tiny chunk of God in all of us. Professor Richard Dawkins, sobbing in confusion, devoured his own face with a knife and fork.
Posted: 8/28/2007 5:09:35 PM

From: Brussels, Belgium

Joined: 8/27/2007

I think I'm pretty sceptical on absolute pitch...

My pitch recognition is really good, and just the few hours i've been practicing with my Etherwave it's improved. I can now sing an A without any reference, or find it on the theremin for that matter.
Posted: 8/29/2007 5:57:56 PM

From: Surrey, UK

Joined: 7/31/2007

I've always put it down to my electric shaver emitting an almost perfect G every morning (50 Hz, natch). When I was a poverty-stricken student, I used to tune my bass guitar to it. Mmmmm...
Posted: 8/29/2007 5:59:49 PM

From: Surrey, UK

Joined: 7/31/2007

Meanwhile, my jazz gene always causes me to fart in the key of Bb.
Posted: 8/30/2007 3:59:33 PM

From: Jax, FL

Joined: 2/14/2005

I Heard a story on NPR about this research and it started with an "A" played on a piano.

I said to my self, "That's and 'A'.", and then the announcer confirmed my guess.

I was pretty excited thinking maybe I was one of those lucky few with the right gene.

It wasn't until later in the story when they played another note and I guess it wrong that I decided perfect pitch was over-rated....
Posted: 10/21/2007 10:20:17 AM

From: Quebec, Canada

Joined: 6/18/2007

There's a kid in my Ear Training class at school with absolute perfect pitch; it's rather irritating because it means that he essentially doesn't have to try in the class. So instead he distracts the rest of us while we're trying to sight-sing.
I sort of like to argue against the idea of a gene being behind it. I know a suprising number of people who claim to have APP. One of my friends recently discovered hers; she just assumed that everyone had it and couldn't understand why people played out of tune. I really think it's something that we are all born with but is lost if not unlocked at a very early age. Neuroscience tells us that during puberty (and even before it in many cases) there's a sort of trimming-back of the neurons to optimize for life as the brain knows it. This is likely why it's very difficult to learn new languages properly after adolescence, and, according to my great knowledge of science and the world, why some have APP and others not.
Some research contradicts the gene theory, also, such as in Sweden (don't quite me on this, it's one of those countries around there) they taught a bunch of children APP and they had it for the rest of their lives.

For ages and ages people have claimed to invent teaching programs and such that teach APP (some are even linked to by this site). NONE of these work. It's a great ultimate dream and I figure at some point someone will get it right but I think it's still a long way off.
One thing that I think could work is something similar to the experiments done by Paul Bach-y-Rita in the 60s with blind patients. You can read about them in the book The Brain that Changes Itself. I'm not going to summarize them here, but essentially he had blind people seeing through vibrators on their backs which were hooked up to TV cameras. He also restores people's sense of balance when their vestibular systems are destroyed by making them wear a special helmet that inputs info through at diode on the tongue.
Basically what I'm getting at is that if someone took a tuner and found a practical way to input its readings into the brain, we could reinforce any remnants of APP system and perhaps even stregnthen it and unlock it.

So yeah, neuroplasticity is the way to go. I hope in several years to be doing Doctoral work on it.
Posted: 10/22/2007 9:57:46 PM

From: Toledo, Ohio United States of America

Joined: 2/22/2006

This is my 'Two Cents' on the topic of "Perfect Pitch": anyone can learn to identify musical pitch.
Being exposed as a youngster to music and being indoctrinated into a musical studies regimen at a very early age will most definately increase a child's ability to become "Perfectly Pitched" in the western conception of musical scale. Some children's brains seem to be better 'wired' to accept the 'pitch' programing, but almost all children would excel at pitch identification with the proper ear-training. That was a long paragragh; however, one should read it again.
I am a concert level piano tuner-technician. "Perfect Pitch" would be a detriment to my work. I listen to the piano, when tuning, in a scientific manner.
I do not have "Perfect Pitch", but I have a great sense of pitch. I have run into many people that have developed "PERFECT PITCH" AT THE WRONG PITCH! Many adults that have had parents that never tuned the piano and became accomplished piano players who subconsciously absorbed brain imprinting upon the wrong equal temperment pitches!
I think "Perfect Pitch" is one of the last elitisms that clings to the rotting corpse of the music Academe.

Good Luck,


Posted: 10/22/2007 11:48:30 PM
Brian R

From: Somerville, MA

Joined: 10/7/2005

fhqwhgads: If your instructor is creative, s/he can push Mr. AP's abilities to the limit (for his own good).

I once taught an undergrad at Cornell who relied on his AP to analyze harmony. It turned out that he actually couldn't hear a simple chord progression if I played it in D-flat major--even if it was something I'd just played for him in C major!--because he always just listened for individual pitches, and then calculated the harmonies from there. Of course, he could calculate a lot faster in near keys than in distant ones...

TeslaTheremin: I agree. Speaking of Cornell: when I was there, the regular classical-music critic for one of the local newspapers had AP, and he seemed always compelled to remind you in every review he wrote. Well, perhaps not every review, but certainly every review of a "historically-informed" performance that was tuned to something below A=440 (typically A=415, but sometimes even A=392). The point of the latter is to create an instrumental sound less high-strung than the 19th and 20th centuries... and yet, this guy would always complain, because to his ears it sounded as though people were playing Bach's Brandenburg Concerto no. 3 in F# major instead of G major.

Yes, as much as we sometimes covet AP, some people develop it into a [i]dis[/i]ability.
Posted: 10/23/2007 1:35:51 AM

From: Fresno, California USA

Joined: 3/26/2006

I vote for PEP (Perfect Enough Pitch).

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