The best musicians all have the perfect pitch
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The best musicians all have the perfect pitch

Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Sinatra and Hendrix - these and many others of the world's most famous musicians have had the "perfect" or "absolute" pitch which is given to few...

music Updated: May 20, 2009 18:35 IST

Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Sinatra and Hendrix - these and many others of the world's most famous musicians have had the "perfect" or "absolute" pitch.

The ability, defined as recognising the pitch of a musical note without having to compare it to any reference note, is quite rare in the US and Europe, where only about one person in 10,000 seems to have it.

Often lumped into the mysterious realm of talent, perfect pitch is - according to Diana Deutsch of the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) - probably more the result of nurture than nature, more environment than genes.

Deutsch and her co-authors find that musicians who speak an East Asian tone language fluently are much more likely to have perfect pitch.

"Perfect pitch for years seemed like a beautiful gift - given only to a few genetically endowed people. But our research suggests that it might be available to virtually everybody," Deutsch said.

Unlike English, many East Asian languages, such as Mandarin, Cantonese and Vietnamese, are "tonal", so that a word's meaning often depends on the tone in which it is said (not to be confused with intonation such as sarcasm).

Deutsch surmises that learning perfect pitch is, for fluent speakers of a tone language, akin to learning a second tone language.

The study follows up on one Deutsch did in 1999, which found that native speakers of Vietnamese and Mandarin exhibited a form of perfect pitch in enunciating words, which led her to hypothesise that pitch was an extra-musical ability.

Deutsch then set out to investigate perfect pitch in music. In 2004, she found that students at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, China, all of whom spoke Mandarin, were almost nine times more likely to have perfect pitch than students at the Eastman School of Music in New York.

That last study, however, left open the question of whether perfect pitch might be a genetic trait - since all the Mandarin speakers were East Asian.

The present study looked at 203 students at the University of Southern California's Thornton School of Music, all of whom agreed to take the test in class (so there was no self-selection in the sample).

Deutsch and her colleagues found that students who spoke an East Asian tone language very fluently scored nearly 100 percent on the test, and that students who were only fairly fluent in a tone language scored lower overall.

Those students - either Caucasian or East Asian - who were not at all fluent in speaking a tone language scored the worst on average, said an UCSD release.

These findings were published in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America.

First Published: May 20, 2009 18:28 IST