How and why are some people born with perfect pitch?

Mini-amplifier and headphones by Dineshraj Goomany, on FlickrMost people think they can sing better than they actually can (cue the image of you forcing a smile, hoping your ears could actually close up rather than endure the dreadful warbling coming out of your friend!). And a lot of people think they have perfect pitch and can sing better than Mariah Carey and Ella Fitzgerald; but if truth be told, you probably aren’t. Not even close!

Perfect pitch (or absolute pitch) is the rare ability to identify a note (on a musical scale) without a single reference point. Just like most people can recognize triangles and squares as shapes, people who possess perfect pitch can instantly recognize an E or an F sharp.

One piece of research claims EVERYONE is born with perfect pitch, with only 1 in 10,000 people sustaining this unique skill into adulthood. Many different studies have been performed (pun unintentional) trying to pin down its conception, with differing results. What is consistent within the different studies is that practice is needed to maintain this talent:

Like most other skills and abilities (swimming, reading, juggling, burping the alphabet etc), a certain level of training is required. Think about when you first tried to learn another language at school – at a young age you were able to remember a few of those French phases, but you needed to practice and learn them in order to recall it in later life.

Psychologists have suggested that training needs to happen at a very early age: proper terminology needs to be learnt in order to associate them with sensory impressions of pitch (i.e. the pitch and loudness of sound that contribute to the overall sensory impression). For example, someone like Mozart who apparently had perfect pitch would have ideally needed to begin music lessons at around the age of 5. As if it wasn’t unfair enough, you only really have until the tender age of 9 before it essentially becomes impossible to develop true perfect pitch – so best to get your practices in early!

To support this, other psychological studies (like statistical learning) have been performed that show how a group of infants and a group of adults hear and process sounds in fundamentally different ways – with the babies displaying more perfect pitch, trumping their adult competition!

So, if you wish for your child to be the next Celine Dion or Mariah Carey – you know what you need to do: switch those Ipads and game consoles for musical instruments and training before their ninth birthday! (Or get some musical apps – Ed)

Answer By Chloe Westley


Image Source: Mini-amplifier and headphones by Dineshraj Goomany, on Flickr

Article by Chloe Westley

November 18, 2014

Based in Manchester, UK, Chloe spends most of her time getting up close and personal with a zippy bit of kit called a Raman spectrometer. In between doing some high-brow research as part of a PhD, she follows tennis, cricket and Man United (unfortunately) and loves watching Suits, The Big Bang theory and Breaking Bad (obviously!).

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