That’s An A

March 8, 2013

By Medical Discovery News

The composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart could hear a single, isolated musical note and identify what note it was, such as an “A,” by sound alone. What’s more, he could sing the sound of a single note at will. He had absolute pitch or perfect pitch, the ability to identify and even echo a particular note without any help. 

Perfect pitch is a relatively rare ability that occurs in as few as one in 10,000 people and almost always among those who have had musical training before the age of seven. Michael Jackson, Mariah Carey, Ella Fitzgerald, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Jimi Hendrix all displayed this ability. However, musical training alone is not enough to develop perfect pitch. Many with such training, even professional musicians, do not have perfect pitch. Tchaikovsky, Wagner, Leonard Bernstein, and Julie Andrews made do with relative pitch, the ability to define a note  with the help of a reference like a tuning fork. 

Perfect pitch appears to occur in families and recent as well as ongoing research suggests it can be inherited. A person who has a sibling with perfect pitch and early musical training is 15 times more likely to possess perfect pitch than someone with just musical training and no family history.

A study at the University of California San Francisco with over 2,000 subjects revealed that a person either has perfect pitch or not; there is no scale of ability in identifying pitches. Using DNA from 73 families, the research team attempted to identify which areas of the human genome are related to the inheritance of perfect pitch. Surprisingly, the genetic information they found was not located in the same place for every person who possesses perfect pitch. For example, in families of mixed European heritage, this genetic information is carried in a region on chromosome 8 called 8q24.21, which is essentially an address describing a gene location.

But in families of East Asian descent and in a small group of Ashkenazi Jewish families who have a higher incidence of perfect pitch than the general population, this genetic information was located on a completely different chromosome, with the address 7q22.3. Since perfect pitch can be inherited through different locations on genome, researchers are now sequencing DNA to discover all the genes associated with perfect pitch.

Another study in Denmark questioned whether a link exists between perfect pitch and autism, since those with sensory and developmental disorders have a higher incidence of the ability. While smaller in scale than the study in California, researchers did find that those with perfect pitch scored significantly higher on the autism spectrum than those without.

In another recent study those with perfect pitch had greater than usual abilities for remembering spoken sounds. When they were told a long series of numbers and asked to remember them, those with perfect pitch remembered many more of those numbers than those without perfect pitch. But when they were given a series of numbers visually, those with perfect pitch remembered about the same as those without. Therefore, some argue that perfect pitch is a way of recognizing sounds rather than a musical ability and can therefore be learned. They believe that while certain gene variants may help people acquire perfect pitch, almost anyone can be trained to label notes as long as they start young.

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