Perfect Pitch: Why Some People Might Have Rare Musical Skill Possessed by Bach and Mozart

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Researchers have investigated the origins of perfect pitch. Getty Images

People with perfect pitch have the rare ability of identifying a musical note as easily as most of us can look at an object and name that color. Scientists now believe that's because their brains have more of a certain type of gray matter.

More than just being able to hear a note, "absolute" pitch denotes the ability to classify a sound totally out of context. It's an unusual talent which only around one in 10,000 people are thought to possess, according to the authors of a study published in the journal JNeruosci. That means even most professional musicians don't have perfect pitch. Experts believe iconic classical composers Mozart, Bach and Beethoven fell into this category.

Associate Professor Keith Schneider, co-author of the study and director of the Center for Biomedical and Brain Imaging at the University of Delaware, told Newsweek: "We found that people with absolute pitch have a larger primary auditory cortex and also have broader frequency tuning, so each part of the cortex responds to a wider range of frequencies.

"So when they hear a musical tone, a larger part of their auditory cortex is activated."

Schneider explained his team hypothesized that the brains of people with perfect pitch would have sharper frequency tuning. This could enable them to isolate and discriminate between musical pitches, they thought.

"But in contrast, we found they have broader frequency tuning," he said. "This suggests to us that people with absolute pitch can exploit what is known as 'ensemble coding,' where a network of neurons with overlapping frequency responses can precisely specify a note."

In their small study, researchers recruited three groups of 20 participants: those with perfect pitch, musicians with comparable skill but not absolute pitch; and a control cohort of individuals with no musical training. They underwent tests to confirm whether they had perfect pitch, and had their brains mapped using MRI scanners.

The study also goes towards debunking the idea that some people are born with perfect pitch. The team was surprised to find that several of the participants with absolute pitch developed their abilities later in life.

"A widely accepted view is that absolute pitch could only develop in predisposed people if they received musical training before a certain critical age, say 7-years-old," said Schneider.

The study doesn't, however, confirm whether a larger auditory cortex is the cause or an effect of having absolute pitch, acknowledged Schneider. It remains unclear whether those with a larger auditory cortex that receive the appropriate musical training are more likely to develop absolute pitch, or if developing absolute pitch causes the auditory cortex to expand.

Schneider hopes the work will inspire future research projects on other populations, for instance those with amusia that struggle with musical perception.

Dr. Jackie Clark, a certified audiologist and Immediate Past-President of the American Academy of Audiology who did not work on the research, told Newsweek: "As in every study, the final proof comes with replication. The study will need to be replicated with the same findings."

She agreed with Scnheider that the question of causality remains, but complimented the work as "elegant and well thought out."

This is not the first time scientists have investigated perfect pitch. One study published in the journal Cognition in 2015 also indicated perfect pitch can be learned.

Howard Nusbaum, professor of psychology at the University of Chicago and co-author of the study, commented at the time: "This is the first significant demonstration that the ability to identify notes by hearing them may well be something that individuals can be trained to do.

"It's an ability that is teachable, and it appears to depend on a general cognitive ability of holding sounds in one's mind," he said.

This article has been updated with comment from Dr. Jackie Clark.