Perfect Pitch, the Gift of Musical Geniuses

Only 1 in 10,000 people have perfect pitch. In other words, the ability to identify any musical note and play it instantly without any reference. In this article, we'll talk a little more about this particular skill that's recognized as inherent in the greatest of musicians.
Perfect Pitch, the Gift of Musical Geniuses

Last update: 17 August, 2021

The renowned neurologist Oliver Sacks pointed out that exposing babies early to auditory stimuli could promote the ability we now know as perfect pitch or absolute pitch. However, other experts in the musical field warn that this ability, although it can be trained, is more of a genetic blessing. Furthermore, it’s a gift that only a few possess when they come into the world.

However, what do we mean when we mention this term? As a matter of fact, perfect pitch is the ability to identify any sound and associate it with a musical note. Indeed, people who possess it have a prodigious musical memory. Studies suggest that this ability is present in 1 in 10,000 people.

It’s an ability that’s highly appreciated by musicians. Hardly surprising, as people who possess it are capable of perfectly reproducing a song or part of it on an instrument after hearing it only once and with no other type of reference.

Only children can be taught perfect pitch. It’s extremely difficult for an adult to develop this skill in middle age.

light-eyed child with absolute hearing

Perfect pitch

Experts consider the ability to recognize isolated tones instantly as a gift. Naturally, it’s particularly relevant if the individual is to have a career in music. However, when we come into the world, it seems our sense of hearing is one of the least developed of the senses. In fact, babies have a more evolved sense of smell, which is essential for breastfeeding.

McGill University (Canada) conducted some interesting research regarding perfect pitch. In this study, they found that the human eye has no problem discriminating between different color spectra. Indeed, we know how to identify blue, green, and red perfectly. However, perfect pitch, the ability to identify, discriminate and label tones without any reference point is not so widespread.

According to Levitin and Rogers (2005), if at 9 years of age a child has not given any clues to possessing perfect pitch, it’s extremely difficult for them to develop it later. In this way, one wonders if child prodigies, like Mozart, tend to possess a more refined than average hearing capacity.

Generally, we can distinguish about 3000 sound nuances. They tend to range from around 20 to 20,000 Hz. Does this mean that those who have perfect pitch have a higher hearing potential? The answer is no.

Characteristics of people with perfect pitch

Perfect pitch manifests itself in children between the ages of 2 and 9. For this reason, Oliver Sacks recommended exposing children to all kinds of auditory stimuli as soon as possible. However, this isn’t only to develop their musical skills. It’s because a sensitive brain with musical ability is a brain with great cognitive potential. In fact, these brains appear to be capable of developing better linguistic and mathematical skills.

Individuals possessing perfect pitch will display the following:

  • They’re able to identify musical notes quickly. They can also play them on any musical instrument.
  • They can sing and tune a note to perfection. Furthermore, they often only have to listen to a song once to be able to sing it, imitating each musical note.
  • Common sounds such as car horns or listening to people climb stairs, evoke musical notes in them.

Its origins

Perfect pitch is a gift of cognitive origin that originates from a specific ability. That ability is the memory of a certain frequency or sound. Experts also believe that children who demonstrate this competence at an early age possess greater communication skills. In fact, they speak earlier and mimic each tone, shaping near-perfect articulation.

Dr. Jospeh Profita et al of the University of Texas (USA), conducted a study regarding perfect pitch. They discovered that the origin of perfect pitch could be genetic. Furthermore, it’s more frequent in girls. Another interesting fact they discovered was that it recurs more in countries with tonal languages.

These are languages such as Chinese, Vietnamese, and also Yoruba, a language of  West Africa. In these languages,  people frequently use different tones of voice when speaking. It’s in these populations where perfect pitch is most widespread. For this reason, it would appear to be a genetic factor associated with certain regions and linked to a particular language that defines people with perfect pitch.

girl experiencing absolute pitch

Can you learn perfect pitch?

The truth is, that people have been trying to learn how to attain this ability for more than a century. They’ve used various types of intervention. However, to date, they haven’t had much success. Nevertheless, what experts have discovered is that it can be identified in a child with the necessary genetics before they even begin to demonstrate it.

The University of Tokyo (Japan) has developed programs along the same lines.  In fact, since the 1980s, they’ve been giving a type of musical education to children between 2 and 5 years old. It’s essential that the little ones are always in that age range to start this kind of training. That’s because it’s considered the critical period par excellence to develop perfect pitch.

So far, no progress has been seen in adulthood. However, perhaps in a few years, we’ll learn how to acquire this particular skill.

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