Curious Facts about Perfect Pitch
The term “perfect pitch” indicates the ability to identify the pitch of a musical tone without
an external reference pitch. The first studies about perfect pitch – or absolute pitch – can be traced back to
the 19th century and they focused on the phenomenon of musical pitch and the methods for measuring it. “The estimation
of pitch demands a musical ear. The measurement of pitch is purely mechanical, and requires simply the power of hearing and
counting beats,” wrote Alexander J. Ellis in 1876.
Despite the straightforward
definition, absolute pitch is still clouded in mystery: it is unclear, for example, whether it is something you are born with
or something you can learn. Genetics, professor Takao Hensch explains might play a role, but most of the studies think it’s
a matter of early-life experience, training or exposure to music. It is a cognitive trait, since it needs memory of the frequency,
a label for it (such as “B-flat”), and exposure to the range of sound encompassed by that categorical label.
Statistics show that only one in 10,000 people have perfect pitch. On the contrary, relative pitch—
the ability of a person to identify or recreate a note by comparing it to a note of reference and identifying the interval
between the two notes—is quite common among musicians and it can be developed through ear training. It almost goes without saying that Mozart was identified as having perfect pitch.
Even though Mozart is the only Western musician and composer who was explicitly acknowledged as having perfect pitch, Bach,
Handel, Chopin and Beethoven are generally known to be endowed with that ability as well.
There seems to be a correlation between tonal languages and perfect pitch:
a 1999 study conducted at University of California, San Diego led by Diana Deutsch found that native speakers of Mandarin
Chinese and Vietnamese, compared to their English-speaking counterparts, exhibited “remarkably precise and stable form
of perfect pitch in enunciating words.” A 2004 follow-up study by the same university then concluded that native speakers of a tonal language
can actually “acquire” perfect pitch in the same way they learn a second language.
Can Valproic Acid be the
key? Takao Hensch, professor of cellular biology at Harvard,
is trying to create a drug that enables adults to achieve the perfect pitch. Hensch explains that valproic acid, a mood stabilizer,
allows the brain to absorb new information as easily as it did before age 7, as it directly affects neuroplasticity. He gave
the pill to a group of people who had no prior musical training and, at the end of a two-week trial, they were tested on their
ability to discriminate tone. The results were, in his words, “remarkable” since there are no reports of adults
acquiring perfect pitch. That pill could be used also to teach languages.
Give it a try! Perfect-pitch training courses have been offered since the early 1900s and results generally
failed to meet the expectations of all hopefuls who attended them. However, if you want to know if you “have it,”
or if you simply want to spend time playing a curiously addictive game just try one of the zillions of youtube videos available. (courtesy of CMUSE)
The life of man in every
part has need of harmony