Hitting the right note is genetic: scientists

Chicago: Musicians and singers work for years to develop their sense of pitch, but few can name a musical note without a reference tone. US researchers on Monday said one gene may be the key to that coveted ability.

Only 1 in 10,000 people have perfect or absolute pitch – the uncanny ability to name the note of just about any sound without the help of a reference tone.

“One guy said, ‘I can name the pitch of anything – even farts’,” said Dr Jane Gitschier of the University of California, San Francisco, whose study appears in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

She and colleagues analysed the results of a three-year, Web-based survey and musical test that required participants to identify notes without the help of a reference tone. More than 2,200 people completed the 20-minute test.

“We noticed that pitch-naming ability was roughly an all-or-nothing phenomenon,” she said.

Based on this, the researchers concluded that one gene, or perhaps a few, may be behind this talent.

Gitschier said those with perfect pitch were able to correctly identify both piano tones and pure computer-generated tones that were devoid of the distinctive sounds of any musical instrument.

She said people with perfect pitch were able to pick out the pure tones with ease. And they also tended to have had early musical training – before the age of 7.

“We think it probably takes the two things,” she said.

They also found that perfect pitch tends to deteriorate with age.

“As people get older, their perception goes sharp. If a note C is played, and they’re 15, they will say it’s a C. But if they’re 50, they might say it’s a C sharp,” Gitschier said. “This can be very disconcerting for them.”

The most commonly misidentified note, based on the study, is a G sharp. That may be because G sharp is overshadowed by A, its neighbour on the scale, they said.

A is often used by orchestras in the West as a tuning reference.

Gitschier said she and her colleagues were focusing on identifying the gene responsible for perfect pitch, which will involve gene mapping. Then they will try to figure out what is different in people with absolute pitch.

“We’ll have to play it by ear, so to speak,” she said.



September 2, 2007 at 6:31 AM

Interesting study, but if I had never read it I'd be none the worse off.
Don't think I'm slamming you or your choice of posts, it's just that I wonder what, exactly, this study will do for the betterment of mankind.
Yes, I know as well as you, that there are 'studies' made on the most bizarre things, and they, too, are frivolous.
Imagine if the time, effort and money spent had been used for some worthy cause, hmmm, maybe helping the poor, the people in New Orleans, the elderly, etc.
Again, I know you didn't write the article, I'm not 'yelling' at you.
You might not ever publish this comment, but if not, that's okay. I've at least told you and maybe that will make a small difference.
Take care.