23    Oct 20121 comment

Family: Music in your genes?

Are you one of those rare people who can sing a certain note without hearing any reference tones? We call this perfect pitch.

When I began music classes in school at a very young age, a few of our classmates had perfect pitch. One class focused on sight-reading melodies. The teacher went around the room and called on each of us to sing a specific section.

I definitely did not have perfect pitch and I used every creative excuse to get out of these exercises. I could hear the melody in my head but simply couldn't reproduce it in sound. I knew absolutely and instinctively when someone else got a note wrong but I could never sing it myself. Our perfect pitch friends looked at the melody and sang it perfectly.

Thankfully, the teacher realized I would never be able to do that and eventually stopped calling on me (the rest of the class also appreciated that!). I could play the melody on violin and piano, but could never sing it.

I always thought it was something you were born with - an inherited talent - however new research shows it has to do as much with genetics as it does with studying an instrument or voice.

What is really interesting is that speakers of tonal languages - like Mandarin - are more likely to develop it, while those who speak English and other non-tonal languages are less likely to develop it, even if exposed to early, extensive musical training.

“We have wondered if perfect pitch is as much about nature or nurture,” said Diana Deutsch, a professor of psychology at the University of California, San Diego. “What is clear is that musically trained individuals who speak a non-tone language can acquire absolute pitch, but it is still a remarkably rare talent. What has been less clear is why most others with equivalent musical training do not.”

The study included 27 English-speaking adults, seven had perfect pitch. All had begun musical training at or before age 6. Memory ability was tested with a test called digit span, which measures how many digits a person can remember and immediately repeat in correct order. The numbers were given visually (via a computer screen) or audibly (via headphones).

The adults with perfect pitch outperformed the others in the audio test, but in the visual test, the two groups showed similar results and scores. Previous research has shown that auditory digit span has a genetic basis.

“Our finding therefore shows that perfect pitch is associated with an unusually large memory span for speech sounds,” said Deutsch, “which in turn could facilitate the development of associations between pitches and their spoken languages early in life.”

What an interesting study! Do you or your family members have perfect pitch? Do you know if your ancestors had it? Do think that perfect pitch is about nature or nurture? Let us know in the comments below.

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  1. This is fascinating. I am born Welsh and one might assume that music is in my genes fo that reason only. I am not sure if I have pefect pitch but think I may, as I hear (and comment) if a singer is a bit off-key. What interests me is that one of my granddaughters (my daughter's child), who is diagnosed with autism and is basically non-verbal, appears to have perfect pitch. She sings beautifully, including language!!, but only when she feels like it, NOT on demand LOL. My son is also very musical but my 2 daughters are not. I have wondered for years if music is the key to developing communication for this precious child. Anothe interesting research project for someone!

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