New Study Ties Perfect Pitch to Genetics

SBO Staff • News • October 29, 2012

A new study by researchers from the University of California, San Diego has found that perfect pitch, a skill that has long been associated with early and extensive musical training, may have as much to do with genetics as it does with learning an instrument or studying voice.

Previous research does draw a connection between early musical training and the likelihood of a person developing perfect pitch, particularly among speakers of tonal languages, such as Mandarin. Speakers of English and other non-tonal languages are far less likely to develop perfect pitch, even if they were exposed to early and extensive musical training.

“We have wondered if perfect pitch is as much about nature or nurture,” said UCSD’s Dr. Diana Deutsch in an article on The Business Insider. “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,” she said. Deutsch has perfect pitch even though she never had serious musical training, and this is reportedly the case for many with perfect pitch. This suggests a genetic correlation.

The study included memory exercises, such as how many digits the subjects could remember, with 27 English-speaking students or recent college graduates, seven of whom had perfect pitch, and all of whom had started music lessons at age 6 or younger. Per, “Digit span looks at how well people remember a series of numbers when they see them on a computer screen or hear them. Both groups of students – those with absolute pitch and those without – listened to strings of numbers, followed by a visual digit span test. In the auditory test, those with perfect pitch recalled 10 digits, while those without remembered 8.1. (The perfect pitch-ers were also slightly better at remembering the numbers from the visual test than the non perfect pitch-ers, but only marginally so.) The ability to recall a string of numbers after hearing them has been linked to a person’s genetics, and because Duetsch found that people with a large auditory digit span also possessed absolute pitch, she believes there might be a genetic link for pitch, too.”

Read the entire NBC News article here.

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