The researchers don't yet know which gene or genes are responsible, but they've begun the linkage studies to find out. They do know, however, that the trait requires early musical training to bloom.
How rare is perfect pitch, really?
Jane Gitschier: I gave a talk on perfect pitch at HHMI last year. The staff had the Steinway tuned for the occasion. I gave the audience of about 100 people our operating definition of perfect pitch: If I played a tone without an external reference, a person with perfect pitch could identify that tone. Then I played four notes on the piano. Just one person, a postdoc, quickly raised his hand and correctly named the four notes. The audience applauded. It's very clear that this is an ability the average person does not have.
Do people with perfect pitch know they have it?
JG: Yes, and they give the same answers to three basic questions. How long does it take you to tell what a tone is? They respond, "Immediately." How long have you known you have perfect pitch? "My whole life." How accurate are you? "I never miss."
Is this a case of nature needs nurture?
JG: Exactly. You need to have some kind of training to develop perfect pitch. It makes sense. You clearly need to be exposed to the definition of a notethis is a D-flat, this is an A-sharp. If you don't get that musical input by a certain age, around age six, you'll lose the chance to have perfect pitch even if you have the right allele.
Can a person develop perfect pitch without the genetic predisposition?
JG: People claim you can, but I'm dubious about it. You can develop very good relative pitchget to know what an A feels like on a violin, for example. You might seem to have perfect pitch. But you may not have it on other instruments.
How will this research benefit people in music?
JG: (Laughing) I don't think there is any application for people in music. I think there's a lot of application for sciencein the study of brain development and neuronal plasticity, and in educational issues as well. For example, it could help us decide whether to expose our children to certain things, like new languages. I tried to give my daughter piano lessons by the time she was six years old. It became obvious to me that she does not have perfect pitch, so I didn't push it. On the other hand, she's doing a beautiful job learning Chinese.
Photo: Barbara Ries
this story in Acrobat PDF format.
Reprinted from the HHMI Bulletin,
September 2001, pages 8-13.
©2001 Howard Hughes Medical Institute