The secret to perfect pitch may all be in the genes, scientists say

The secret to perfect pitch: Rare gift shared by musical geniuses like Mozart, Bach, and Beethoven the let them precisely identify musical notes may be all in the genes

  • Musicians with perfect pitch have an auditory cortex that is 50% larger  
  • Researchers believe it is not musical training that enlarges this part of the brain
  • Experts scanned the brains of musicians who had trained for more than 10 years  
  • They had the same size auditory cortex as someone who had never trained
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If you sing so off-key that people run out of the room, you may want to blame your parents.

Perfect pitch may be in the genes instead of something you can learn.

Scientists have found the musical gift shared by Mozart, Beethoven and Bach is heavily dependent on the brain.

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Scientists have found the musical gift shared by Mozart, Beethoven (pictured) and Bach is heavily dependent on the brain.  They discovered musicians with perfect pitch have an auditory cortex which is about 50 per cent larger than normal (artist’s impression)

They discovered musicians with perfect pitch have an auditory cortex which is about 50 per cent larger than normal. 

But it is probably not that musical training enlarges the part of the brain which processes sound.

When researchers scanned the brains of similar musicians who had trained for more than a decade, they had the same size auditory cortex as someone who had never picked up a musical instrument.

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Dr Keith Schneider, senior author of the study from the University of Delaware, said: ‘It has long been suspected that perfect pitch is in your genes. If someone has the ability to recognise a note and sing perfectly in tune, it tends to be the case that their sibling can too.

‘There is the suggestion that musical training may enlarge the auditory cortex, but if that was the case than the other musicians in our study would have had it too.

‘More research is needed but it could be the case that people are predisposed to have perfect pitch. We saw far broader activity in these people’s brains in reaction to different frequencies.’ 




Perfect pitch is so rare only one in 10,000 people have it, but as these are almost always musicians, it is more easy to find among orchestras and singers. Beethoven (left) and Bach (right) and are among the musical geniuses blessed with the ability

Perfect pitch is so rare only one in 10,000 people have it, but as these are almost always musicians, it is more easy to find among orchestras and singers.

Ordinary people can only guess when they hear a note if it is a C, a G or one of the others on the 12-note musical scale. However people with perfect pitch always get it right.

Musicians fall somewhere between the two – able to identify notes but only if they first hear a tone, such as a C or a G, which they can then peg the other notes to. Beethoven and Bach had perfect pitch but Wagner and Schumann did not.

The US researchers scanned the brains of 20 people with perfect pitch, and another 20 musicians with a similar background.

HOW YOUR VOCAL CHORDS CHANGE THROUGHOUT YOUR LIFE

Along with how we look, our voices are one of the most characteristic features that set us apart from other people.

Yet how we sound alters over the course of our lifetimes, in response to physical changes in the body.

During puberty, surprising cracks and unexpected squeaks can signal the first major changes in your voice.

In boys, this happens between ages 12 and 16 and in girls, between ages 10 and 14. 

This change is more noticeable in boys. who can develop a jumping pitch, which can suddenly drop about an octave lower.

Girls’ voices also change as they mature, but less dramatically, and their pitch only drops about three tones. 

Dr Claudio Milstein, director of the Cleveland Clinic’s voice centre, said: ‘Before puberty, your larynx, or voice box, sits higher in the neck.

‘As you go through these changes, it gets bigger and moves down lower.

‘Your vocal folds (cords) also thicken and enlarge.’


Along with how we look, our voices are one of the most characteristic features that set us apart from other people. Yet how we sound alters over the course of our lifetimes, in response to physical changes in the body

Later on, as you age, you may notice other changes such as weakening of the voice. 

The joints of the larynx may thin and its cartilage may calcify further. 

The vocal cords may lose flexibility and elasticity, and dry out.

Sometimes, the muscles of the larynx can atrophy, become thinner and weaker. 

Your ribs may become more calcified and your torso may shrink, making your lungs may smaller, stiffer and less pliable.

Dr Milstein added. ‘If it’s difficult for others to hear and understand you, you may not want to sing in church, volunteer, or go out with friends. 

‘When you become more socially isolated, your quality of life drops. This can lead to depression and affect overall health.’

Both groups had been trained in music for 16 years on average, and practised about 10 to 12 hours a week, but the differences in three regions of the auditory cortex were only seen in those with perfect pitch.

The groups were compared to 20 people who were not musicians, a third of whom had never learned an instrument, while the rest had practised music for less than three years in their life.

The researchers were surprised to see that the non-musicians and musicians without perfect pitch had auditory cortexes of a similar size. Played ascending or descending electronic tones in an MRI brain scanner, their brain activity was much the same.

A leading theory is that pitch-perfect people must be exposed to music before the age of seven for their talent to emerge.

But the study, published in the journal JNeurosci, found three out of 20 people with perfect pitch had no musical training before their seventh birthday.

Dr Schneider said: ‘There does seem to be a genetic component, in that some people seem to have a propensity to develop absolute pitch. Of course they still need musical training to develop it.’

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