Brain Differences Could Be The Secret To Mozart's Perfect Pitch

Statue of Wolfgang Mozart, Austria. Anastasia Petrova/Shutterstock

Mozart had it. Beethoven had it. And Charlie Puth has it. Wagner and Schumann did not.

Perfect (or absolute) pitch, AP, is the ability to correctly identify and name musical tones with no external references. It is an extremely uncommon talent – even among musicians. So uncommon, in fact, that fewer than one in every 100,000 people are thought to possess the skill.

Now, researchers have identified regions in the brain associated with perfect pitch. Their results have been published in the Journal of Neuroscience.

For the study, scientists at York University in Toronto, Canada, used an MRI machine to analyze brain structure and activity in the auditory cortex of 61 volunteers who had been split into three groups of 20 – musicians with perfect pitch, musicians of similar ability without perfect pitch, and a control group of individuals with very little (if any) musical training. Each group was matched for age, gender, handedness, and the number of languages spoken.

The 61st volunteer was labeled a "quasi-AP" because she scored high on the test for perfect pitch but was unaware she possessed this skill at the start of the study.

The scans revealed little to no difference between the control group and the musicians without perfect pitch. However, those with the skill displayed a significantly larger auditory cortex that appeared to boost their response to low-frequency and broadly tuned sounds.

The result implies that there is at least some genetic underpinning of perfect pitch.

Mariah Carey – another pitch perfect modern singer. Everett Collection/Shutterstock

This stands in contrast to other studies that imply early-life training in the art of note labeling is essential for perfect pitch to develop in the first place. This "critical period window" is thought to occur before the would-be musician's seventh birthday. However, the research team at York found that 20 percent of the musicians with perfect pitch had had no formal musical training (or note labeling) before their early to late teens. 

"Our findings suggest that genetics may play a more salient role for AP ability to emerge in neurodevelopment as opposed to a critical period alone," the authors conclude

But while the debate between genetics and musical training goes on, other studies suggest perfect pitch might not be so perfect after all.

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