Telling sharp from flat is in the genes

Tones: Scientists resolve longtime debate over perfect pitch, declaring it is innate, not learned.

Medicine & Science

April 28, 2003|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

Samantha Foggle was just 3 years old when her parents took in a relative's old piano. Her mother managed to pick out a scale one day, naming the notes for the girl, and then sang her the "Do-Re-Mi" song from The Sound of Music.

"Three days later she was sitting in the kitchen," Lili Foggle, of Madison, Conn., recalled. "She said, `F ... The oven is an F.'

"I said, `What do you mean, the oven is an F?" Eventually, it dawned on Foggle. She went to the piano, plunked an F, "and sure enough, it was the [humming] sound the microwave made when it was cooking."

Samantha has "perfect pitch." Sometimes called "absolute pitch," it is the ability to recognize and name a musical tone without reference to any other note. Musicians and scientists have long debated whether this mysterious talent is inborn or a result of early musical training.

Now, a team of scientists led by a Yale researcher claims to have settled the argument, using the first test ever devised to identify people with perfect pitch even if they have never laid eyes on a page of music or played a note.

In findings to be presented Thursday in Nashville at a meeting of the Acoustical Society of America, David A. Ross, an M.D.-Ph.D. candidate at Yale's medical school, says "We clearly have data that says true absolute pitch is ... independent of someone's musical training. These people are born with this skill."

Those who don't have it, he said, might develop good "relative pitch" or "heightened tonal memory" - becoming skilled at identifying and remembering tones by their relationship to other notes or from other cues. "But it's not the same if you look deeper at the actual perceptual process that's taking place," Ross said. For example, his test shows their tonal accuracy is fragile, easily erased by musical "interference."

The sound of salience

"It suggests the idea that people with absolute pitch hear tones in a different light," Ross said. "Tones have a salience for them ... an identity that is not necessarily linked to a musical identity."

He suspects that people with perfect pitch might be decoding signals from the inner ear that are lost to everyone else. But that's an issue for future research.

Studies suggest that as few as one person in 10,000 has perfect pitch, perhaps one in 10 in the best music schools. Those who have it liken it to recognizing colors. When most people see blue, they recognize it immediately as blue. When people with perfect pitch hear a note, it automatically gets a label. It doesn't require any effort, any thought, they say. It's just there.

"I kind of picture a keyboard in my mind's eye," said Thomas Cantey, a 24-year-old medical student at the University of Chicago. "When I hear a note, it at once kind of lights up a note on the keyboard in front of me ... and, sort of instantly, I can attribute that note to that key."

Although sometimes the envy of their relative-pitch peers, people with perfect pitch say it's not always an advantage. "I've known some wonderful musicians who do not have perfect pitch, and some horrible musicians who do have it," said Clinton Adams, who teaches ear training at the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore.

"We're fortunate to have it, but sometimes I wish I didn't. I think it's actually harder," said Chris Kovalchick, 19, of Princeton, N.J., a perfect-pitch violin student in Adams' class. When an ensemble tuned to a slightly sharped (too-high) A, he said, "I felt like I was playing everything out of tune."

Performers with perfect pitch say being even a quarter-tone off key can stump them in figuring out the right notes to play, as if they're trying to read a sentence in which every letter has been replaced by the next one in the alphabet.

Vivaldi, Mozart, Beethoven and Rimsky-Korsakov are just a few of the composers who had perfect pitch. Studies show it tends to run in families, suggesting a genetic component. But debate continues over whether it is innate or learned.

Starting early

Among his Peabody students at least, Adams said, perfect pitch seems to occur most often among those who played a well-tuned instrument from an early age, especially piano and strings. "It has a lot to do with pitch memory rather than any specific gift," he said. "It's an environmental thing."

Kovalchick and Hsuan Lai, 19, of New York, both started training at 2 or 3, and both have perfect pitch. Classmates Kimberly Syvertsen, 21, of Sparta, N.J., and Robert Nicholson, 19, of Tampa, Fla., began at 10 and 11, and neither has it.

Ross said previous studies have found the same pattern, and researchers concluded the ability is the result of early training.

But "there's a problem with that argument," Ross said. "The way they test for perfect pitch is by asking people to name musical notes. ... If you're not a musician, you can't name a musical note. We've never had a test for perfect pitch [for] non-musicians."

So, Ross and his colleagues devised one.

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