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Topic: The Genetics of Perfect Pitch

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  1. #1

    Lightbulb The Genetics of Perfect Pitch

    Hi All,

    There is an interesting article (open public access!) in the current Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA studying perfect pitch (aka "absolute pitch") - E.A. Athos et al., Proc Natl Acad Sci USA (2007) 104:14795-800.

    Among the interesting findings:
    • People with perfect pitch scored in a group completely separate from everyone else, rather than just at one end of a bell curve, on tests of pitch perception;
    • Perfect pitch declines with age: people in their 50s with perfect pitch weren't quite as perfect (and they consistently identified notes as sharper than they were);
    • G# was the most difficult note to identify -- substantially more than any other note;
    • "A" (alone) could be substantially sharp or flat, and still be recognized as "A";
    • The results suggested to the authors that perfect pitch is probably due to just one or only a few genes;
    • Some people with perfect pitch were consistently a half step sharp! (I guess they're only "semi-perfect"... )


    Enjoy,

    Grant
    ==============================
    Grant Green ||| www.contrabass.com
    Sarrusophones and other seismic devices

  2. #2
    Senior Member Styxx's Avatar
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    Re: The Genetics of Perfect Pitch

    A few years ago my twin and I were a part of a pitch recognition study to see if twins hear pitches the same. Turned out we both had different explainations of pitch but mine was more accurate than his. The explaination was my 7 years in music college with for years of ear training. My twin never had formal lessons at any level. This was not to say there was an extreme difference. As a matter of fact the difference was slight.
    Anyway, I would have done better if my trainer would have stopped cracking that wip in my ears and poking me with that wooden chair! Ear training indeed!
    Styxx

  3. #3

    Re: The Genetics of Perfect Pitch

    The screaming choir-lady story struck a chord (?) with me... I've got sort of semi-perfect pitch in that I can be a semitone out occasionally, but any more than that drives me into a similar frenzy, which leads me to a question for other pianists: can you play a de-tuned (rather than just wonkily out-of-tune) piano ? Although I've done all the formal piano grades, I play most often now by ear: if I come across a neglected piano whose middle C has slid down to (say) B flat along with all the other notes, I can play the music I learned from a score on it, but I can't play anything that I picked up by ear... my hands get lost on the keys because they're making sounds that my ear doesn't recognise. Anyone else have a similar experience ?

  4. #4

    Re: The Genetics of Perfect Pitch

    Quote Originally Posted by Ernstinen
    I'm sure glad I have relative pitch and not perfect pitch!

    Ern



    Raymond

  5. #5

    Re: The Genetics of Perfect Pitch

    What would this be called: I can't name a note upon hearing it without a context, but given an unstrung guitar I can string it and tune it, without a reference pitch, to match it's correct pitch perfectly. In other words, I couldn't tell you that a given note is G, but I can tell you, without a reference, if the G string of a guitar is correctly tuned or not.

    --gary shannon

  6. #6

    Re: The Genetics of Perfect Pitch

    Quote Originally Posted by fiziwig
    What would this be called: I can't name a note upon hearing it without a context, but given an unstrung guitar I can string it and tune it, without a reference pitch, to match it's correct pitch perfectly. In other words, I couldn't tell you that a given note is G, but I can tell you, without a reference, if the G string of a guitar is correctly tuned or not.

    --gary shannon
    I would call it extraordinarily convenient!
    In theory there is no difference between theory and practice, but in practice there is.

    http://reberclark.blogspot.com http://reberclark.bandcamp.com http://www.youtube.com/reberclark

  7. #7

    Re: The Genetics of Perfect Pitch

    I think there is quite a range of skills associated with perfect pitch. Just from my experience, a lot of people can develop 'pitch memory' which is often confused with perfect pitch ('perfect pitch' itself is actually extremely rare - I have been told some academics don't believe it exists at all, but that's a discussion for the Kodaly instructors...).

    Often detecting pitch might only be related to the sound of the instrument someone plays, e.g. violinists can pick the sound of g/d/a/e because they spend so much time tuning these open strings, or pianists that can hear 'a difference' between the white and black notes. A trick can be to think very hard about a piece you know very, very well, then use relative pitch to work out a note in relation to that. It takes practice, but then, that's music for you!

    On a humorous side note, I had an aural lecturer at Uni, who used to tell us we were singing in "A Flat" when we were actually in "A Natural". It was his way of freaking out the people who said they had perfect pitch so that they would practice their skills more. Sneaky...

  8. #8

    Re: The Genetics of Perfect Pitch

    "which leads me to a question for other pianists: can you play a de-tuned (rather than just wonkily out-of-tune) piano ?"


    I am a pianist with perfect pitch, so guess I can give an answer for this! I've only ever met one piano with this problem and had a terrible time, especially as I was trying to sight transpose from a Bb clarinet part at the same time

    It is fairly common with harpsichords though - baroque pitch being around A415Hz which I believe is virtually a semitone flat to A440, so a piece written in D sounds in Db. I can certainly vamp along to a baroque pitch CD a semitone flat on the piano, just because I am hearing the harmony in Db rather than D. I was playing around with changing the pitch at college on the harpsichords having learnt a Handel Suite in E minor then putting the harpsichord down to baroque pitch. It was OK so long as I was not sight reading!

    The fun really starts when you play in un-equal temperament. Try playing Bach's 48 in mean temperament - especially when you go beyond about 3 flats... C# major sounds lovely! But then it would to someone without perfict pitch too!


    "I think there is quite a range of skills associated with perfect pitch"

    I too agree with this. Whist at college I was one of about 20 students fast tracked in aural training to a year ahead because we was good at picking things out and dictation. It turned out that all of us in the class bar about 2 had perfect pitch, but it seemed to function differently with different people. Violinists for example were fine with dictating melody, but had real trouble picking out bass lines and chord progressions.
    With mine I find I can pick individual notes out of chords (so long as they are not too low and close together in the bass), I can transcribe bass lines and melodies, pick out modulations, sing a note 'from the air' as it were and tell you what a note is when played.

    However.... ask me to tell you whether your flute is sharp of flat and I'm at sea! Does anyone else find this? Considering it's a basic tuning thing that even people without pitch can do it seems crazy that I can't do it. One explanation may be that as a pianist I have never needed to do it. I also can't sing along to a recording or performance at baroque pitch - especially when there are accidentals.
    And something I found the other night: I can tell you what every note on the piano is when it is played on its own. But.... I own the post-piano Grandioso Bosendorfer which goes down to very low C. Once you go beyond the low A (bottom note on a normal piano) I loose perfect pitch. I can normally get the Ab a semitone below the A but any lower than that and it all goes horribly wrong!

  9. #9
    Senior Member Styxx's Avatar
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    Re: The Genetics of Perfect Pitch

    I don't know about perfect pitch but today at rehearsal an argument started over the key of a song the band is learning. Guitarist both had a copy off line of the lyrics with cords. Hmm, A minor? Nope, I said ... sounded more like E minor to me when I listen to it last at home.
    Well, we have it here and it clearly has A minor as the key.
    Let's give a listen.
    Sure as &^*! E minor.
    I feel so relieved me ears still work once in a while. But that's not perfect pitch, right?
    Styxx

  10. #10
    Senior Member rwayland's Avatar
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    Re: The Genetics of Perfect Pitch

    Well, here I go, getting myself in trouble on this subject again.

    Since a tone with a given number of vibrations per second is called A is purely a convention, and since the definition of the A which is now 440 Hz was not long ago 435 Hz, and has been other values, and is now by some undergoing more change, it seems to me that perfect pitch is a myth, closely related to perfect perception of color. Perfect pitch implies that there is an absolute, immutable principle at work which defines pitch. To me, it must be a memory phenomenon, whether conscious or unconscious. When I was tuning piano, every person who tried to demonstrate to me that they had perfect pitch failed miserably. My own case of accurate pitch identification was developed deliberately by memory, and eventually became quite accurate. When I was beginning to learn piano technology, it was considered great fun by the head of the shop to bang out a chord on a piano and shout, "Hey, Richard, what was that?" but since I was always correct, the fun waned. So I know that very good pitch recognition does exist and can be acquired, but that does not inexorably and logically decree that there is such a thing as perfect pitch. Precise pitch definition is a necessary invention, and that is exactly what it is. Genetic studies are trying to find a perfect pitch gene, at least one claims to have found it, but I still believe that since pitch definition is an invention, any study that finds a gene for it is flawed.

    Well, now, if that does not get me shot down post haste, I will be surprised!

    Richard

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