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Perfect Pitch

September 20, 2007

A Web-based perfect pitch test reveals new details about the musical ability.

Transcript

BOB HIRSHON (host):
Decoding perfect pitch. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Pop quiz: What note is this?
[Middle C tone]
If you said middle C, you may have perfect pitch: the ability to name a musical note with no reference point. Thousands of people have taken an elaborate version of this test over the Internet, and human geneticist Jane Gitschier at the University of California at San Francisco studies the results. She’s found that generally, people either have perfect pitch or they don’t.

JANE GITSCHIER (Institute for Human Genetics, UCSF):
There are people who have incredible pitch-naming ability at one end of the spectrum, and at the other end there’s a population who are randomly guessing.

HIRSHON:
One possible explanation is that the talent has a very simple genetic component, perhaps even a single gene. The study also found that perfect pitch deteriorates with age, and that G-sharp is the toughest note to identify. I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.