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Perfect Pitch

October 3, 2005

How the brain interprets pitch has long been a mystery, but a new discovery is providing insights.


Picking out pitch. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

[guitar, trumpet, flute playing same note]

Although these sounds come from very different instruments, we immediately know they’re the same musical note. That’s our brain’s ability to recognize pitch, and it allows us to appreciate music and speech.

Now neuroscientist Xiaoqin Wang and graduate student Daniel Bendor of Johns Hopkins have found that monkeys share that ability. In fact, using tiny brain sensors, the scientists discovered a dedicated set of neurons to interpret each pitch. Bendor says human brains probably work in a similar way.

DANIEL BENDOR (Johns Hopkins):
It could be that just tracking what the pitch is is something that all animals share, and then through evolution, being able to track it over time is what gave speech and music-processing abilities to humans.

I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.