Researchers at UCSF have found that musicians with perfect pitch were four times more likely to report a family member with perfect pitch than those without it. According to a recent study published in PNAS, forty eight percent of those with perfect pitch said they had a first degree relative with the skill, while only 14 percent of those without perfect pitch did.The study also identified perfect pitch as a model trait for exploring the relative roles of “nature and nurture” in human behavior.The findings may offer insights into other traits, as well, such as language ability and, more broadly, brain development.
Nature vs. Nurture
Based on the absolute pitch survey and auditory test data collected to date, UCSF learned that the majority of individuals with absolute pitch began formal musical training before age 7. This finding supports the hypothesis that early musical training may be necessary for the development of absolute pitch. However, early musical training alone is not sufficient for development of absolute pitch, because some individuals with musical training initiated before age 7 do not possess absolute pitch. UCSF also observed that absolute pitch aggregates in families, indicating a role for genetic components in its development. It was discovered that a sibling (with early musical training) of an absolute pitch possessor is almost 15 times more likely to possess absolute pitch than is another individual with early musical training but with no family history of absolute pitch.Together, these observations implicate a genetic predisposition to the development of absolute pitch, which, when coupled with an environmental stimulus such as early musical training, can give rise to the perceptual trait.
Changes in Pitch Perception with Age
Absolute pitch possessors sometimes indicate a frustration with their pitch perception as they get older. They sometimes tell us that it goes “off.” It is interesting that this change can be observed and quantified only in people who have absolute pitch!
Distortion in Pitch Perception
By analyzing the vast archive of perceptual data accumulated over the Web, UCSF discovered that absolute pitch possessors tend to err on G# far more than any other tone, an error that occurs only on pure tones. Most often, G# pure tones are misidentified as “A” tones. UCSF researchers hypothesize that this phenomenon reflects the use of A as the universal tuning pitch in Western music. This phenomenon is reminiscent of a property referred to as “perceptual magnet” in language acquisition.
Source: UCSF Absolute Pitch Study website
BBC Story: Looking for Genetic Perfection