By Swetha Tandri
Many people treasure music so much that they consider their earbuds as an extra limb or hum catchy tunes during a lecture. But for me, an individual with perfect pitch, music is embedded in my nervous system. Perfect pitch is a rare ability that allows a person to sing or hum any note without hearing a reference tone. Recognizing frequencies like colors, I easily make sense of traffic “symphonies” and radio hits.
But this ability also alters my thoughts beyond just musical application. Perfect pitch has the potential to be a missing link in the nurture vs nature debate, but unfortunately research on this topic stopped in the late ‘90s due to the lack of appropriate testing technology. Now, it is essential that the study of perfect pitch be reopened in order 2to fully understand early cognitive development - a mix of nature and nurture. We must first understand how this rare condition plays a role in the brain, how it is affected by nurture AND nature, and finally how this, in turn, affects us.
Perfect Pitch and the Human Brain
Perfect Pitch occurs in 1 out of every 10,000 people. This ability can be traced back to the cerebrum, which is located in the uppermost region of the central nervous system. The cerebrum is responsible for memory, speech, senses, and emotions.
A diagram of the human brain (Credit: Pixabay)
Within the cerebrum lies lobes: each one responsible for one of the main functions of the cerebrum. In a study conducted in 2005, perfect pitch was traced to evoke the right superior temporal cortex inside the temporal lobe, which is responsible for processing audio and sound frequencies.
From scientific studies to personal experiences, there is plenty of evidence to confirm both genetic and environmental influences on perfect pitch.
Nature vs Nurture
On the nature side, Dr. Joseph Profita, a researcher and psychiatrist based in California with perfect pitch, concluded through a series of tests that perfect pitch is the result of an “autosomal dominant inheritance pattern,” meaning this trait is likely passed through a single gene. Research analyzed by Dr. Dennis Drayna studying 400 people from 60 families provided a 100% consistency “with the single gene hypothesis.” The potential discovery of this gene under modern technology could prompt discussion about its importance to human survival.
However, even if someone has the trait, it will remain dormant without the “correct” exposure, nurture. Unfortunately, nobody knows a surefire method that yields 100% success, but I believe that musical training from a young age is a must. If the mind is not exposed to music theory, how will it use the musically triggered ability? I only realized I had the condition during the summer of 8th grade after I had had years of piano, choral, and Indian classical music lessons. One popular route is learning relative pitch, the relationships between notes, not the notes themselves. Most musicians end up stopping here, though, as the rest is up to genetics and whether their brains are processed to store notes in long term memory.
Possible Implication - Long Term Memory
Since perfect pitch has elements from both ends of the spectrum, it may better explain the relationships between genetic predisposition and natural development.
Interestingly, the temporal lobe's function in Absolute Pitch (AP) can be traced to long term memory recollection. In a study conducted more than 10 years ago, when listening to tone sequences, non-AP processors had response potential, meaning neural signals were activated in response to a stimulus (processing the note sounds). However, in perfect pitched individuals, the response potential was absent. They didn’t need working memory to identify notes because the pitch itself was wired into their brains.
These results support the theory that perfect pitched individuals naturally use labeling of the notes (thinking conceptually) more than perceiving them, like how most people recognize colors. Just like it is difficult to explain colors to someone without sight, individuals with perfect pitch struggle to explain how they process sound frequencies.
This process of development may connect with nurture, as children are taught different labeling vocabularies (like colors and languages) to better long term memory.
Are the effects of perfect pitch unique to itself, or is it just one piece in a larger implication? If so, what does this mean for our advancement as a species and as a society?
Further study of this product of genetics, brain structure, development, and environment will hopefully make the answers more certain.
Perfect pitch is a superpower waiting to be explored, and as a proud individual with this ability, I cannot wait to stretch the boundaries of its use.