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Academic Minute

Dr. Diana Deutsch, University of California San Diego – Genetics of Perfect Pitch

In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Diana Deutsch of the University of California San Diego discusses the genetic and cultural factors that give some people perfect pitch.

Diana Deutsch is a professor of psychology at the University of California, San Diego, where she conducts research on the perception and memory of sounds, with a particular focus on music. Her current research project is examining why some people have the ability known as perfect pitch and why it is so rare. She holds a Ph.D. from the University of California, San Diego.

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Dr. Diana Deutsch – Genetics of Perfect Pitch

Perfect pitch is the ability to identify musical notes by name just by hearing them - an ability that's possessed by many world class musicians. While perfect pitch isn't rare among musicians who speak tone languages such as Mandarin, it's very rare in the Western world, and scientists are puzzled about how it's acquired. In our study, a group of English-speaking adults with perfect pitch displayed an unusually strong memory for spoken words; this strong memory could foster the development of associations between musical notes and their spoken names early in life.

Our subjects were twenty-seven English-speaking adults, seven of whom had perfect pitch. All the subjects had begun extensive musical training at age 6 or earlier. We tested the subjects' memories using the digit span. This measures how many digits a person can hold in memory and immediately recall in correct order. Strings of digits were presented either as spoken words, or as numbers on a computer screen. The subjects with perfect pitch substantially outperformed the others on the audio portion of the test - they recalled 10 digits on the average, while the others recalled just over 8 digits.

Now, since an unusually strong memory for spoken words could promote the development of associations between pitches and their spoken names early in life, this finding could explain why a few people who speak a non-tone language such as English acquire perfect pitch. And since the digit span has been found to have a genetic basis, the large memory span for speech sounds that we found points to a genetic contribution to perfect pitch as well.

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