Mozart, Frank Sinatra and Jimi Hendrix supposedly all had perfect pitch -- the ability to identify or reproduce a musical note without any reference notes. The rare skill is often thought of as a mysterious genetic gift, but researchers at the University of California at San Diego have found that perfect pitch is significantly more common among fluent speakers of Mandarin, Cantonese, Vietnamese and other languages that use tone to distinguish between words.
In a study published in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America and presented at an ASA meeting last week in Portland, Ore., UCSD researchers tested 203 music students at the University of Southern California for perfect pitch by asking them to identify 36 piano notes. The students self-reported their musical education and ethnicity, and which languages they spoke and how fluently.
More than 90 percent of students who began musical training between ages 2 and 5 and spoke an East Asian tonal language very fluently had perfect pitch, compared with less than 30 percent of Caucasian speakers of non-tonal languages who started to learn music at the same ages. Within that early-onset musical training age group, the "very fluent" tonal language group also blew away those who spoke East Asian languages "fairly fluently" and "non-fluently."
Because the East Asian non-fluent tonal speakers and the Caucasian non-tonal speakers had similar test results, the researchers concluded that their performance was based on language skills rather than ethnicity.
"It also raises the interesting question: What other exceptional abilities might be latent in an infant that we could bring out if we only knew what buttons to push?" said the study's lead author, Diana Deutsch, who has perfect pitch.
(From The Washington Post -- Rachel Saslow)