Why do some people develop AP and others do not? Well, it’s definitely not due to practice. Various claims aside, there is no scientific evidence of any adult being able to acquire AP through intensive practice. There seems to be a critical period in early childhood when AP is most likely to be acquired, and people who have AP don’t remember acquiring it. It just seems to happen. There is some evidence that it can be inherited. A person with AP is four times more likely than someone without it to say that a family member has AP.
In Western cultures, about 1 in 10,000 people have absolute, or perfect, pitch. But AP is far more prevalent in cultures with a tonal language such as Mandarin, Cantonese, Vietnamese, or Thai. In Mandarin, for example, words have a different meaning depending on the tone with which they are spoken, so people whose first language is a tonal language develop the brain circuitry very early in their development that links a certain tone with a certain word. The brain of someone with AP most likely links pitches with certain verbal labels (such as C or F) in the same way that a person speaking a tonal language links tones and words.
In 2006, Diana Deutsch, psychologist at UCLA who herself has perfect pitch, conducted a large study using first-year students at the Eastman School of Music, all non-tonal language speakers, and at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, all speakers of Mandarin. The Chinese students who had started music lessons at 4 or 5 showed a 60% incidence of AP, while only 14% of American students who began music lessons at that age possessed AP. The Chinese students who had begun music lessons at age 6 or 7 showed a 55% incidence of AP compared to 6% of English speakers beginning music at that age. And Mandarin speakers who began at age 8 or 9 showed a 42% incidence of AP; no Americans who began studying music at the age of 8 or 9 possessed AP. There was no difference with male or female students.
There have been lots of other studies, and they all confirm that speakers of tonal languages have a far greater prevalence of AP, and the earlier the music lessons begin, the higher the incidence of AP. Other researchers have looked at whether it is simply an ethnic difference, but musicians of Chinese or Vietnamese ethnicity who grow up in the States show the same incidence of AP as Caucasians. So it is how the brain circuits are wired for speaking a tonal language at an early age that predisposes one to develop AP.
Deutsch’s study and others show that beginning music lessons early is critical for developing AP. My friend Nan Shannon, who began piano lessons at 5, has a D.M.A. from Peabody and now lives in Denver, says that her first piano book contained a game. Each time she walked by the piano, she was supposed to play middle C and sing it. Eventually she was to walk past the piano, sing C first and check to see if she was right. Nan has perfect pitch. She doesn’t know if the game helped develop it, but obviously, the game was teaching the brain to associate a particular sound with a verbal name, the same as speakers of a tonal language do with pitch and words.
Even though I have always been able to name any pitch on the piano and on most other instruments, I always assumed that I didn’t have perfect pitch because I can’t consistently give the pitch of car horns, bells, chimes, or my refrigerator as some APers can. But researchers say that absolute pitch occurs on a continuum. Some people with AP can give the pitch of whistles, car horns, bells; others, like me, cannot. Some people with AP have it specific to a particular instrument. There is actually a term “absolute piano,” since for most APers who identify with a particular instrument, that instrument is piano. (Do a Google search for string players with AP if you want to find out what they think about a pianist’s perfect pitch.)
Some people have AP for just a single tone – usually their tuning pitch. And if someone grows up playing a piano that is consistently a half step low, and that person develops perfect pitch, it will be a half step lower than A 440. But Mozart’s AP was also lower, at A 421. Researchers count the consistency of naming the right notes, not the pitch standard, as evidence of absolute pitch.
Blind musicians have AP at a higher percentage than average, as do people with autism. Many AP possessors are better at identifying white notes than black (could be that they learn those first). There are actual differences in structures in the brain of people who possess AP. I won’t go into that here, but if you’re interested, Diana Deutsch’s website contains a list of her publications, many of which are available as PDFs online. Some of the publications are reviews of the current research, including research that has studied brain differences in APers.
It has been ironic to discover over the past few years that I have AP just about the time I may begin to lose it due to age. There are a couple of instances in which a pitch shift occurs for possessors of AP (other than the temporary shift we talked about in the last post). But on a permanent basis, pitches begin to be slightly sharper or flatter for some possessors of AP after the age of 50. With some, it is slight. With others, it can be as much as three semitones. And certain medications can cause pitch to flatten, particularly carbamazepine, which is used for the treatment of epilepsy. And I personally wonder about gabapentin, which I took for a couple of years for migraines. During that time, I was suddenly hearing at Baroque pitch, which was very confusing. But now that I no longer take gabapentin, my pitch sense is back to normal – just in time to start flattening due to my increasing years.
APers, any experiences you’d like to share?