Perfect pitch, also known as 'absolute pitch', is a skill that is desired by many musicians, but only possessed by a few. In having this skill, a singer does not rely on a 'starting note' or a reference to start in the right key. In this article, I will explore whether or not perfect pitch is genetic and whether any musician can learn the skill.
Scientists agree that perfect pitch can be linked to both genetic and environmental factors. Some people appear develop the skill naturally from an early age, with correct training. Others have developed the skill in adulthood. However, there are also those that cannot develop perfect pitch at all.
You can find research-based evidence below explaining how perfect pitch is both a genetic and learned skill. You may find the information below encouraging if you want to learn it yourself.
Is Perfect Pitch Genetic?
Perfect pitch has been studied over many years. Through observations in the population, biological evidence and genetic matching, it would appear that there is a genetic link to the skill.
Population-based observations have led scientists to believe that perfect pitch is genetic, but they do not provide enough evidence to be certain. Below are some of the key observations made in the initial research of perfect pitch.
Perfect Pitch Runs in Families
Most people with perfect pitch are born to at least one parent with perfect pitch, suggesting a hereditary link. In saying that, it can also be argued that musical parents are more likely to foster musical skills in their children from an early age.
It is Identified at an Early Age
Perfect pitch is usually identified between the ages of 5 and 10 years old. To have such a complex skill at a young age suggests there may be a genetic element. However, others argue that other learned skills, such as language are also learned at an early age, with the right exposure.
Those with Similar Training have Different Outcomes
The main observation that has led scientists to study the genetic link to perfect pitch is the variation in individuals with a similar background.
Within a group of children with the same musical training, starting from 5-6 years old, only a select few will have perfect pitch. In fact, only 1-11% of musicians are believed to have the skill.
This is where the initial thought came that perfect pitch is simply something you have or don't have. Fortunately, technology has now advanced enough that we can look at more objective differences in the population, such as brain development.
Anatomical Observations in the Brain
As pitch recognition is a process that occurs in the brain, scientists were led to study the brains of those with and without perfect pitch. This information is much more accessible now that MRI technology has advanced, allowing us to look at the intricacies of the human brain without radiation.
Right Auditory Cortex
The right auditory cortex is responsible for identifying pitch. When observing the brains of individuals, those with perfect pitch seemed to have a thicker right auditory cortex and more grey matter in this area.
The prefrontal cortex works in harmony with the auditory cortex, helping the brain to process music. It is also involved in memory. This area in the brain was thicker in those with perfect pitch.
It is believed that brain development is strongly linked to genetics, but even this is not direct evidence for perfect pitch being a genetic trait. It certainly supports the theory, but it is also known that the brain can develop as we learn new skills (ie. if an adult trains their pitch, their brain will develop in new ways).
The above evidence has led scientists to the study of genetic markers in people with perfect pitch.
Studies such as this one (Baharloo, et. al. 1998) demonstrate that environmental factors alone cannot lead to perfect pitch development, and yet genetic predisposition is also not enough by itself. They both go together.
In other words, you cannot be taught perfect pitch if you do not have the correct genetic component, but those with a genetic predisposition will not be able to develop the skill without training (or other environmental factors).
However, it is not just one gene that gives people the ability to develop perfect pitch. This study (Szyfter & Witt 2020) observe several possible genes involved, characterising perfect pitch as 'genetically heterogenous'. Therefore, if you have any of the genes involved in improving pitch recognition, you may be able to develop perfect pitch.
Below are the most likely genes involved in perfect pitch:
- AVPR1 (12q14.2)
- SLC6A4 (17q11.2)
- GALM (2p22)
- PCDH7 (4p15.1)
- GATA2 (3q21.3)
There is still much more to be studied in this area in regards to which genes are involved in developing perfect pitch. Regardless of whether or not the genes above are responsible, scientists agree that there is a genetic component that plays a role in developing the skill.
Can Perfect Pitch be Learned?
As I have mentioned, environmental factors are required to develop perfect pitch. This is just another way of saying that there needs to be an element of learning involved in developing the skill. Below are some reasons why this is widely accepted.
Several Asian languages have been linked to a much higher incidence of perfect pitch compared to non-Asian languages. This has birthed the theory that learning a tonal language from a young age increases your likelihood of developing perfect pitch.
A 1999 study (Gregersen et. al) showed that 49% of Asian students studying music at a conservatory had perfect pitch, compared to only 18% of non-Asians students. This has been confirmed by several studies studying Asian-based cultures against non-Asian cultures.
- Chinese vs American (2006 study)
- Chinese and Korean vs a variety of others (2010 study)
- Japanese vs Polish (2012 study)
In the Asian languages in question, such as the Chinese language Mandarin, pitch is used to determine the meaning of different words. This differs from the English language, where pitch only determines emotion/expression.
For example, higher pitch in the English language generally indicates happiness or excitement and lower pitch is usually associated with a lack of enthusiasm or sadness. It does not change the meaning of words, just how the speaker feels about them.
In Asian languages, on the other hand, the same word at a different pitch has a completely different meaning. Those that grow up learning a tonal language therefore become accustomed to identifying differences in pitch in order to understand the language.
Age of Musical Learning
The study I mentioned earlier (Gregersen et. al., 1999) also demonstrated that age may play a role in learning perfect pitch.
This study showed that the average age that individuals began their musical training. For those with perfect pitch, this was around 5 years old, whereas this was around 8 years old for those that did not have perfect pitch.
This is not to say that you cannot develop perfect pitch if you begin at a later stage in life. It simply means that it increases your chances.
In fact, one study showed that, of 27 English-speaking adults who had begin training before the age of 6, only 7 of those people had perfect pitch. Interestingly, those with an Asian background had a much higher incidence of perfect pitch. This ties into the theory that tonal language plays a role as well.
So Can Perfect Pitch be Learned?
The evidence shown in these studies suggests that perfect pitch is a complex phenomenon that may be developed through specific learning. Even more so if this learning occurs earlier in life.
This links back to brain development. At an early age, our brains are more susceptible to development. In adulthood, although we can still develop our brains, it is more difficult to do.
A study in 2019 (Van Hedger et. al.) looked at the development of perfect pitch in individuals who had learned the skill later in life compared to those who developed it at a young age. Of those who were able to develop perfect pitch as an adult, their abilities were essentially the same as those who had a 'natural' gift.
On the other hand, there are those that simply could not learn the skill, which links back to the suggestion that there must also be a genetic component involved. Around 3% of individuals are tone-deaf, meaning they struggle to recognise wrong notes and cannot develop perfect pitch.
However, the genetic component may not be as rare as previously believed. It is simply a lack of exposure to certain environmental factors (such as the tonal recognition seen in Asian languages and musical training).
Just like anything else (such as learning a new language), it will be harder to learn perfect pitch as an adult because brain development is much slower. But it can be done.
Is Having Perfect Pitch Rare?
I have mentioned statistics from specific studies above, but these are small sample sizes and relate to specific subgroups.
As a population, perfect pitch is estimated to be present in 0.01%-0.05% of people. This equates to a maximum of only 5-in-1000 people. However, among musicians, this jumps up to 1%-11% (a maximum of 11-in-100 or 110-in-1000 people).
In the Mandarin-speaking subgroup, researchers have found up to 60% of musicians to have developed perfect pitch.
This raises the question whether perfect pitch is actually more common than we think. It may just be that most individuals are not trained to recognise variations in pitch from an early age due to their language requirements.
Learn Perfect Pitch
Why not prove the statistics wrong and try developing perfect pitch yourself! There is a wide range of tutorials available online to get you started.
You can find a perfect pitch quiz at Tonedear.com. Even if you simply run through this quiz for 10 minutes every day, you will develop your perfect pitch skills.