Perfect pitch is one of those traits we often associate with music greats or child prodigies. For some time, scientists have known what it is -- the ability to re-create or identify a specific musical note based on memory alone -- but not precisely how an individual acquires the ability. But new research is shedding light on this music world mystery.

According to a recent study conducted by University of California professor Diana Deutsch, genes play a large role in obtaining perfect, or absolute, pitch. The announcement was made this week at a meeting of the Acoustical Society of America (ASA), when Deutsch and her colleague Kevin Dooley stated that the rare trait might have just as much to do with genetics as it does with early musical training.

Past research identified early exposure to musical training as a factor that contributes to the development of perfect pitch. This has been particularly true for speakers of tonal languages, like Mandarin, who have traditionally been far more likely to develop a trained ear after early and extensive music lessons than speakers of non-tonal languages, like English. Deutsch and Dooley were especially interested in how, then, non-tonal speakers came to demonstrate perfect pitch.

perfect pitch
This might not help as much as we thought. (Photo: Alamy)

In order to explore the idea, the researchers conducted a study involving 27 English speaking adults, all of whom had been exposed to musical training before the age of six; however, only seven out of 27 had perfect pitch. They tested all 27 of the subjects' memory abilities using a technique known as digital span, which measures how many digits a person can remember and immediately recall in the correct order. In the test, the digits are presented in two ways: visually and auditorily. The visual test presents the digits on a computer screen and the auditory test sounds off the digits through a set of headphones.

Deutsch's digit span test showed that the seven subjects with perfect pitch outperformed all other subjects in the audio portion. But in the visual test, the two groups displayed the similar aptitudes. What does this mean, you ask? Deutsch and Dooley point out that auditory digit span has previously been identified as a genetic component, drawing the conclusion that memory abilities passed on through genes could explain why only some of the children exposed to musical training actually develop a gift for identifying tones.

"Our finding therefore shows that perfect pitch is associated with an unusually large memory span for speech sounds," said Deutsch in a statement released by ASA, "which in turn could facilitate the development of associations between pitches and their spoken languages early in life."

Our analysis: Budding piano prodigies take note, because thousands of hours of practice might not be enough. You may also need those pesky memory genes to obtain the flawless intonation we all seek. Let us know what you think of the perfect pitch assessment in the comments section.

The announcement was released during the 164th meeting of the ASA, held in Kansas City, Missouri this week. For more on the organization's recent research findings, visit their website here.

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