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UD junior David Krall (left) names each note
and its respective octave as Keith Schneider, director of the Center for
Biomedical and Brain Imaging, conducts an informal perfect pitch
test, playing a random series of notes in a broad range of
frequencies. Krall was 100 percent accurate.
Play a note, any
note on your piano, your harp, your synthesizer, your kazoo.
University of Delaware junior David Krall can tell you exactly which
note youre playing and which octave it lives in.
He has perfect pitch the mind-boggling ability to accurately identify a musical note without any other reference point.
Mere mortals such as us cannot grasp this. And scientists say it is
rare indeed, occurring in just one in 10,000 people, a small subset that
includes Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, pop singer Mariah Carey and, yes,
Krall. (More on him later.)
We now know that the brains of this rare breed are different, too.
In research published Monday, Feb. 11 by the Journal of Neuroscience,
University of Delaware neuroscientist Keith Schneider and collaborators
at York University in Toronto, Ontario, show that the brains of those
with absolute pitch the more formal name of this ability have a
larger auditory cortex, a part of the brain that processes sound.
They also found that most of that extra territory is devoted to
processing a broader band of frequencies, not a narrower band. The
researchers suggest this may indicate a greater ability to use ensemble
coding, in which networks of neurons with overlapping frequency ranges
encode the musical note, instead of a smaller set of individual
Researchers do not know exactly why or how these differences occur,
but they believe there may be genetic components and possibly
environmental factors, too. There are siblings with perfect pitch, for
example, and students in Suzuki music programs in Japan have shown a
higher propensity for perfect pitch, Schneider said.
One thing we didnt determine is whether this larger cortex is a
cause or an effect, he said. They could have had this from birth or it
could be because they developed an enlarged cortex through training. We
didnt determine that. Youd have to do a longitudinal study over
Does that mean you can learn perfect pitch? That is not settled
science. Some try, but it may be an exercise in futility and may lead to
Having perfect pitch may not be as desirable as you might think.
If you talk to people with it, its not clear that its beneficial
to them as opposed to distracting, Schneider said. Whether its good
or bad depends on who you talk to.
To watch a demonstration of the perfect pitch research, view this video.
The work was done at York University in Toronto, Ontario, where Schneider was on the faculty before he became director of UDs Center for Biomedical and Brain Imaging
(CBBI) in 2016. Larissa McKetton, lead author of the journal article,
was a doctoral student in his lab and the research was part of her
dissertation project. Also contributing was Kevin DeSimone, another of
Schneiders doctoral students, who wrote the software code, helped
analyze data and develop components of the experiment.
Ive always been fascinated about absolute pitch, said McKetton, who in addition to being a neuroscientist is a pianist, vocalist and composer
in her own right. What is so special about those who possess absolute
pitch is their ability to perceive a note or collection of notes and
recreate them in the absence of a reference tone. My interest in
neuroscience and neuroimaging allowed me to dig deeper into the neural
correlates and mechanisms that can underlie this ability that hasnt
been done before.
Move this whole section up, swapping places with the section above it.
Keith Schneider directs UD's Center for Biomedical and Brain Imaging.
Sixty-one people participated in the study 20 with absolute pitch,
20 trained musicians who do not have absolute pitch and 20 who had
little or no musical training. One musician was an outlier, and was not
included in the study results. This musician had what is known as
quasi-absolute pitch absolute pitch for only one note, middle C and
could identify most notes relative to that.
Those with perfect pitch identified randomly generated tones with 100
percent accuracy. The outlier was about 67 percent accurate. The rest
of the participants did as well as random chance, about 8 percent
All participated in functional
magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain scans. The information captured
there was mapped and analyzed with computer modeling.
A bit of anatomy may be helpful here. The brain processes sound in a
small area called the auditory cortex. It is found along both sides of
your head, just above your ears, in what is known as the temporal lobes.
The auditory cortex has regions of its own and scientists have
plotted out tonotopic maps, meaning that the neurons are laid out in
order of their best frequency response. These maps show where specific
frequencies are processed within these regions.
The researchers found that all participants with perfect pitch had
larger auditory cortical areas than the others. Other trained musicians
and those in the control group had cortical areas that did not differ
much in size from each other.
One surprise was that the larger auditory cortical areas were not
used for sharper tuning, as researchers expected. Rather, those with
perfect pitch used that extra territory for tuning a broader range of
frequencies. Those kinds of measurements had never been captured before.
They also found evidence that argues against an often-discussed
critical period theory that perfect pitch is possible only in people
whose musical training begins before the age of 7. Several participants
with perfect pitch had not started musical instruction until their late
teens or even early 20s, McKetton said. The vast majority of musicians
do not have perfect pitch despite thousands of hours of training and
It is not known if someone with zero musical training could have
perfect pitch. Certainly, they couldnt call out the notes if they have
had no music theory. But it might be possible to test their ability to
identify frequencies, Schneider said. That was not part of this
There is a range of capacity, too. People with perfect pitch can
identify the note almost instantly and some of them can also identify
the frequency. For example, they could say A4 the note A in the
fourth octave and they could also say 440 Hertz, the precise
modern-day frequency for that note.
There are other fascinating twists to all of this.
When Schneiders 14-year-old son, Felix, heard about this research he
told his dad he had perfect pitch. When Schneider tested him, though,
he got every note wrong until they adjusted the results for someone
who plays the trumpet, as Felix does. Trumpets are tuned one whole step
differently than pianos. So playing a C on the trumpet is the same as
playing a B-flat on the piano. When Felix made that one-step
correction in his answers, he was 100 percent accurate. He has perfect
In another study McKetton did, a 70-year-old man said he had perfect
pitch but got every note wrong when he was tested. She then noticed that
all of his responses were one tone off. The perceptual change in pitch
may have been due to age-related changes in the stiffness of the basilar
membrane within the cochlea of the inner ear, she said. When she asked
him to adjust his answers by one tone, he was 100 percent accurate.
Most musicians who do not have
perfect pitch do have relative pitch, Schneider said. They can tell you a
note or an interval based on its relation to another note. McKetton has
that ability herself.
Perfect pitch is rare, but its not always a wonderful gift. Off-key
voices and out-of-tune instruments can drive these human tuning forks to
When a group starts singing Happy Birthday, for example, Krall, the
UD junior from Hockessin, Delaware, usually takes a pass. The
discordant mixture of keys that usually emerges makes his ears curl.
He is not a music major but enjoys making music. A tenor, he sings with the Golden Blues, UDs a cappella group.
Krall said he had no idea what perfect pitch was until he was a
teenager and heard his girlfriend singing a Fleetwood Mac song. He
commented on her range and named the note that especially impressed him.
She asked if he had perfect pitch and he shrugged. Who knows?
The choir teacher later put him to the test with her piano and pronounced him pitch perfect.
On Feb. 5, Krall visited CBBI where Schneider tested him, using
computer software to produce a random series of notes, with a wide range
He answered fluently.
And on and on, one note after another, from 40 Hertz to 8,000 Hertz spot on, 100 percent accurate, perfect pitch.
Hes got it, Schneider said.
And if Krall didnt seem terribly impressed with himself well, why would he? He used to think everyone had this ability.
Thats how it works, Schneider said. If you look at a color you
can say blue. And thats the same thing hes doing with sound. He has
the same association with sound that you would with color.
Notable brain power.
Article by Beth Miller; photos by Kathy F. Atkinson; video by Lisa Tossey and Paul Puglisi