Neuroscience researchers in Switzerland are trying to solve the mystery of absolute pitch, more commonly known as perfect pitch.
Most people need to hear a reference musical note in order to find the note they want to sing. This is why you often see a member of a choir blow into a pitch pipe before they can begin to sing without musical accompaniment.
But people with perfect pitch can accurately find any note without a reference note.
Perfect pitch ability occurs in less than 1% of the normal population and is seen 20% more frequently in professional musicians. The rest of us can only watch and listen in awe.
The Swiss research team’s current study is led by Dr. Lutz Jšncke in the music lab of the Department of Neuropsychology at the University of Zurich. In an attempt to uncover what happens in the brains of people with perfect pitch that gives them this rare ability, they found that two brain regions, specifically the auditory cortex and the dorsal frontal lobe, work together to recall and identify pitches.
The researchers have two different theories about exactly how the two regions work together. The first theory revolves around the idea that people with perfect pitch use a process called the categorical perception of tones. In other words, their brains handle musical notes the same way they handle speech, at a very early stage of sound processing. Both the auditory cortex and the dorsal frontal lobe are involved in processing speech, and the researchers believe the same connection exists when people who have perfect pitch identify notes. What’s more, for those with perfect pitch, the researchers believe that these areas of the brain are interwoven at all times and not just when there’s a task to be performed. Thus perception and memory information is exchanged very quickly.
The second theory proposes that people with perfect pitch can subconsciously allocate musical notes or tones to their memories and then process them later. This would occur primarily in the dorsal frontal lobe.
“Both theories make completely different statements regarding the moment and the anatomical location of the special processing and there is evidence to support both theories,” said Jšncke.
But both theories do seem to indicate that perfect pitch is related to how strongly the auditory system is linked to the part of the brain that processes memory. The researchers hope this new information will lead to new training measures that could improve the auditory skills of older adults as well as those with different types of hearing loss.