A Proposed Study:

The Perfect PitchPhenomenon

Amber Stary

Stephen F. Austin State University

For many years, musicians and researchers alike have beensearching for the explanation behind the ability of absolute pitch. Amusician with this ability is able to recognize, name, and producethe pitch of a musical note without a reference pitch. Possessors ofabsolute pitch can also track the progression of keys and determinewhen music is recalled in the original key (Hantz, Kreilick, Marvin,& Chapman, 1997). Through the years of research on the origin ofthis talent, three main conclusions have surfaced.

The first of the three involves learning and experience. RobertLundin and Allen (1962) did a study in which they trained adults onpitch naming and found that their subjects improved significantly,with one achieving absolute pitch. Research has also supported thebelief that this ability requires a pitch memory acquired throughexperience and training at an early age (Wynn, 1992). Parncutt andLevitin (1999)made the statement, that like language, absolute pitch is developedearly during a critical period from exposure to fixed pitches andpitch labels. They believed this critical time period to be beforethe age of six. This training plus motivation, time, and effortallows for absolute pitch to be learned.

The second explanation of this musical phenomenon points to familyinheritance. An article in "Science Frontiers" reported that in agroup of 126 perfect-pitchers, 5.5% had parents with perfect pitchand 26% had siblings thus gifted (Corliss,1997). This statistic leads us to the belief that this abilityruns through families. Gregersen (2001)found that out of 600 individuals with absolute pitch, 25% of theirsiblings possessed the talent also. Both of the above findings havesparked the interest of researchers who are now starting gene mappingto identify the relevant genes.

The final approach to absolute pitch is one that involves thestructure and function of the brain. Knox (2001),recently reported a very new finding that there is an enlarged areaon the left side of the brain which not only analyzes speech, but isnow believed to discriminate among musical tones. He also reportsthat this enlargement maybe due to training. Musicians who haveabsolute pitch seem to show a relatively enlarged left planumtemplate (Lenhoff, Perales, & Hickok 2001). Researchers arecurrently continuing the study of absolute pitch brainlocalization.

All three of these explanations of absolute pitch are valid andquite plausible. However, Gonzalez (1998)proposes that incorporating all three of these might be the betterexplanation. According to Gonzalez, a family influence leads to anearly interest in music, which leads to cultivating that skill, whichallows for the establishment of new circuits in the brain involved inpitch perception. The current study was designed to investigate thisencompassing proposal involving learning, family inheritance, andbrain development. This longitudinal study will involve thirtychildren. There will be three groups of five children each that willreceive training; including one non-musical family group, one musicalfamily without a history of absolute pitch group, and one musicalfamily with a history of absolute pitch group. From the age of fourto the age of eighteen, these children will receive musical trainingof various kinds. There will also be another three groups of fivechildren with the same backgrounds as above that will not receive anytraining. The children will also undergo fMRI brain scans toinvestigate their brain development over the years of exposure tomusic. The hypothesis of interest is that individuals from a musicalfamily with a history of perfect/absolute pitch have a greaterlikelihood of developing not only perfect pitch, but also an enlargedleft planum template of the brain after fourteen years of training.This report describes an investigation of absolute pitch from thethree angles of learning, family inheritance, and braindevelopment.



The current study will involve thirty children who will be studiedover fourteen years, from the age of four to the age of eighteen.There will be fifteen boys and fifteen girls. All participants willbe screened for hearing deficits, neurological disorders, andprescription medications. There will be three groups of five thatreceive training throughout the fourteen years and there will bethree groups of five who will not receive any training. For both theparticipants who receive training and for the participants who do notreceive training, there will be one non-musical family group, onemusical family group without a history of perfect pitch, and onemusical family group with a history of perfect pitch. Parents will berequired to give consent and will be kept well informed throughoutthe experiment.


The materials necessary for this experiment are extensive. Thecurriculum that the participants will be involved in incorporates themethods and the materials used in the Dalcroze Eurythmics from theLevine School of the Music (TabletopProductions, 2002), the Harmony Road Music Course (HarmonyRoad Music, 2002), and Music for Young Children (Hood,2002). For every six-month test, the random order of pure pianotones covering two octave ranges of twenty-four notes beginning atmiddle C and ending at high B will be from a well-tuned Baldwinpiano. A microphone and a recorder will also be used during thetesting of the production of pitch without the reference pitch. AfMRI scanner will be used every six months to determine the areas ofthe brain activated by the stimulus of classical music. Classicalmusic will be played in the room of the fMRI scanner by a taperecorder.


The current experiment will involve one between quasi-independentvariable and one within independent variable. The quasi-independentvariable involves family influence with three levels includingnon-musical, musical with a history of perfect pitch, and musicalwithout a history of perfect pitch. The second independent variableis whether the subjects receive training or not. The dependentvariable is performance over time, which will be measured every sixmonths for a total of twenty-eight times. Therefore, this is a 28x3x2mixed design, involving thirty students. The dependent variable willbe measured in four ways. Subjects will be tested on pitch matchingand pitch production every six months as two of the measures ofperformance over time. The other two measures involve the fMRIresults of development of structure and function over time. Thehypothesis is that individuals from a musical family with a historyof perfect/absolute pitch will have a greater likelihood ofdeveloping not only perfect pitch, but an enlarged left planumtemplate of the brain after the fourteen years of training.


Children will begin a weekly individual, one-on-one trainingsession at the age of four. (Researchers are aware that at least twomonths over each year of this study will be missed by each child dueto various vacation times). The training program will be asfollows:

1. Ages 4-6: For thirty minutes weekly, subjects will learn thebasic building blocks of music (HarmonyRoad Music, 2002). The emphasis will be on ear training, solfegesinging, keyboard activities, and pitch and rhythm awareness.Children will be introduced to the diatonic scale and to musicvocabulary (TabletopProductions, 2002). Other fundamentals that will be introducedinclude simple meter, phrase, dynamics, and music notation.

2. Ages 7-9: For thirty minutes weekly, individuals will beginkeyboard repertoire with a higher level of difficulty (Hood,2002). The reading of music will also become more difficult witha stress on rhythmic acuity, beat, duration, and tempo. Instructionwill also stress aural perception, melodic reading, notation, anddictation (TabletopProductions, 2002).

3. Ages 10-13: For thirty minutes weekly, each student willfurther develop and build on the repertoire from above. Subjects willespecially concentrate on sight-reading, ear training, dictation, andrecognition of tonal chord progressions (TabletopProductions, 2002).

4. Ages 14-18: For thirty minutes weekly, subjects will developmusical skills such as ear training, memory training, musical readingand writing (HarmonyRoad Music, 2002). Participants will develop an extension of theknowledge of harmony and form with the aid of works in differentmusical styles. They will also become acquainted with major composersand their place in music history.

The testing of skills will occur every six months (twenty-eighttimes total over the fourteen years) at each level of training.Participants will be tested over pitch matching and producing pitch.To test pitch matching, subjects will be presented with random orderpure piano tones covering a two octave range of twenty-four notesbeginning at middle C and running chromatically upward to high B.After each pure tone, they will hear two tones; one will be thecorrect match to the pure tone and one will be a half step above orbelow the pitch. Correct and incorrect responses will be recorded. Totest the skill of producing pitch participants will be asked tocorrectly produce any pitch in the above mentioned two octave rangeof twenty-four notes without a reference pitch played beforehand.Correct and incorrect responses will again be recorded.

An fMRI scan will be conducted on each subject every six months tolook at both structure and function. Each time a high resolutionsingle scan will be taken as classical music is played in the room.These scans will be used as a background to highlight the brain areaswhich are activated by music. Then a series of low resolution scanswill be taken. For some of these scans, music will be presented, andfor some of the scans, the music will be absent. The images will beanalyzed using the subtraction technique to determine therelationship between a particular function and brain activity.


A 28x3x2 mixed ANOVA will be run for both time, pitch-matching,and pitch-producing. Examination of the performance on the musicaltests over the fourteen years will support the hypothesis thatindividuals from a musical family with a history of perfect/absolutepitch have a greater likelihood of developing not only perfect pitch,but also an enlarged left planum template of the brain after eighteenyears of training. I expect to see the performance on the pitchmatching to be about the same for all three groups that receivetraining; however those children with a family history of perfectpitch will perform more accurately on the pitch producing than theother two training groups. The groups without training will findthese tests more difficult and will show less accuracy than those whohave had the training for these tasks. However, the children in theno training groups that come from musical families are likely toexperience music in some capacity because it is likely that parentswith a musical background will introduce their children in some wayto music (although they will have been screened for any formaltraining). The fMRIs will show more activity, development, and growthin the left planum template in the participants that receive thisformal training throughout the years. This part of the brain will beslightly larger for these participants than it is for those withoutout the experience of training.


The current experiment would be a longitudinal study that wouldultimately try to resolve the perfect pitch phenomenon. Thisperceptual mystery is one that would be very difficult toconclusively explain. The only way to thoroughly study this mysterywould be to do a longitudinal experiment such as this thatincorporates the influences of training and family influence. Someproblems that might face a researcher doing this study would be moneyand time for a project of this magnitude. The researcher would alsofind it quite difficult to keep the commitment of participants forthis fourteen year time span. It would also be hard to control forexperiences with music outside of the training sessions. Despite allof the possible pitfalls, this would be a very interesting andinformative study. It would not only serve to answer the age oldquestion of the origin of perfect pitch, but it would also allow usto see a great deal about the development of the brain throughmusical training.


Corliss, W. R. (1997). Is perfect pitch favored by naturalselection?. Science Frontiers Retrieved on March 5, 2002, fromhttp://www.science-frontiers.com/sf111/sf111p07.html

Gonzalez, V. (2001). Early training and perfect pitch.University of California at San Francisco Retrieved on March5, 2002, from http://www.victorg/ITSA.UCSF.edu

Gregersen, P. (2001). Studies of genetic influence on absolutepitch. North Shore University Hospital/NYU School ofMedicine Retrieved on March 5, 2002, from http://www.provide.net/~bfield/absgenes.html

Hantz, E. C., Kreilick, K. G., Marvin, E. W., & Chapman, R. M.(1997). Absolute pitch and sex affect event-related potentialactivity for a melodic interval discrimination task. Journal ofthe Acoustical Society of America, 102, 451-460.

Harmony Road Music. (2002). Online course description. HarmonyRoad Music Course Retrieved on April 24, 2002, from http://www.harmonyroadmusic.com/review.htm

Hood. (2002). Mrs. Hood's music for young children. Music forYoung Children Retrieved on April 24, 2002, from http://www.astridhood.believer.ca/classes.html

Knox, R. A. (2001). The musician's brain. Boston GlobeRetrieved on March 5, 2002, from http://syy.oulu.fi/tbl/VOL1/700-799/b1742.html

Lenhoff, H. M., Perales, O., & Hickok, G. (2001). Absolutepitch in Williams Syndrome. Music Perception, 18,491-503.

Lundin, R.W. & Allen, J.D. (1962). A technique for trainingperfect pitch. Psychological Record, 12, 139-146.

Parncutt, R. & Levitin, D.J. (1999). Absolute pitch. GroveDictionary Retrieved on March 5, 2002, from http://ww2.mcgill.ca/psychology/levitin/grove.html

Tabletop Productions. (2002). Spring 2002 course schedule.Levine School of Music &endash; Dalcroze EurythmicsRetrieved on April 24, 2002, from http://www.levineschool.org/Dalcroze.htm

Wynn, V. T. (1992). Absolute pitch revisited. British Journalof Psychology, 83, 129-131.