National Geographic : 2005 Mar
Music is native to the human mind. There is not a culture on Earth that does not have it, and our brains are wired to apprehend and be moved by its magic. By contrast, absolute or perfect pitch- the ability to identify a specific musical tone without hearing it in relation to another one is an exceedingly rare gift, found in as few as one in 10,000 individuals in Western societies. People who possess the trait can identify the sound of an E flat or G sharp as effort lessly as anyone else can see that a fire engine is red or the sky is blue. Not surprisingly, it is more common among musicians. Mozart had it, and so did Beethoven. But what accounts for this peculiar faculty? Some research suggests the phenomenon may not be so unusual after all. Investigators at the University of California, San Diego, found that many people who speak tonal languages, such as Mandarin Chinese and Vietnamese, possess a form of absolute pitch, speaking words and repeating them days later at the same pitch. Another study found that 7 percent of non-Asian freshmen at the East man School of Music in Rochester, New York, were endowed with absolute pitch, as opposed to fully 63 percent of their Asian counterparts at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. But the relationship between absolute pitch and language cannot be the whole story. Not all tonal language speakers have absolute pitch, and not all absolute pitch possessors speak tonal languages. In Japan the trait is relatively common compared with the West, and Japanese is not a tonal language. Per haps a genetic predisposition for absolute pitch is more common among Asian popula tions. But a more likely explanation for its prevalence in Japan may be the value the culture places on early music training, exem plified by these young violinists undergoing Suzuki Method training. -~)I rA JK Pr'