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No. 102: Nov-Dec 1995

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Perfect pitch and sundry syndromes

Writing in response to a report in Science by G. Schlaug concerning the brain asymmetry observed in musicians with perfect or absolute pitch* (SF#99), O. Sacks expands the domain of the phenomenon to include other human talents. Sacks says that perfect pitch, though common in musicians, occurs only in about 1 of every 10,000 people. Among the autistic, however, the incidence rises to perhaps 1 in 20. He next moves on to "savants;" that is, individuals with exceptional mathematic, mechanical, musical, and artistic talents, but with serious deficiencies in other human attributes. Calculating prodigies and other "idiot savants" immediately come to mind here. Sachs claims that perfect pitch is is even more common among the savants. In fact, all muscial savants seem to have it. Perfect pitch is also common among those with Williams syndrome, which he defines as:

"a -- syndrome which predisposes to hyperacusis and exceptional development of auditory, musical, and verbal skills, combined with striking visual and conceptual deficits."

(Sacks, Oliver; "Musical Ability," Science, 268:621, 1995.)

* A person with perfect pitch can identify a tone without needing a second tone for comparison. SF#99 = Science Frontiers #99.

From Science Frontiers #102 Nov-Dec 1995. 1995-2000 William R. Corliss