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No. 111: May-Jun 1997

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Is perfect pitch favored by natural selection?

People with perfect pitch can identify, play, and/or sing a particular musical note without first hearing a reference note. (SF#99 and SF#102) Even if a string of notes is played randomly, they can instantaneously name them. Although musical training while young fosters perfect pitch, the talent also runs in families. A study of 500 musicians, with and without perfect pitch, by N. Freimer at the University of California, revealed that half of those claiming perfect pitch knew family members of like talent. Only 5% of those without perfect pitch made this claim. (Ref. 1)

At the North Shore University Hospital, Manhasset, NY, P.K. Gregersen and M. de Andrade were able to locate 126 perfect-pitchers. In this select group, 5.5% had parents with perfect pitch, and 26% had siblings thus gifted. Among musicians lacking perfect pitch, the figures were 1.1% and 1.3%, respectively. (Ref. 2)

An unexpected (to us, anyway) correlation of perfect pitch and synethesia (SF#68) was made by Freimer's group. Some perfect-pitchers swear they can "see" musical notes, and even "smell" and "taste" them! (Ref. 1)

References

Ref. 1. Day, Michael; "Keeping Perfect Pitch in the Family," New Scientist, p. 19, November 23, 1996.

Ref. 2. Travis, John; "Pitching in to Find a Musical Gene," Science News, 150:316, 1996.

Comment. Since perfect pitch would seem to be of little use to primitive humans in hunting and gathering, why was it selected for? Likewise, synethesia seems to have little adaptive value; in fact, it might even be detrimental if humans on the brink of survival were confused by exotic sensations.

Perfect pitch and other curiosities of tone perception can be found at BHT14 in our Catalog: Humans I. To order this book, visit here.

From Science Frontiers #111, MAY-JUN 1997. 1997-2000 William R. Corliss