Several recent large-scale studies have confirmed a curious finding: Asians are much more likely to have “perfect pitch” than non-Asians. Perfect pitch, more properly called “Absolute pitch,” is an extremely rare phenomenon, but it’s several times more likely to occur in Asians than in others.
Studies have found that only 1 in 1,500 to 10,000 individuals possess absolute pitch. Part of the ability’s rarity is due to the fact that it’s really a combination of two abilities: pitch-memory — the ability to remember what a pitch sounds like, and pitch-labeling — the ability to name a pitch (A, B-flat, and so on). Pitch labeling can only come through training, but pitch memory does not require training.
So does the Asian advantage come from pitch labeling or pitch memory? Many people, even those with very little training, are able to remember the pitch of familiar songs. Daniel Levitin, for example, has found that most people can sing their favorite songs at pitches nearly identical to the popular versions played on the radio.
Glenn Shellenberg and Sandra Trehub realized that pitch memory might be the best way to uncover differences between Asians and non-Asians. They asked 70 kids, age 9 to 12, all living in the Toronto area, what their six favorite TV shows were. Half these kids were Asian and half were non-Asian. Then they played two different versions of each show’s theme song: one accurate, and one shifted up or down by two semitones (so if the original melody was C – D – E , the new version might be be D – E – F-sharp). The child was asked which was the correct melody — the one they heard on TV. Here are the results:
There was no significant difference between Asians and non-Asians, which makes it unlikely that the Asian advantage in absolute pitch is due to genetic differences between Asians and non-Asians. The researchers did find a significant difference in math and spelling ability between groups, suggesting that if there were some difference in pitch memory, this study may have caught it.
The results can’t be explained by language differences either: while some of the Asian children didn’t speak their parents’ native language, others did, and there was no difference in pitch memory among these groups. Some researchers have argued that the Asian advantage in absolute pitch is related to the fact that many Asians speak tone languages, where different-pitched vowel sounds have different meanings. This work suggests that tone language alone can’t account for pitch memory differences.
So what does cause absolute pitch? There is no doubt that musical training is a key: people who begin musical training before the age of six are vastly more likely to develop absolute pitch than others. But even when training is taken into account, Asians still have an advantage. This study suggests that the advantage doesn’t seem to be related to pitch memory or tone language.
Other research has found that nearly all of the Asian advantage in absolute pitch is found among Asians who spent their early childhood in asia. This again points to cultural, not genetic factors. But it’s still possible that genetics plays an important role in pitch labeling — remember, pitch memory is just one component of absolute pitch.
E. Glenn Schellenberg, Sandra E. Trehub (2008). Is There an Asian Advantage for Pitch Memory? Music Perception, 25 (3), 241-252 DOI: 10.1525/mp.2008.25.3.241