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Absolute pitch: a biological perspective

A rare ability to distinguish any musical note without difficulty — absolute pitch is a fascinating trait known for its rarity and utility in music. Despite its reputation, its lack of scientific basis on how the ability correlates to the brain and auditory function has intrigued a number of scientists.

Recently, however, it seems that researchers have unraveled the secrets of absolute pitch.

According to a study conducted by the Music Lab at UZH’s Department of Neuropsychology, there may be intricate connections of neuropsychological processes that contribute to the development of absolute pitch. Their first approach to unravel such linkages was to observe the primary and secondary auditory cortex in the brain.

Stefan Elmer, the first author of the research team, elaborated that people with absolute pitch categorize musical notes in a similar way as they would classify speech tones. Such processes, according to the team, are called the categorical perception of tones.

They further speculated that the categorization occurs at the early stages of the auditory path, mostly processed in the primary and secondary auditory cortex in the brain.

The second theory that sheds light on this auditory enigma illustrates a process completely opposite to the first theory; the second explanation suggests that people with absolute pitch classify musical notes at later stages of hearing — associating them with memory information, according to the study.

The team explained that people with this ability can store and allocate the tones subconsciously to the memory information. They further elaborated that this process takes place in the upper frontal lobe, in the dorsal frontal cortex.

Another study done by Kieth Schneider and his colleagues has even found a correlation between the size of the auditory cortex and the presence of absolute pitch. The team compared the structure and activity of the auditory cortex in three groups of 20 participants, which included musicians with absolute pitch, musicians without an absolute pitch and a control group of individuals that had minimal musical exposure.

The result — rather predictable — was that musicians that had absolute pitch tended to have a significantly large auditory cortex that is capable of distinguishing tones without a reference note.

Despite the researchers’ efforts, there still remain questions to be solved to further investigate the biological implications of absolute pitch: such as if the ability is innate or acquired. Nevertheless, continuous observations and research will undoubtedly reveal the secrets behind this coveted talent.

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