Anyone can have perfect pitch, all they have to do is learn Vietnamese at a very early age

Cherry Norton Health Correspondent
Friday 05 November 1999 00:02
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PERFECT PITCH, a highly coveted ability among musicians, may not be so rare as previously believed and could be universally achievable, new research has revealed.

People with perfect pitch can identify and mimic the musical note of virtually any sound, whether it be a clock striking or a church bell ringing.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who displayed extraordinary musical talent at a young age, had perfect pitch, an abilitythat is believed to be held by less than one in 10,000 people.

However, a study presented recently at the Acoustical Society of America's annual conference in Ohio has shown that perfect pitch is common among native speakers of tonal languages, such as the Chinese and Vietnamese, and the researchers believe that it could be taught to everyone at an early age.

"Our findings show that speakers of Vietnamese and Mandarin possess an extraordinarily precise form of absolute pitch, which is reflected in their enunciation of words," said the author of the study, Diana Deutsch, a psychologist at the University of California who specialises in musical perception. The researchers tested Vietnamese and Chinese native speakers with little or no musical training. They found that they displayed remarkably precise absolute pitch when reading lists of words in their native language.

"Since all except one of the subjects in the study had received little or no musical training, we conclude that this ability resulted from their early acquisition of tone language, and that they had learned to associate pitches with meaningful words very early in life," Dr Deutsch said.

There has been much debate among musicians and scholars about the genesis of perfect pitch. Some say it is an inherited trait, others that it can only be attained with musical training at an early age.

While previous studies indicate that there may be genetic predisposition for perfect pitch, Dr Deutsch's study shows that there is great potential for the acquisition of the ability - especially considering that one- third of the world's population speaks a tonal language. "For people with absolute pitch naming a note is as simple and immediate as, say, naming an object's colour," said Dr Deutsch. "For most people, absolute pitch has always seemed a mysterious and extraordinary gift that one is either born with or that is extremely difficult to acquire. Now we know that this isn't necessarily true."

The singers Nat King Cole and Maria Callas and the violinist Nigel Kennedy are among the small number of performers who had - or have - perfect pitch.

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