Some Science Behind Singing

Absolute Pitch: the ability to instantly recognise the pitch of a note and/or produce a given note without reference to any internal standard. That is, being […]

Absolute Pitch: the ability to instantly recognise the pitch of a note and/or produce a given note without reference to any internal standard. That is, being able to sing or recognise an exact note without anything to compare it to. Here are some examples of people who had it, you may recognise them:



Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart


Of course, one doesn’t have to be a musician of the calibre of Mozart or MJ to have this ability (I myself have it, and wouldn’t really rank myself alongside them…). That said, almost all people who have absolute pitch have had some form of musical training before the age of 7 – it’s almost always acquired before this age. It is a very rare skill, with current estimates suggesting that fewer than 1 in 10,000 people possess it, and to those who don’t possess it, it is a completely alien concept, akin to a sixth sense that they simply can’t conceive. Conversely, to someone with absolute pitch, it is so natural as to not be associated with any conscious thought process.

These factors are arguably what makes this subject area so fascinating from a scientific perspective, and have prompted a variety of studies into it’s nature. Why do so few of us have this ability, i.e. what factors influence its development? Questions like these are largely still without conclusive answers, however some recent scientific research has provided some interesting insights.


Nature versus Nurture – Where does Absolute Pitch “Come From”?

One of the key questions surrounding absolute pitch is the relative extents to which nature (i.e., in this case, genetic factors) and nurture (i.e. aspects of upbringing) play a part in the acquisition of absolute pitch:



In a relatively recent study, published in the American Journal of Human Genetics (, DNA from 73 different absolute-pitch-containing families was used in order to attempt to identify which areas of the human genome were associated with the development of absolute pitch. Impressively, the authors were able to link a region of chromosome 8 (8q.24.21 if anyone is interested) to this trait, but, interestingly, this only held true for families of mixed European heritage. For families of East Asian ancestry, similar “genetic information” was located on a completely different chromosome, namely chromosome 7! In other words: there are genetic factors that have been identified as being associated with absolute pitch, however these are complex, with this trait involving different genes, depending on aspects such as ethnicity. Scientists are, to the best of my knowledge, still working on understanding how these genetic factors work – are they essential or not?

More recently, the eminent psychologist Diana Deutsch has suggested that perfect pitch may be linked to an ability to recall digits (presented as spoken words). The significance here being that this latter ability is already known to have a genetic component. It is suggested that absolute pitch per se might not be genetically encoded; rather, the predisposition towards a large auditory memory is. When this genetic predisposition is combined with other, non-genetic, factors (see below), it may manifest itself as absolute pitch.


In addition to the above genetic factors, aspects of our upbringing (nurture) may be associated with the development of absolute pitch. Bear in mind it is typically acquired at an early age, hence we’re considering factors at play during our early years. Perhaps unsurprisingly, early exposure to music/musical training helps!  However, a really interesting area is the link between absolute pitch and language.

It turns out that speakers of tonal languages are far more likely to have absolute pitch than speakers of non-tonal languages. A tonal language is one in which the pitch heights and pitch contours of words affect their meaning; Mandarin and Vietnamese are examples. (Non-tonal languages would be those such as English, German etc.). The best way of understanding this connection is to think of absolute pitch as essentially like a language, that is to assume that we “learn” it much like we do speech. In this case, it would of course represent the ultimate tonal “language”! It is in general easier to learn a second language if it is similar to your first one, which would thus explain why young children learning tonal languages are more predisposed to additionally acquire absolute pitch.

There is also an argument that the information (that is, the fundamental hearing mechanism) for absolute pitch is available to us all as infants, but its further development such that the skill is actually manifested is suppressed in the majority of us during the initial acquisition of language (see If such acquisition of language was somehow suppressed (e.g. you learn to talk late!), you may be more likely to develop absolute pitch, especially if you were also exposed to music early on; this would perhaps trick the brain into seeing music as a language to be learnt, allowing the development of brain structures facilitating the processing of tones in the required manner.


So, clearly, a combination of genetic factors (nature) and upbringing factors (nurture – language type and acquisition time, musical exposure) are at play in determining whether someone develops perfect pitch. This leads me on to my final question:


Can you teach yourself absolute pitch (if you haven’t had it from an early age)?

In general, the most common answer you’d get here would be “no”. Surely, if there are any genetic factors involved at all and you don’t have them, that is probably the end of the road for you.

You might get the answer “yes, but it’s extremely hard”. Genetic factors exist but might not be crucial. There is in fact a report of a chap called Brady listening to training tapes for about 60 hours then scoring 65 % on an absolute pitch test. However, this is pretty much the only documented report of such “success”, and rather underscores the difficulty of acquiring perfect pitch in adulthood; it is typically acquired at a very young age, essentially unconsciously. This is much like learning languages – it’s far harder in adulthood than in young childhood.

There is no real “right or wrong” answer yet, owing to a lack of conclusive evidence either way – it’s up to your own judgement. However, what I really want to use this question for is to highlight a potentially incredible discovery by Takao Hensch, professor of molecular and cellular biology at Harvard. The claim he has made is that, by simply swallowing a pill, he can reawaken in adults the capacity for learning exhibited as young children. This could include the capacity to learn absolute pitch (although, of course, his claim assumes that the genetic factors identified are not crucial, which is debatable). Needless to say, the implications of such a discovery, if genuine, extend far beyond the realms of absolute pitch! It also opens up a slight ethical can of worms; should we “tamper” with ourselves in this manner, or should we just accept who we are? I will avoid attempting any kind of answer to that, however the idea of answering the question of “can you teach yourself absolute pitch” with “yes, take this pill” is one that seems truly remarkable. For further info:


Clearly there’s a lot that remains unknown about this musical phenomenon in terms of its scientific origins. There have to be many more factors than the above to explain why so few people have it. However, genetics and psychology are coming together to provide a number of insights about its possible origins, painting a picture in which both nature and nurture play important roles in its genesis.


If you’re interested in this area, I’d recommend checking out Takao Hensch’s recent work, and also Diana Deutsch, who is without doubt one of the researchers at the head of this field.

About Matt Bilyard

I'm a 2nd year DPhil student in Organic Chemistry/Chemical Biology. My research focusses on proteins, and in particular modifying them via novel chemical methods. I came to Oxford in 2013, after doing my undergrad degree at Cambridge. Outside the lab I have a strong interest in music, both playing (piano) and composing! I also enjoy skiing and cricket when I have the time, and a drink or 3 down the bar...