Music and the brain: perfect pitch is a gift – and a burden

Max Planck was once asked to “play a well known march on a strange, somewhat lower-pitched piano”, wrote the music psychologist Otto Abraham in an essay in 1901. It should have been easy exercise for the physicist, who was not only the author of groundbreaking scientific papers, but also a gifted singer, cellist and pianist who conducted and composed in his spare time. For example, Planck created an operetta with the cozy name “Die Liebe im Walde”. With the transposition “once in the head into a lower key and then again on the keys back to the earlier key”, as Abraham reports, the music-making physicist was overwhelmed, however: He had perfect pitch. This ability is considered a gift, but it often complicates musical practice rather than helping.

People with perfect hearing, called “absolute pitch” (AP) in English, can correctly name any sound without prior reference or create it themselves. Whether it’s the ringing of a bell, the swinging of a string on the viola or the whistle of a stroller – absolute listeners know immediately: “F sharp! C! B! “You can feel intuitively which tone is being played, just as a normal sighted person can name any color. A distinction is made between relative hearing: relative listeners are able to correctly assign the interval to the following tone with the help of a reference tone.

Not beneficial for musicians

Lutz Jäncke, neuroscientist at the University of Zurich, belongs neither to the absolute nor the relative hearing. In fact, only between 0.01 and 1 percent of people have perfect pitch. However, Jäncke knows better than almost any other scientist how music is processed in the human brain, and above all what it is about “absolute sound awareness”, as music psychologist Abraham once called it. Since the beginning of the 1990s, Jäncke has been concerned with musicians and the plasticity of their brains. He comes to a rather sobering conclusion: “Perfect pitch is a strange ability, and it is not beneficial for musicians.”

Perfect pitch does not seem to be an innate gift. Instead, there appear to be two external factors that favor it. There is an intensive early musical education. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, for example, who had perfect pitch, was practically drilled on the piano and violin as a child. According to Jäncke, the young Mozart was undoubtedly gifted, but his abilities were above all “a training product” of the ambitious father Leopold, who had driven the Filius with sometimes questionable methods. The father was primarily interested in earning money with his two child prodigies – daughter Maria Anna “Nannerl” was a highly gifted pianist. For example, at the age of seven, little Wolferl had to perform to entertain wealthy hosts like a circus attraction and guess the tones from a neighboring room by the sound.

Did Herbert von Karajan have perfect pitch?

Image: dpa

The second factor that promotes perfect pitch is a tonal mother tongue such as Mandarin or Thai. Such tonal languages ​​are characterized by the fact that words or sounds which, although written the same, have a completely different meaning if they are pronounced a little differently. In standard Chinese, for example, it is possible to reproduce a vowel in five different ways. The number “four” is therefore considered an unlucky number in the Middle Kingdom, as it is phonetically similar to the word for “death”.

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