Absolute Pitch: Are There Differences Between Asia And North America?

19 Jun

Absolute Pitch is the ability to identify a note in isolation, without the use of a reference note.  Researchers have observed a prevalence of absolute pitch in Asia compared to North America.  Theories on why Asian cultures might have a higher frequency of AP usually pertain to the onset of musical training at an early age and the type of music training.  This has led some researchers to propose a “critical period” for the acquisition of AP.  However, the question of whether genetics plays a role in AP acquisition has yet to be evaluated.  Are Asian individuals inherently better at remembering pitches than Americans?  Glenn Schellenberg and Sandra Trehub wanted to find out.

35 children of Asian descent and 35 non-Asian individuals were used for the study.  The stimuli consisted of 5 second excerpts of TV shows taken from popular children’s program.  For each theme, the experimenters pitch-shifted up or down two semitones to create several modified versions of each theme songs.  The participants then selected six TV shows they were familiar with off of the stimuli list, and were presented with two versions of the theme song.  For each trial, the subjects were told to identify which song was at the original pitch.  After the pitch identification task, each participants took an achievement test called the Wechsler Individual Achievement Test (WIAT-II-A) that evaluated word reading, numerical operations, and spelling of the subjects.

The results show that the Asian and Non-Asian participants performed the same on the pitch-memory task.  Thus, the researchers conclude there does not seem to be an apparent genetic advantage for AP among Asian individuals.  Instead, there might be genetic variations with pitch labeling mechanisms or one’s culture and music training might be deciding factors.  As the researchers note, the type of music training might be important to AP acquisition.

Schellenberg, G., & Trehub, S.E. (2007). Is there an asian advantage for pitch memory?. Music Perception, 25(3), 241-252.

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2 Responses to “Absolute Pitch: Are There Differences Between Asia And North America?”

  1. Scott Wade August 1, 2011 at 8:26 pm #

    Hey Parker, have you ever heard this bit from Radiolab? – http://www.radiolab.org/2007/sep/24/behaves-so-strangely/
    In it, they explore the possibility that cultures with tonal languages might be more absolute-pitch-friendly than those with a non-tonal language (like english).

    The whole episode it’s from is interesting – not sure about the science behind it. Always good to be thinking about different ways our music abilities are shaped, either way.

    • Parker August 1, 2011 at 9:36 pm #

      Hey Scott!

      I haven’t heard this podcast, but I am very familiar with Diana Duetsch’s work (she is the go to academic for absolute pitch and audio illusions — I even blogged about that phenomenon in the podcast: https://parkertichko.wordpress.com/2011/05/06/auditory-illusion-from-speech-to-song/). There has been a multitude of studies that have looked between the ties of tonal-speaking individuals and absolute pitch. The main theory is that for tonal speakers, this “pitch” information is vital to understanding their language. But for non-tonal speakers, pitch information is irrelevant. It is thought that during language development, the non-tonal speakers learn their ability to have absolute pitch while the tonal speakers maintain it (this theory presumes that we are ALL born with absolute pitch, but only a rare few of us manage to keep it, mind-blowing eh?). There has also been research that has shown that earlier onsets of musical training, might be a factor in maintaining absolute pitch.

      You raise a great point that I did not add to this article. It should be noted that all of the participants were English-speaking and from Canada. Thus the researchers were trying to control for environment (in other words they made sure their subjects DID NOT learn any tonal languages growing up). That way, they could purely look at genetics, and not any relationship between tonal languages and the occurrence of absolute pitch.

      Thanks for the link!

      – Parker

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