Why do more Asians have perfect pitch?

ResearchBlogging.orgSeveral recent large-scale studies have confirmed a curious finding: Asians are much more likely to have "perfect pitch" than non-Asians. Perfect pitch, more properly called "Absolute pitch," is an extremely rare phenomenon, but it's several times more likely to occur in Asians than in others.

Studies have found that only 1 in 1,500 to 10,000 individuals possess absolute pitch. Part of the ability's rarity is due to the fact that it's really a combination of two abilities: pitch-memory -- the ability to remember what a pitch sounds like, and pitch-labeling -- the ability to name a pitch (A, B-flat, and so on). Pitch labeling can only come through training, but pitch memory does not require training.

So does the Asian advantage come from pitch labeling or pitch memory? Many people, even those with very little training, are able to remember the pitch of familiar songs. Daniel Levitin, for example, has found that most people can sing their favorite songs at pitches nearly identical to the popular versions played on the radio.

Glenn Shellenberg and Sandra Trehub realized that pitch memory might be the best way to uncover differences between Asians and non-Asians. They asked 70 kids, age 9 to 12, all living in the Toronto area, what their six favorite TV shows were. Half these kids were Asian and half were non-Asian. Then they played two different versions of each show's theme song: one accurate, and one shifted up or down by two semitones (so if the original melody was C - D - E , the new version might be be D - E - F-sharp). The child was asked which was the correct melody -- the one they heard on TV. Here are the results:


There was no significant difference between Asians and non-Asians, which makes it unlikely that the Asian advantage in absolute pitch is due to genetic differences between Asians and non-Asians. The researchers did find a significant difference in math and spelling ability between groups, suggesting that if there were some difference in pitch memory, this study may have caught it.

The results can't be explained by language differences either: while some of the Asian children didn't speak their parents' native language, others did, and there was no difference in pitch memory among these groups. Some researchers have argued that the Asian advantage in absolute pitch is related to the fact that many Asians speak tone languages, where different-pitched vowel sounds have different meanings. This work suggests that tone language alone can't account for pitch memory differences.

So what does cause absolute pitch? There is no doubt that musical training is a key: people who begin musical training before the age of six are vastly more likely to develop absolute pitch than others. But even when training is taken into account, Asians still have an advantage. This study suggests that the advantage doesn't seem to be related to pitch memory or tone language.

Other research has found that nearly all of the Asian advantage in absolute pitch is found among Asians who spent their early childhood in asia. This again points to cultural, not genetic factors. But it's still possible that genetics plays an important role in pitch labeling -- remember, pitch memory is just one component of absolute pitch.

E. Glenn Schellenberg, Sandra E. Trehub (2008). Is There an Asian Advantage for Pitch Memory? Music Perception, 25 (3), 241-252 DOI: 10.1525/mp.2008.25.3.241

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So I would interpert this as implying that pitch labeling is improved by tone languages, although you can't yet exclude Unknown Cultural Factors.

I vaguely remember something about having keyboard training at five or earlier was necessary to develop abasolute pitch. However, one wonders how many Asians have had that training.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 24 Jul 2008 #permalink

What if Asians spent less time watching TV, thus being less familiar with their favorite shows? The innate differences could make the two seem equal.

By Anna Estat (not verified) on 24 Jul 2008 #permalink

Also, does the study consider persons of Indian and Middle Eastern descent Asian? Or simply East Asians, like Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Korean, etc.?

By Anna Estat (not verified) on 24 Jul 2008 #permalink

Hi there,
I am a European living in Asia (gosh, 7 years have gone in the blink of an eye.. or two..)
I would have the following hypothesis(worth testing), considering the fact that Karaoke is a standard pass time amongst a few social groups in many countries here (esp the Philippines).
Hypothesis: "groups who spent a significant amount of time in Karaokes from young age have a significantly better chance to get perfect high pitch than groups who did not enjoy Karaoke as a main pass-time".

Testing this in the Philippines, Korea and Japan (even if now in japan this gets less popular) should be easy enough. You can also get foreign kids growing in the filipino culture of Karaokes to ensure that race once has no impact.

Your views?


Nope. Here's another hypothesis: The white kids, perhaps more familiar with the kinds of errors made in their own culture, are thinking "that's not quite right but it's close enough, so that must be what the research guy meant.." and answer "Yes, it's the same." The Asian kids aren't making the mistake of taking the approximation as the correct representation.

The right way to do this one would be via pitch matching:

Here are three tones, A, B, and C (that have fairly close values in terms of frequency in Hz). Now here is a fourth tone, D, that matches one of the three. Which of the three does it match? (And vary the order in which A, B, and C are presented to the listeners).

Next, vary the degree of "spread" between A, B, and C. In one instance, the tones are widely different. In another, they are very close. In others, they are varying degrees of closeness. The better an individual is at matching pitch, the more closely they will be able to discern: that is, they will continue to demonstrate an advantage even when the tones are close together in pitch.

This requires only a standard variable oscillator (the word "variable" here is used as an adjective meaning "adjustable") (use sine waves, thus less trouble due to harmonics as compared with square waves), and a frequency counter, and a digital recorder with which to record the tone samples.

Another variable (conventional usage as a noun: a variable in an experiment) to play with might be the duration of the tones. Here, longer duration will improve scoring, shorter duration will begin to show divergence between the more-capable and the less-capable individuals.

The tonal element of Asian languages is only in part a function of pitch or frequency as such, and in part is a function of "intonation:" the subtle changes in frequency over time for the course of the duration of the utterance in question. For example think of how different singers pronounce words in song lyrics, and then listen to those pronunciations in your mind's ear at a slower speed than when originally sung. You'll pick up on this fairly easily when, for example, listening to the way two different bands perform the same song, and the way the two respective singers sing it.

Similar tests could be done with respect to the discernment of rhythmic patterns.

One thing I think we'll find in both cases: pitch and rhythm, is that there are cultural factors that tend to show group differences: for example based on the music that children grow up hearing in their family environments. I don't think this stuff is racially hardwired in the brain to a degree that is functionally significant. That is, there may be racial differences, even to the point of statistical significance, but those differences will still tend to be fairly small. Humans everywhere have faced similar natural selection pressures, so there would be an overall tendency for the development of capabilities that were equal to the tasks at hand.

On the other hand, here's a wild intuitive guess at an opposing hypothesis:

Cultures that developed primarily on flat lands would tend to show higher capability for rhythm and lower for pitch; and cultures that developed primarily in forested hills would tend to show higher capability for pitch and lower for rhythm. This would have to do with the way in which sounds carry in those respective environments.

In a hilly forested environment, you get more information from the way in which the tonal harmonics of a sound are modified as the sound passes across a given distance, which yields useful information about the source of the sound. On the other hand, rhythmic sounds would tend to be obscured via echoes in that environment, so their informational value would be compromised.

In a flatland environment that is not forested, the tonal harmonics of a sound are not modified so much by the environment as the sound passes across a given distance. Thus, you get less information from tonal aspects of sound. Also in that environment, rhythmic sounds would be less obscured via echoes, and thus would have greater information value.

Hmm, this could get really interesting if one wanted to operationalize all the variables and do the research accordingly...

(Telephone systems engineer here, @ 25 years in the field, starting in the days when having an eidetic memory for sound was a highly useful skill in the field.)

g264, they weren't asked whether the two were the same. They were asked which of the two tunes was the same as their favorite TV show.

Sigh. I wish people wouldn't use 'Asian' when they mean 'East Asian' and this is aimed at the authors of the study, not you Dave.

In Indonesia, we had music lesson (singing being the main focus) since kindergarten through high school. I find very few people were tone deaf. Plus, we have to sing outloud our national anthem during flag-raising ceremony every week. I wonder if the education system and the culture play some roles in this?

By Silverfangs (not verified) on 25 Jul 2008 #permalink

Actually, in Mandarin dialect/languages there are different meanings in the spoken word where different sayings/sylables etc can mean different things when said in a different tone like different words and so on.. so it's necessary for them to develop wider tonal capacity because of this..

This story really jumped out at me because I happen to be Asian (Filipino), and do have "absolute pitch," although it's a round-about way of going about it.

I say round-about because I use a mental "reference file," if you will. Singing a song in its proper pitch, as mentioned in the original post, is something I can do quite well, and this does require good pitch memory. When prompted to identify a pitch, however, I must call upon these "reference files" - songs that I know what key they're performed in - and count the semitones in between said reference and pitch-of-identification, after which I can then name the note in question. Common musical intervals like 5ths come quickly, but the entire process typically doesn't take longer than about 10 seconds. It works every time, but it's rarely instantaneous (unless the pitch is in the same key of one of my reference files).

For me, it's largely an algorithm-based process as opposed to some innate "feeling" or intuition of pitches. With more references and better recognition of intervals, I'm sure I could speed up the process down to a second or two for any note. All of this, however, relies on pitch memory: If I "mis-hear" the reference in my head, my entire algorithm from that point onward is no longer accurate. With multiple references, however, this type of mental misrepresentation can be minimized greatly, as an entire scale-shift of every reference doesn't seem likely (not to me, at least).

Nature vs. Nurture? Well...

I've had no formal musical training, am self-taught in several instruments, play everything by ear, and can't read music.

I was born and raised in California. I do not speak Tagalog (or any other dialect from the Philippines, although my parents do - but I was never taught the languages as a child). Nevertheless, Philippine dialects are not tone-based.

HOWEVER... My father is a musician, also self-taught in several instruments. And thus, I was exposed to music and its creation from a very early age.

As a musician/vocalist? I refute your findings. No human being has perfect pitch. The only one that has perfect pitch? is not on this Earth he/she/they... made it, and us along with everything else (The music of the Spheres !!! we all have something called relative pitch. Look it up. I've been accused of having perfect pitch (being non asian as you made the racial comparison of asians to non asians). DNA? is DNA I of course have been told that I have Chinese Cuban descent but that's under investigation as I am a latin born New Yorker in the Salsa Music Field. Remember: we all have something called relative pitch not perfect pitch.

By Ronald Baro (not verified) on 25 Jul 2008 #permalink

Okay??? ... but temporarily ignoring our Creator, music of the Spheres and Ronald's true ethno-genetic heritage, does anyone believe that mathematics could play a role in perfect pitch? I believe that connections have been made between math and music, and I don't believe the connection is purely rhythmic. Is it possible that there are some cultural or genetic factors linking language, math, music and pitch?? Just a thought.

Yet another point in the moutnain of evidence showing that race is biologically real, not a mere social construct.

And really, how could it be any other way? The races of man developed in genetic isolation for tens of thousands of years, facing wildly different climates, disease and parasite threats, predator dangers, prey availability, abundance of food supply, and need for social cooperation, deferred gratification, foresight, and abstract long-term planning capacity.

It's time to let go of the mystical idea that man is the only organism, or his brain the only organ, that is magically immune from natural selection and evolutionary change.

hey, i'm asian and i have relative pitch, not perfect...it runs in the blood as well, my mom being a concert pianist and a coloratura soprano. i have piano training since i was three. there you go!

By moozik_peepol (not verified) on 28 Jul 2008 #permalink

I think it's a fallacy to assume that a child's not speaking her native language removes her from its influence, particularly if that child has been exposed to the language through her parents and extended family. Those children who could not speak their native language have certainly had more exposure than the non-Asian participants. The observation that children who spend their early childhood in Asia have an even higher liklihood of developing absolute pitch supports my theory as those children will have had greater exposure than their Canadian-born counterparts.

I wonder this issue of perfect pitch among asians is rooted in language skills? Unlike english or french, most asian languages require the user to have a sense of tone and scale - modifying how a word is pronounced by changing the scale may clearly change the meaning of the word. Friends who have lived in asia and tried to learn Manderine Chinese have reported finding the tones and inflection challenging to adjust to.

I am half-Asian/half-Caucasian, born in the US, and had no exposure to tone languages. I have had absolute pitch my entire life, even predating any musical training. It's genetic, yo!

I wouldn't rule out the possible contribution of language. If their parents speak the language fluently it's possible that an element of the language might translate over into their English and influence the child's development. It may not be a direct relationship to the child's language but rather an indirect relationship to the child's language exposure.

That is because they use different tones to say different things in their language. They might say the same word, but if it is at a higher tone then it would mean something completely different. That is like saying people who are musician have a better ability to determine tone than non-musicians.

i have PP and im not asian! woot. wanna challenge me? call me ill prove it call me!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

By Ryan Pwnage May (not verified) on 25 Mar 2009 #permalink

There is no such thing as an "Asian" race. East Asians (Korean/Japanese/Chinese) are unrelated to Southeast Asians (Malay/Filipino/Indonesians) genetically and culturally.

By anonymous (not verified) on 29 Apr 2009 #permalink

I live in Italy (and I'm Italian).
Isn't it "strange" that 100% of the professional instrumentalists of our Conservatorio (School of Music) have absolute pitch?
Instead, professional singer not often have absolute pitch.I mean: many have, but not all.
I learned Sol (F) as absolute pitch after two years of study (41 years old and no musical study in youth).
All of the people that I questioned and that have absolute pitch have encoutered music very early, and have played musical games. The same people who have absolute pitch have a strong sense of rhythm.
Italian Conservatori are full to the roof of Asian people come to study music in Italy. They outnumber Italians.Asian people are crazy for classic music and for Opera:it means a strong exposure to music preceived as a strongly positive entity. For cultural reasons Asian children study much much more that an average Italian (European) student.
Sorry, I have no numbers, only observations, but

I CONCLUDEd that absolute pitch and the sense of rhythm are learned. Their learning is easier and instinctive at young age (1-3 years) if exposed positively to music.

This is why musicians that teach music (and have learned music at young age) never developed a method for young adults and adults, excusing their lack of didactic skills with the tale of the "untalented student".


hi i am jessica robinson and i figured out i have perfect pitch . and i have been doing it since i was little and it felt strange because no body else could tell me !!!!!!!
contact me by my email if you have any more questions

By jessica robinson (not verified) on 10 Dec 2009 #permalink