Perfect pitch and its basics
The mystery of how some musicians can identify a note without a reference note - perfect or absolute pitch - has finally been solved. A specific region of the brain appears to be enlarged in people who have this ability. In people with perfect pitch, the nerves in this area of the brain activate while identifying a note. However, the range is inactive when people with normal hearing try to accomplish the same task. Robert J. Zatorre and his colleagues at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, used positron emission tomography (PET) to record brain activity while subjects listened to sounds and tried to name them (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 10. March 1998). The results showed no difference between people with and without perfect pitch during the listening process: Exactly the same areas of the brain were activated. This shows that there is no different response in the perception of sounds in the two groups.
However, when the volunteers tried to name the sounds, an area on the left side of the brain, the planum temporale, was activated only in those with perfect pitch. The researchers describe the difference in activity as "remarkable". The area of the planum temporale was known to play a role in what is known as conditional associative learning - the very process involved in making an arbitrary association between a concert pitch and its naming. The left side of the brain is important for language, consistent with the task of verbally naming sound.
The size of the region seems to correlate with the ability to correctly identify a sound - the larger the range, the more accurate the naming. The planum temporale region was larger in people with perfect pitch than in average right-handed subjects.
People without perfect pitch seem to use the short-term memory areas on the right side of their brain when assigning sounds. People with perfect pitch appear to be able to bypass short-term memory. Instead, they use the specialized area of the planum temporale to give each sound its name.
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