Perfect pitch and early music lessons

Yes, kids can play the pipe organ!

Yes, kids can play the pipe organ!

As many of you know, I have a special interest in teaching the organ to young children, and over the years can count at least 8 four-year-olds who I’ve started on the organ. So it was with great interest that I read a fascinating post on the New York Times blog about the value of music lessons for young children, and specifically about the long-term health benefits, even when lessons have been discontinued. It has long been known that music lessons directly contribute to brain development, and some of the most successful students, academically, are also those who play musical instruments. I heartily recommend that you read the entire article by clicking here. The long-term health benefits include dealing with what they call the “cocktail party” scenario — apparently older people who have been musically-trained are able to pick out conversations more easily in noisy situations than those who don’t play, and that is because “it involves the brain rather than the peripheral hearing system.”

Another part of the article talked about the phenomenon called “perfect” or “absolute pitch,” which is the ability to identify the note name of any tone without an external musical instrument. (“Sing a ‘G’ without hearing it on the piano first,” etc.) In an earlier post, I credited my having “perfect pitch” with being able to sightread music easily. In the New York Times article, there was speculation that perfect pitch ran in families, so there must be a genetic component. Since I and my two sisters have this “gift” (or “curse,” whichever you believe) I decided to participate in the study and test myself. The test verified that I indeed have perfect pitch, and if you would like to take the test to see whether or not you have this ability, click here. (By the way, they also encourage people who don’t have perfect pitch to take the test, too.) The perfect pitch phenomenon is definitely aided by early music lessons, to say the least.

After I read the article, I also perused the comments, and one popped out at me:

Oliver Saks “Musicophilia” has a fascinating chapter on perfect pitch, which is found in roughly 2% of the population. Yet in China, the number exceeds 30%! Why? Chinese language acquisition requires the ability to distinguish different “tones”; that is to say different pitches. That essential skill results in a far greater ability to distinguish pitch, even among non-musicians.

Well! That sounds like a topic for another doctoral dissertation. (And the fact that I’m Chinese is irrelevant — since I don’t speak Chinese!)

About Katherine Crosier

In addition to playing the organ I am interested in documenting life's special moments through journaling, scrapbooking, photography and slideshow production. My family just groans.
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One Response to Perfect pitch and early music lessons

  1. Roger Barton says:

    re: Chinese and pitch – I’ve been learning Mandarin (from Rosetta Stone) for about a month now, and making pretty fair progress. I’ve got a good ear, and perfect relative pitch at least, but Saks is absolutely right about the language. Mandarin only uses four basic inflections, which are relatively easy to hear and reproduce at learning speed, but at a conversational speed, WOW! At speed, the inflections get very subtle and are easily misinterpreted. Some of the other dialects, such as Cantonese, apparently have up to ten different inflections, and I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to get those right all the time! Very interesting article, and test.

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