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Our Idea of Perfect Pitch Gets Tuned Up

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Aired 5/29/09

Perfect pitch is learned, not genetic. That seems to be the conclusion of research by a UCSD psychologist. KPBS Reporter Tom Fudge has more.

— Perfect pitch is learned, not genetic. That seems to be the conclusion of research by a UCSD psychologist. KPBS Reporter Tom Fudge has more.

Diana Deutsch plays me a recording of a woman who repeats one-syllable words, spoken in Mandarin. The words were recorded several days apart, yet the woman's tonal pitch stays the same. Deutsch is a psychologist at UCSD. She says what we call perfect pitch is used when speaking some tonal Asian languages. And the people she studied, who spoke Mandarin, were superior to English speakers at identifying musical notes. Deutsch says this changes our notion of perfect pitch.

"An ability that had been thought to be genetic can in fact become available to a very large number of people," she says.

Deutsch says speakers of Vietnamese are also quite likely to have perfect pitch. Among Westerners, perfect pitch has been associated only with gifted musicians, like Wolfgang Mozart. Tom Fudge, KPBS news.

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