What Ludwig van Beethoven has in common, Barbara Streisand, Jimi Hendrix e Pippo Baudo? You could add to this list several other more or less known names, who have discovered to possess this feature more or less by chance.
We are talking about"absolute pitch", that is, the ability to recognize exactly the frequency of a musical note without any kind of reference. For these people, recognizing a note is as natural as the recognizing a color.
Absolute pitch is a mysterious gift and causes wonder and questions: what does this feature depend on?? Is it an innate or acquired ability? A study published on Journal of Neuroscience tries to answer.
McKetton et al. (the authors of the study) involved 61 volunteers in a trial. Participants were divided into three groups:
- musicians with absolute pitch,
- musicians without absolute pitch, but with a musical experience similar to the first group, and
- people with minimal music skills, representing the control group.
Volunteers underwent auditory tests and, at the same time, a scans of functional magnetic resonance imaging: an imaging technique that allows you to highlight activated brain areas while performing a certain task.
In particular, the auditory cortex has been studied, that is the area of the cerebral cortex that receives and processes the auditory stimulations that come from the ear. Neurons in the auditory cortex are organized into structures known as tonotopic maps.. Each frequency activates a specific tonotopic map.
Study authors identified three subareas of the auditory cortex: primary, rostral and rostrum-temporal regions. What came out, is that in musicians with absolute pitch the primary and rostral regions were wider than in the other two groups, consisting respectively of musicians without absolute pitch and control subjects; between these two latter groups there were no significant differences. The conclusion is that those areas have broad-spectrum tonotopic maps, that is, able to get activated with rather different frequencies of auditory stimuli.
The study, performed on a small group of people, concludes that absolute pitch is related to specific features of brain anatomy, that are independent of the musical skills of the subject.
When we talk about absolute pitch we refer to two cognitive components: a perception of fine encoding of sounds, and one of associative memory, that is, the one that allows in this case to assign a name to a sound (for example "C"), or to know how to play it on the instrument. Musical skills therefore plays its role in the exercise of this very particular ability!