05 July 2009

Perfect Pitch: A genetic study

Although I studied music from elementary school onward, neither perfect pitch nor singing were in my genes.

I could easily tell if two notes were the same and scored high on musical aptitude tests - except for the humiliating vocalization sections. There was definitely a short circuit between what I heard internally and the ability to allow others to hear what I heard.

At New York City's High School of Music & Art, where I played viola, we had solfeggio - sight-singing - classes every term. We had small booklets of melodies and were called on in turn to sing from them. These were the most difficult classes I have ever taken.

How I envied classmates who could look at a line and belt it out perfectly, while I had to be content with hearing the line in my head. If there had only been a way to plug in a USB cable to my brain and attach it to a computer!!

While I could look at a a line of music and sing it in my head, reading it perfectly, I could not vocalize it at all and I knew it. What came out was very off-pitch croaking. Eventually the teacher stopped calling on me, thereby saving my classmates from all-day migraines.

My mother sang, my grandmother sang, the ancestors were hazzanim. Somehow, this ability escaped me.

However, this rare talent is the subject of a study in the American Journal of Human Genetics issue of July 2.
University of California - San Francisco scientists report that they identified a particular region of genes on human chromosome eight that is linked to perfect pitch, at least in people of European ancestry. The next step, they say, is to identify a specific gene.

The finding, part of a larger examination of families of various
ancestries – Europeans, Ashkenazi Jews, Indians and East Asians – is the first significant genetic evidence of a role of genes in perfect pitch. It is likely, the researchers say, that multiple genes are involved in all cases of perfect pitch and that different genes could be associated with different ethnic backgrounds.

The finding is important to move in on the relative roles of early musical training and genetic inheritance on perfect pitch.

Senior author Jane Gitschier, PhD, UCSF professor of medicine, pediatrics and genetics - and a singer - says it is an advance in the team's effort to explore relative contributions of environmental factors and genes on learning and other behaviors.

She says that"Perfect pitch is a window into the way in which multiple genes and environmental factors influence cognitive or behavioral traits." The team has learned over the past decade that both factors contribute to perfect pitch.
In the current study, lead author Elizabeth Theusch, a graduate student in the Gitschier lab, identified a collection of families in which at least two people (mostly siblings) had perfect pitch as determined by the web-based test. Seventy three of the families chose to participate in her investigation.

They included 45 families of European ancestry, 19 of East Asian ancestry, eight of Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry and one of Indian ancestry.
Testing included a DNA saliva kit and blood work.

In the current study, the team drew on data acquired from the lab's web-based survey, established in 2003, which gathers information about participants' musical training history and tests their pitch-naming abilities.

Tens of thousands of people have participated in the study, which they learn about through word of mouth or web-surfing. Participants listen to an auditory frequency and then click on a keyboard to identify the note.

To learn more, see the link above, or the following related links:

UCSF paper

University of California Absolute Pitch Study http://perfectpitch.ucsf.edu/

Nature vs. Nurture Explored in Perfect Pitch Study http://today.ucsf.edu/stories/nature-vs-nurture-explored-in-perfect-pitch-study/

No comments:

Post a Comment