A new study concludes that young musicians who speak Mandarin Chinese can learn to identify isolated musical notes much better than English speakers can. Fewer than one American in 10,000 has absolute pitch, which means they can identify or produce a note without reference to any other note. Also called perfect pitch, this skill requires distinguishing sounds that differ by just 6 percent in frequency.

Five years ago researchers led by Diana Deutsch of the University of California at San Diego found that native speakers of Mandarin Chinese and Vietnamese frequently match this level of precision during ordinary speech. In these so-called tonal languages, changing pitch can completely alter the meaning of words. For example, the Mandarin word "ma" means "mother" when the vowel is a constant high pitch, but means "hemp" when pronounced with a rising pitch. Until now, it was not known whether this precision in linguistic pitch transferred to musical tones.

To address this question, Deutsch and her colleagues compared 115 advanced music students from Rochester, New York, with 88 students from Beijing. In results to be presented at the meeting of the Acoustical Society of America in San Diego on November 17, the scientists found that the Mandarin speakers were much more likely to have absolute pitch than were English speakers who had started musical training at the same age. For example, 60 percent of Beijing students who had begun studying music between the ages of four and five years old passed a test for absolute pitch, whereas only 14 percent of the American students did. In both groups, students who started their musical instruction later were less likely to have absolute pitch, and none of the Rochester students that began training after their eighth birthday had the ability.

Deutsch suggests that for students who speak a tonal language, acquiring absolute pitch is like learning a second language, which becomes much more difficult after a critical period of development. For students who speak a nontonal language such as English, however, absolute pitch is more like a first language, for which the critical period occurs at a much younger age. One limitation of the study was that all of the Mandarin speakers from the Chinese institute were also ethnically Chinese, so genetic differences could explain some of the effect.