[The following is an exact transcript of this podcast.]
[Sound of notes.] Can you name those notes? Probably not—perhaps one in 10,000 speakers of European languages has perfect pitch, the ability to recognize a note without having heard any reference note first. But there’s a much better chance you could successfully name the notes if you’re a fluent speaker of an East Asian tonal language, such as Vietnamese, Mandarin or Cantonese. [Cantonese audio clip] That’s the finding of a study by U.C. San Diego and U.S.C. researchers presented May 21st at the Acoustical Society of America meeting in Portland, Oregon.
Two hundred three U.S.C. music students listened to musical notes. The Asian musicians who spoke a tone language fluently exhibited almost perfect perfect pitch, far outperforming Caucasians fluent in a nontone language like English. And they also outdid other musicians of Asian ancestry who did not speak a tonal language. So it would seem that perfect pitch is more nurture than nature.
By the way, the notes are D, E and G. Assuming that your MP3 player is in tune.