Perfect pitch common among the blind

From New Orleans, at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience

Stevie Wonder. Ray Charles. Jose Feliciano. Because of such legends, there’s a perception that blind people make great musicians. Scientists do have some evidence from blind people that brain areas normally devoted to vision become involved in hearing or in controlling the dexterity needed to play an instrument. A new study now finds that blind musicians are more likely to have perfect pitch than sighted people are.

Perfect pitch is the ability to identify the pitch, or frequency, of a musical note without a reference note. This talent, perhaps as rare as 1 in 2,000 among the general population, seems to result from a blend of genetics and experience. People with early musical training are much more likely than others to have perfect pitch, but the skill also runs in families (SN: 11/16/96, p. 316).

Roy H. Hamilton of the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston and his colleagues surveyed 30 people who have been blind since the age of 6 or earlier. Within that group, 21 reported having a musical background and 12 of them—57 percent of the musicians—said they have perfect pitch. People who claim to have perfect pitch are invariably correct, says Hamilton, and when the researchers tested 7 of the 12, they confirmed the skill in each.

The prevalence of perfect pitch among the blind musicians is about two to three times that usually reported for sighted musicians, says Hamilton. Now, in an effort to pinpoint brain regions responsible for perfect pitch, the investigators are conducting brain-imaging studies of blind musicians. A previous imaging study in sighted people revealed a brain region that’s larger in those with perfect pitch than in others.