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Study of 'perfect pitch' bolsters new theories of brain development

May 19, 1996
Web posted at: 5:20 p.m. EDT

From Correspondent Dan Rutz

BOSTON, Massachusetts (CNN) -- Doctors studying musicians and pitch detection have found an unusual link between brain development and perfect pitch.

Perfect pitch is the rare ability to determine a musical note without first hearing a reference note.

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Zach Goldberger's perfect pitch was discovered by his music teacher by using a unique piano game when he was 5 years old.

"Two pianos are back to back. She would sit at one; I would sit at the other, and she would play notes. She would play ... I couldn't see what she was playing. I would play it back," Goldberger explained.

Dr. Gottfried Schlaug studied about 24 people with perfect pitch at Boston's Beth Israel Hospital.

Schlaug found that the left side of the brain plays a surprising role in perfect pitch.

Typical brain theories state that artistic and creative issues center in the right side of the brain, while logic and problem-solving pursuits are the domain of the left hemisphere.

"People have been hypothesizing that the right hemisphere might be very important for processing musical information," Schlaug said.

Or so researchers thought. Schlaug's findings indicate that the left side of the brain may be more critical than doctors previously believed.

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Schlaug's opinion is based on brain scans showing that perfect pitch musicians have an enlarged area in the left side of the brain that processes sound.

This evidence supports new theories that the perfect pitch ability is connected to prenatal brain development. Evidence shows that the process may not stop at birth but continue through early childhood, when music and language skills are easier to learn.

While these findings are too premature to alter medical practice or musical training, Schlaug is hopeful that a better understanding of the brain could lead to improved treatments for stroke and other conditions of brain damage.

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