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Talent for Musical Pitch Mostly in Genes

March 12, 2001|Rosie Mestel

One of the things I find enjoyable, on the rare occasions when I vacuum the house, is imagining that the vacuum cleaner's hum is the background drone of a bagpipe and singing along to it: "Amazing Grace," perhaps.

I do another fun thing while listening to the radio. When the astronomy program "StarDate" fades away with its ethereal outer-space music, I try to predict--from the pitch of the "StarDate" music--what the pitch of the music for "Airtalk" (the chat show that follows) will be. I am so thrilled when I get it right.

(Please: no cruel comments about what counts for "fun" in my life.)

I can probably thank my genes for these little pleasures, since evidence is building that "musical pitch recognition" is largely inherited. Just last week in the journal Science, scientists in the United States and United Kingdom published a study of 284 identical and nonidentical twins in which they found the ability to hear "wrong" notes in tunes was much more likely to be matched in identical pairs than nonidentical pairs.

The bottom line: 71% to 80% of this ability can be put down to genes.

What I'd really like to have, though, is perfect pitch: the ability to hear a note and know instantly just what it is--middle C, you name it.

That too is probably largely inherited, according to other, earlier studies. It's not caused by having a super-fancy ear, scientists say, but a super-fancy ability to analyze sounds in the brain. Scientists, in fact, have detected brain scan differences between perfect pitchers and non-perfect pitchers in sound-processing parts of the brain.

My kid's piano teacher, Melody (that's right) Peterson, is a perfect pitcher. (Her dad, also very musical, first noticed little Melody's talent when she upbraided him for playing "America" in a different key from the one she had learned at school.)

Melody says I shouldn't be so envious. Yes, having perfect pitch is great--but it can sometimes be a pain.

She has recently been driven nuts by a Chopin Prelude recording that's been speeded up a bit so the tune is in D instead of D flat. (Did they do it to make the pianist sound faster on his fingers?) Plus a radio station she listens to has just changed the pitch of its musical logo just a tad--it jars her every time. (Are they trying to get the attention of the perfect-pitch audience?)

And mistakes, as they say, can be made. As a kid, Melody's pitch was so good that her chorus would rely on her to give them the starting note for their songs. "One time I gave it too high," she said, "and we had 50 people sounding like Mickey mice."

How Nice Are We, Really?

Did you know that most people think they are nicer and more moral than the average person? This holier-than-thou aspect of human personality is something psychologists have known for a long time. But what's causing it? Are we overestimating our own niceness--or underestimating other people's?

Cornell psychologists set up an experiment to investigate this thorny issue, using the ubiquitous college student as a guinea pig. (Psychology will be in trouble if we ever find out that college students don't think like the rest of us.) Students were asked lots of "niceness" questions--such as what portion of a gift of $5 they'd be willing to donate to charity. They were also asked how much they thought other students would donate.

Students said they would donate--on average--half the $5. And they guessed that the other (cheapskate) students would only give $1.80.

Then came the happy surprise: The students were given the chance to donate the money! And the average donation was only $1.53.

The students, in other words, were more accurate in predicting what others would do than what they themselves would do.

The experiment raised $19.89 for charity. But it would have raised $31.72 if the students had been as generous as they thought they were.

You wouldn't catch me behaving like that.


If you have an idea for a topic, write or e-mail Rosie Mestel at the Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st. St., Los Angeles, CA 90012,

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