Perfect pitch, the much-lauded ability of some musicians to identify and name musical pitches in isolation. While perfect pitch is estimated to occur in 1 in 10,000 people, most musicians, if they don’t have it themselves, will know someone with perfect pitch (they tend to let you know). But do musicians with perfect pitch have different brains?

New research, published in the peer-reviewed neuroscience journal JNeurosci, has revealed that musicians with Absolute Pitch –the technical term for perfect pitch – have greater volume in their auditory cortex than musicians without the ability, or non-musician controls. The study compared the auditory cortex (the part of the temporal lobe that processes auditory information) structure of 61 age and sex matched groups of musicians with Absolute Pitch, musicians without Absolute Pitch, and a control group of participants without any musical training.

Perfect Pitch, Absolute PitchPopulation Receptive Field (pRF) maps of tonotopy (center frequency) and tuning sharpness (q) in auditory cortex in representative subjects from each group. Photo © McKetton et al, JNeurosci (2019)

While Absolute Pitch “is associated with a number of gross morphological changes in the brain,” the authors – Larissa McKetton, Kevin DeSimone and Keith A. Schneider – wrote, “the fundamental neural mechanisms have not been clear.”

The new research has begun to unravel the mystery, however. “Our study shows AP musicians have significantly larger volume in early auditory cortex than non-AP musicians and non-musician controls, and that this increased volume is primarily devoted to broad frequency tuning,” the authors wrote. “We conclude that AP musicians are likely able to exploit increased ensemble representations to encode and identify frequency.”

The research also suggests that the relative contribution of genetics to incidences of Absolute Pitch may be more pronounced than previously thought, with nearly a quarter of the musicians with Absolute Pitch who took part in the study not beginning musical training until adolescence.