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The Mysteries of Perfect Pitch

Perfect pitch, the ability to identify tones without external reference, disappears without music lessons.

When Mariah Carey belts out a glass-shattering high note, it's impossible for most listeners to identify the tone.

Not for her. Carey possesses perfect or absolute pitch (AP), the ability to identify tones without any external reference. Just as most people recognize the colors green or sky blue, those with AP instantly recognize a C or E-sharp.

Although roughly 1 in 10,000 people are born with this talent, without musical training they may lose it. "At some point, they have to learn the proper terms—the labels—and then learn to associate those labels with sensory impressions of pitch," says Daniel Levitin, a psychologist at McGill University in Montreal.

That training needs to happen very early: Adult musicians with absolute pitch typically began music lessons around age 5. After age 9 it becomes virtually impossible to develop truly perfect pitch. The rare instances of late acquisition usually occur among the developmentally challenged—most often those with autism or Williams syndrome—whose cognitive maturation is delayed.

Specific languages facilitate absolute pitch. Conservatory students who are native speakers of tonal languages (languages like Mandarin and Vietnamese in which pitch conveys meaning) display perfect pitch more frequently than do their English-speaking counterparts.

Alternately, prevalence among Asians may have a genetic basis. Another study, which did not consider which language subjects spoke, found that 32 percent of Asian-American music students had perfect pitch compared with 7 percent of non-Asian-American music students. Regardless of ethnicity, people with perfect pitch are more likely to have similarly talented siblings.

The gift isn't always a blessing. Awareness of pitch can distract listeners from enjoying music, and playing a melody in a transposed key can be a downright nightmare. Even so, droves of wannabes enroll in courses on "pitch identification."

Of course, when it comes to musical greatness, absolute pitch is irrelevant. For every Mozart who has it, there are several Tchaikovskys who don't.

Perfect Pitch

Born With It: Leonard Bernstein, Stevie Wonder, Julie Andrews, Ludwig van Beethoven, Celine Dion, Ella Fitzgerald, Vladimir Horowitz, Michael Jackson, Yo-Yo Ma, Barbra Streisand, Brian Wilson, Frank Sinatra, Steve Vai, Shakira, Yanni, Paul Shaffer

And Those Without: Neil Young, Donald Fagen (Steely Dan), Joni Mitchell, k.d. lang, Gwen Stefani, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Johannes Brahms, Igor Stravinsky, Richard Wagner