In a study published in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America and being presented at the ASA meeting in Portland on May 21, Deutsch and her coauthors find that musicians who speak an East Asian tone language fluently are much more likely to have perfect pitch.
In 2004, she found that students at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, China, all of whom spoke Mandarin, were almost nine times more likely to have perfect pitch than students at the Eastman School of Music in New York. That last study, however, left open the question of whether perfect pitch might be a genetic trait – since all the Mandarin speakers were East Asian.
The present study looked at 203 students at the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music, all of whom agreed to take the test in class (so there was no self-selection in the sample). The students listened to the 36 notes that haphazardly spanned three octaves. They attempted to identify the notes, and they self-reported their musical, ethnic and linguistic backgrounds – including whether they were very fluent in an East Asian tone language, fairly fluent or not at all fluent. Deutsch and her colleagues found that students who spoke an East Asian tone language very fluently scored nearly 100 percent on the test, and that students who were only fairly fluent in a tone language scored lower overall. Those students – either Caucasian or East Asian – who were not at all fluent in speaking a tone language scored the worst on average.
The abstract makes it a bit clearer that East Asians who do not speak a tonal language are no better than Europeans.