'Perfect' pitch may not be perfect

12 June 2013, 15:51 | Updated: 5 August 2015, 17:53

Musicians with perfect pitch may not be as in tune as they thought, according to a new study from University of Chicago.

It's thought that around 1 in 10,000 have 'perfect pitch' - the ability to identify a note accurately just by hearing it - but a new study reveals this idealised skill may not be as absolute as first thought. Researchers at the University of Chicago tested musicians with perfect pitch and found they were unable to notice a gradual change in pitch while listening to music.

After recruiting 27 people with perfect pitch according to standardised tests, researchers played a recording of Brahms' Symphony No. 1, gradually lowering the pitch by a third of a semitone over the course of a 15 minute movement. After listening to the final three movements at a slightly lower pitch, the participants didn't notice a change, and identified the newly detuned notes as being in tune.

Quiz: do you have perfect pitch?

Professor Howard Nusbaum explained people with perfect pitch are more likely to identify notes from their sound, rather than having a rare, absolute ability from an early age. "This is further evidence of how adaptable even the adult mind is for learning new skills," he said. "We are finding out more and more about how our brains are equipped to learn new things at any age and not limited by abilities previously thought to be available only from the time of birth."

Several well-known composers are believed to have had perfect pitch including Beethoven, Chopin and Handel. Mozart demonstrated the ability from a young age, identifying the pitches of bells and clock chimes on request.