Among musicians there is a rare skill nicknamed “absolute ear” or “perfect ear”. With this ability they can identify and name the same note on several instruments without making a mistake once, play it without reference notes, say what tone has our home timbre or a horn or play a melody without the need for a score and just listening to it once. A sort of “human tuning forks”. Mozart or Bach possessed it, but also Frank Sinatra, Freddie Mercury, Michael Jackson and our Ana Torroja, Mecano’s singer. Studied since the beginning of the twentieth century, there are still fierce debates today about whether this skill is born with this skill or something that can be learned through practice.
A recent study suggests that it is more of a genetic condition than a learned skill. An article published this week in the Journal of Neuroscience states that these people – who represent only 1 in 10,000 in the world – have a variation in their brains: they have the auditory cortex – the region responsible for processing acoustic information – significantly larger than the rest.
To arrive at this conclusion, the team led by Keith Schneider of the University of Delaware (United States) studied a group of 20 people including volunteers with minimal musical training, musicians without the ability of the “perfect ear” and musicians who did possess this trait.
The tests showed that the brains of the musicians with “perfect hearing” (AP in the drawing) had a larger auditory cortex than the rest of the musicians and volunteers with minimal musical notions.
Tests showed that the brains of musicians with “perfect hearing” (AP in the drawing) had a larger auditory cortex than other musicians and volunteers with minimal musical notions – McKetton
“We conduct behavioral tests to measure the ability of the “absolute ear.” We then map the primary auditory cortex, measuring the response in the three auditory cortical areas. People with “absolute hearing” had larger cortical areas, with an increase responding mainly to frequencies below 1000 Hz, and also with wider frequency tuning. This suggests to us that these people use a wider network of neurons to represent the musical tone,” Schneider explains to ABC.
“Relative ear” versus “absolute ear”.
Many confuse the “absolute ear” with the “relative ear”, which is commonly called “having a good musical ear” and which can be trained: these people are able to play a song just by listening to it once, which is an impressive skill; however, they need a first reference tone of the instrument with which they are going to play the melody to know how to begin. People who have the “perfect ear” do not need that first note and can play the song directly after hearing it.
Unlike the “absolute ear”, the “relative ear” is very common among musicians. What’s more, it is necessary because it gives them the ability to identify the intervals between the notes given. This skill is trained as more and more melodies are played or sung, thus recognizing the most common intervals. However, these people have never developed comparable “absolute ear” skills.
“Perfect ear”: is it born or made?
The debate about this musical ability has been going on for years in the scientific community: there is research like Schneider’s that points to a genetic explanation of the “perfect ear”; but there are also studies that suggest that it is a capacity that can be learned, especially in the critical phase of development that occurs between the ages of 2 and 5.
This was affirmed in 2013 by researchers Fabrizio Veloso and María Ángela Guimaraes, who point out that “absolute hearing” has to do with the development of language and how some people learn to “read” notes and memorize them in order to identify them within a scale. It would be a mechanism similar to the way in which we recognize different tonalities within colors (for example, as when we identify the celestial and indigo encompassed within the blue). Moreover, this ability is not exclusive to human beings: it is also possessed by other animals, such as birds and wolves.
The “cons” of the “perfect ear
Although it may seem like a “super power”, having the “absolute ear” for many musicians is a kind of curse. Having such a developed sense of tone, minimal detuning can distract them, making it very difficult for them to play in orchestras or groups.
And possessing this ability does not grant immediate knowledge of solfege: in order to take advantage of it in the ruled musical language, like the rest of mortals, the possessors of the “absolute ear” must learn how to call the tonalities that they do recognize in a natural way: that is, that the to