Are you able to recognise a single note on any musical instrument, without any track or reference tone? Well, then you’re one of those rare people. Only one in ten thousand can do it - those who possess a capacity called absolute hearing.
Many artists, contemporary and past, have this extraordinary skill that has certainly been of great help in their professional careers: Frank Sinatra, Mozart, Bach, Mariah Carey, Freddie Mercury, Michael Jackson…
The truth is that very little is known about the origin of this capacity. For example, we do not know whether it is a genetic factor, an environmental factor, or both. Are you born with absolute hearing? Is music training responsible for absolute hearing? These are very difficult questions to answer, as they would involve long-term studies evaluating this rare ability from childhood to maturity.
Larger auditory cortex
However, now we know something else: the brain of people with absolute hearing is different, according to research published in the journal Journal of Neuroscience.
Its authors, from the universities of Delaware (USA) and Toronto (Canada), showed that these people have a greater auditory cortex than those who have not been endowed with that extraordinary capacity. In addition, this additional area appears to be dedicated to processing a wider frequency band than usual.
"I have always been fascinated by absolute hearing", explained Larissa Mcketton, principal author of the work, and who, in addition to being a neuroscientist, is also a pianist, vocalist and composer. "This ability to perceive a note or set of notes and recreate them without the need for a reference tone is incredible," he says.
The study involved volunteers who were divided into several groups: those with absolute hearing, those without absolute hearing but with musical formation, and the latter with no absolute hearing and no musical formation. While people with absolute hearing were able to identify random tones with 100% accuracy, the rest were able to hit just 8%.
The researchers obtained brain imaging by functional magnetic resonance of all participants: they found that the auditory cortex of those with absolute hearing was significantly greater, and also did not observe differences between the other two groups of participants (those with or without musical training).
In addition, they noted that some of the participants in the work had not started learning music until adolescence, which contradicts a widespread idea that speaks of a critical period and postulates that only those who began their musical training before the age of seven are able to develop this characteristic.
And, on the contrary: is it possible to possess absolute hearing without having any idea of music? The problem is that, with no foundation of musical theory, it is much more complicated to check this ability, but the authors indicate that the ability to identify frequencies could be tested in some way, Which would open up an interesting line of inquiry.