K-on! and Perfect Pitch

K-on!

To be honest I didn’t think K-on! would be a series that I would watch or one that I would actually be writing about.  I can thank Netflix for that since it popped up on my recommendation feed there.  I will be the first to admit that while I do like some of the music from the show, I wasn’t super interested in watching a moe slice of life show, but as I like to say, try anything once, except airag, there is never time for airag.

K-on! for those you who don’t know is a Kyoto animation show that aired from 2008-2010 with a movie in 2011 based on the K-on! manga.  During the course of the show we follow the members of the light music club as they form the band After School Tea Time, and their high school escapades.  While music is an ever-present focus in the series, it is not the main focus, so if you are looking for an anime about the nuts and bolts of being a musician, I suggest looking elsewhere.  If you like cute girls doing cute things, then I would recommend checking it out.  I digress, however, as the real reason for today’s post is something called perfect pitch, or absolute pitch.

Warning: there will be spoilers

Absolute Pitch

According to Scientific American, absolute pitch, or perfect pitch, as it is more commonly called is the ability to discern a note from nearly any sort of sound without a reference tone.  It also happens to be a rare ability that Yui Hirasawa, the lead guitarist and singer of After School Tea Time, is reported to have.

Yui Hirasawa

As a non-musician I found the way that they introduced Yui’s ability rather interesting from a visual and storytelling perspective.  In the first season we see Azusa tuning her guitar using an electrical device.

Azusa

Yui asks what that is and what Azusa is doing, shocking the other members of the band, as Yui, while new to the guitar compared to the rest of the band, has been playing for over a year at this point.  They rather reasonably ask if Yui has ever tuned her guitar before, setting up the audience expected no I haven’t line, given how clueless Yui is.  Instead, however, Yui says that she does it by ear and proceeds to tune her guitar without any assistance.  A stunned Azusa states that she must have perfect pitch.  This is a great scene as it explains perfect pitch to the viewer in a way that does not come across as an information dump.  Also, not unsurprisingly I found some numbers stating around 11% of musicians have perfect pitch.

There is a second follow up scene in the second season where, the girls are worried about the rain warping the wood of their guitars, throwing off the sound.

Yui and Ui in the rain

The worried Yui quickly checks her guitar, finding it to be slightly off.  The girls are surprised by this and use Azusa’s electric tuner and once again find that Yui is spot on with her hearing.

At this point as a non-musician I have no problem saying that Yui has perfect pitch as the show outright tells us she does and demonstrates on at least two occasions.  (Side note, I haven’t finished all of season 2 yet.)  What I would like to talk about at this point is the percentage of the population that has perfect pitch and if it is genetic or not.

Rate of Perfect Pitch

As I said previously around 11% of musicians are thought to have it, which is not surprising given how the trait would be a great asset in creating and playing music.  There is also some data showing that around 30% of individuals on the autism spectrum could have perfect pitch.  When it comes to the general population, this is where things get interesting.  Only about 1 in 10,000 people have perfect pitch in Europe or the United states, while in Asia it could be as high as 1 in 1,500 people.

Now of course your first thought might be, great, that explains why Yui can have perfect pitch because she is Asian, specifically Japanese.  Not exactly, since the research found that while perfect pitch is genetic, and possibly a single gene, the difference between Asia and the rest of the world is not based on genetics, but language.

What does Language have to do with it?

One of the ways that languages are classified is whether or not it is tonal.  A tonal language is one where the pitch at which the word is spoken changes the meaning even if it is pronounced the same.

As you can imagine, since language shares some characteristics with music, you can see that having perfect pitch would be a great trait to have for improving one’s ability to communicate.  Language also helps train the ear to recognize and reproduce a wide range of different tones.  In fact, the rate of perfect pitch in the children of Asian immigrants is lower in households that no longer speak the language of their home country as compared to those that still do.  Thus, it is thought that while it is genetic, the environment plays a role as well.

Now just in case you are wondering, Japanese like English is not a tonal language.  In fact, none of the European languages are tonal.  Actually, tonal languages tend to be clustered in Eastern and South Eastern Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, and the indigenous people of North America.  For Asia this means that China, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia use tonal languages, while Korea and Japan do not.  So Yui was not any more likely to have perfect pitch than anyone else.

Biology of Perfect Pitch

As I said previously there is some thought that perfect pitch could be a single gene trait, but what, if any, physiological changes does it cause that result in perfect pitch?  Surprisingly there is no difference in the outer, middle, or inner ear of people who have perfect pitch and those who do not.  What is different is that the temporal lobe of individuals with perfect pitch is slightly larger.

Temporal Lobe

Not surprising, considering the temporal lobe is the area of the brain that processes auditory (sound) information.  Specifically, it is the planum temporale of the temporal lobe that has an increased size.

Planum Temporale

The planum temporale is located in the section of the temporal lobe that is key to language and language development.  Thus, it is not a stretch to think that a tonal language which is more musical than others would assist in its development. The jury is still out on whether the language increases the size of the planum temporale or not.

Conclusion

Not much else to say here, other than yes, Yui does have perfect pitch, and I hoped you learned a little something about it.

Sources

https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/11/tonal-languages-linguistics-mandarin/415701/

https://ucsdnews.ucsd.edu/archive/newsrel/soc/05-09ToneLanguage.asp

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/speaking-tonal-languages/

https://scienceblogs.com/cognitivedaily/2008/07/24/why-do-more-asians-have-perfec

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/perfect-pitch-youve-eithe/

https://www.audiology.org/news/absolute-pitch-perfect-pitch-relative-pitch-and-other-musical-notes

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