The Perfect Pitch Karaoke Paradox… and its Probable Resolution

I’m still working my way through the book I mentioned in my last post, Steven Mithen’s The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind, and Body, and I seem to have come upon a paradox. The paradox has to do with the geographical distribution of perfect pitch and relative pitch ability in adult humans, as it relates to the invention of karaoke.

For those who aren’t musically trained, perfect pitch is the ability to recognize specific pitches without a base reference tone. (In other words, you can tell whether people are playing a familiar song in the usual key, or a different one, without having to hear the original for comparison.) People with musical training can hear someone press a random key on the piano and name the pitch. This is pretty rare in adult humans: if you’re not sure whether you have it, well, you probably don’t. Nor do I, so don’t feel bad.1 Most musical savants do have it, but having it doesn’t automatically make you one.

In contrast, relative pitch is much more common in adult humans, and you almost certainly have it, even if you’re not trained as a musician: if you can recognize a melody, you have relative pitch discernemnt. After all, how do you recognize a melody? You do so by recognizing the “distance” (the relative difference in frequency, which humans perceive as “higher” or “lower”) between each given pitch and the one that follows it. Quick: sing the theme from Jaws, or, say, Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. If you can do that, you have relative pitch, even if you don’t know the names of the “intervals” in musical terminology.

Note that relative pitch is an innate ability, but it can also be trained, and indeed must be trained by most developing musicians. Being able to recognize a specific interval — like the one at the beginning of the theme from Love Story:

… doesn’t mean you’ll know in musical theory terms what the name of the interval what it is,2 let alone being able to play it back consistently by ear, both of which are important and useful skills for a musician. But you ought to be able to sing the interval back correctly: no matter what note you start on, you’ll be able to intuit about how far apart the next note should be, in terms of of the “interval” distance.

What’s interesting is that, apparently, all babies have perfect pitch when they’re born. When you sing a low B-flat once, they’ll recognize that precise note the next time they hear it. Don’t ask me how they know this, but apparently this is scientifically established through rigorous tests and study; not just that, but the perfect pitch is a skill we’re all (or nearly all?) born with, is something most of us lose as we get older.

In other words, the people who have perfect pitch are simply the minority who managed to retain it for whatever reason. If you’re like most people and don’t have this ability now… well, you used to, back at the beginning of your life.

This is important to Mithen because he’s trying to tease apart the links and the discontinuities in how music and language figure into our evolutionary history, but it’s a cool tidbit of information just the same, and one cannot help but wonder whether perfect pitch is lost simply because most adults get insufficient chance to exercise the ability during childhood in modern settings.3

What’s more interesting to me is the geographical (and presumably genetic) distribution of perfect pitch among adult humans. Here’s the pertinent bit, from a discussion of test results that showed a specific sample of Mandarin-Chinese speakers not performing different from native English speakers when it comes to relative pitch and perfect pitch:

… it is known from other studies that Asia has a higher frequency of adults with perfect pitch than is found in the West. This condition exists, however, irrespective of whether the Asian people speak a tonal language such as Mandarin Chinese or an atonal language such as Korean or Japanese, and it appears to reflect a genetic predisposition that is unrelated to language or other cultural factors. (pg. 78)

Mithen’s cited source for these “other studies” is R.J. Zatorre’s 2003 study, “Absolute pitch: a model for understanding the influence of genes and development on neural and cognitive function,” and according to a footnote of Mithen’s, Zatorre claims that exposure to (and training in) music is not a factor: more Asians manage to retain perfect pitch into adulthood for apparently genetic reasons: it’s probably just the luck of the draw, though it might explain why you see more tonal languages in East Asia.

But that does leave me with a kind of paradox: why would karaoke–the greatest platform of horribly talentless, out-of-tune singing known to humanity–have arisen in Asia? Wouldn’t more perfect pitch have made that less likely to happen?

There’s a couple of assumptions built into the question:

  1. People with perfect pitch find out-of-tune singing more painful than people who only have relative pitch. I base this assumption on the fact that while I’ve always found out-of-tune singing painful, the pain increased when I started getting formal ear training.
  2. The relative difference in the number of people with perfect pitch is statistically significant enough in Asia to come into play at all.

But assuming that people who do have perfect pitch do find bad singing unpleasant, and that the genetics of perfect pitch retention do play a significant role in culture (for example,leading to more tonal languages), why might karaoke have been invented there?4

We can dispense with one possible explanation immediately: a higher incidence of perfect pitch doesn’t mean Northeast Asians sing better on average. Trust me, I’ve endured enough karaoke and college band performances to assure you this is not the case. What’s more, even when someone is singing horribly out of key, the conventional response in Korea, at least, is to smile and clap along with the beat, and maybe sing along. You don’t get the jeering and laughter and schadenfreude I remember seeing in karaoke nights in Canada.

Which brings me to what I think is really going on: it comes down to differences in how karaoke is used on either side of the Pacific.

Here’s a karaoke bar in Vancouver that follows the pattern I remember from such places in Canada, where people “perform” in front of an “audience” mostly made up of people who don’t know them:

Karaoke is used very differently in Korea and Japan: usually, it’s done in a semi-private (rented) space and used as a bonding experience with an established in-group of some kind, especially early in the establishment of an in-group identity. (For example, as part of the inevitable dinner outing with your new swimming class or language study group.)5 Here’s an illustrative video:

Over the course of a private karaoke session like this, you can see social boundaries just sort of melt away. The term Mithen uses to describe this is “boundary-loss” and it’s an apt one: that collection of adults who were slightly awkward and quite uptight at dinner an hour ago, suddenly end up acting like this in the karaoke room. Sure, it’s not always that quick, but it can be–I’ve seen it happen firsthand several times, most memorably with my old swimming class over a decade ago, one member of whom took to calling me her “son” because suddenly, after karaoke, she felt badly that I was so far from my biological family.

What’s interesting is that Mithen theorizes this dynamic — the usefulness of communal music-making as a social lubricant, and as a mechanism of generating altered mental states that facilitate bonding — lies at the heart of what made us a successful gregarious species, and at the heart of why we developed language: that language sort of bootstraps off a more primordial communication system that involves musical and linguistic properties intermingled.

Like alcohol, communal music-making is a social boundary-loss accelerant, and that’s a human universal, by the way: from fight songs and national anthems to church music, this seems to be pretty much ubiquitous to the species. It’s just that karaoke isn’t used for that particular purpose in Western culture… or at least it wasn’t when I unhappily experienced it there, back in the 90s. I could say more about that — there’s interesting stuff at the intersection of neurobiology, genetics, and culture that also links to the size of in-groups and the relative neurochemical “kick” associated with this kind of bonding — but I’ll just note there are probably deeper reasons why karaoke gets used one way in one culture, and another way in another. And yes, I’m saying it’s probably not purely by chance.

Of course, there’s also cases where it can all go wrong, too: an example is the “My Way” killings of the Philippines, where karaoke renditions of the famous Frank Sinatra song, assumably in a more social setting like the Vancouver karaoke bar above, have led not just to one or two killings, but a whole spate of them.


  1. Actually, I usually can tell what pitches are being played on a tenor or soprano saxophone, but that’s as much because of nuances of timbre–how the overtone spectrum shifts in different areas of the saxophone–that have become familiar over a few decades of playing it. I may even have developed limited perfect pitch from it, and I believe it can be learned, or, rather, recovered, but it’s not reliable in the way someone with true perfect pitch can recognize notes without any outside referent.

  2. It’s a minor 6th, incidentally, and was the go-to example my ear training prof used back when I was an undergraduate. If you’d like to try train your ear a little, there are plenty of websites out there you can use to try that, including this interesting site that provides examples of songs starting with each interval up to an octave. There’s also free software that will help you train your ear, if you want it.

  3. One odd thing in Mithen’s book is that he seems to assume that one can only have one or the other, which is nonsense: I’ve never met a musician who had perfect pitch and didn’t have extremely good relative pitch as well. Having perfect pitch wasn’t perceived as an impediment (despite Mithen’s suggestion to the contrary) in the musical circles in which I moved, and in fact was seen as a huge advantage–perhaps exaggeratedly so. But that’s perhaps an understandable confusion, since Mithen isn’t a musician.

  4. The easy answer is that karaoke wasn’t invented in Japan, but was a Japanese retrofitting of a foreign technology. (Professional Filipino entertainers were going to Japan in droves in the 1960s and 70s, and were reportedly using Music Minus One-styled accompaniment tapes for economic reasons. Here’s one link of many I found.) But even so, it  raises the question of why karaoke, as a retrofit of this earlier technology, has grown so very popular in Northeast Asia?

  5. Also, if you search the phrase 노래방 in Korean on google, you’ll notice a pretty difficult-to-ignore link between karaoke and the sex trade in South Korea.

gordsellar: Your host on this site. I'm an SF writer, homebrewer, and expat teaching at a university in South Korea. My policies for commenters on this site can be read here.

View Comments (2)

  • Thanks for this post and the info in it--the point about language possibly evolving on a base of musical bonding (more or less) helps complete a linkage; I have been interested for years in Louis Zukofsky's 'an integral: speech approaching music' as a characterization of poetry (from somewhere in his vast A, perhaps misquoted), and recently found audio of an interview with Basil Bunting saying that it all begins with dance--that rhythm is the foundation of poetry, and that that begins with rhythmic body movement; so now I can hypothesize a train of communal dance to communal song to language, and say that language (at least in its still rhythmically vital uses) is a specialized form of dancing! Ha. Came to yr site via Pound Canto XVII 'so that...' -- will return sometimes ...

    • Charlie,

      Thanks, glad to help connect some dots. Yeah, I think a lot of poets see the connection between music and language. Pound said something about poetry aspiring to the condition of music, or something like that, as well. You should definitely check out Mithen's book, he actually draws connections all over, even to the point of noting how bipedalism is a prerequisite to dance. (And while I've seen bipedal birds dance, I've never seen a four-legged creature do so.)

      As for the Pound: ha, funnily enough I have my stack of Pound books on my desk. I'm just settling into a new home and job, but plan on getting back to the rest of the Cantos soon. Maybe next month I'll start blogging my way through the remainder. I figure, I'm basically halfway there, might as well finish, even if I find I have precious little to actually say about the Chinese Cantos. (And fear I'll have even less to say about the Adams ones... but the Pisan Cantos await!)