By Richard Alleyne, Science Correspondent
Researchers made the discovery after investigating why perfect pitch was rare in Europe and the US even among musicians – with only one in 10,000 said to the have the gift – while in certain parts of China it was very common.
They tested 203 music students for perfect pitch asking them to identify all 36 notes from three octaves played in haphazard order.
Those tested included 27 ethnic Chinese and Vietnamese students who had different levels of fluency in the tonal language learned from their parents.
The Asian students scored no better than white students if they weren't fluent in their parents' language but very fluent students scored highly, getting about 90 per cent of the notes correct on average.
"They did incredibly well. It was overwhelming," Professor Diana Deutsch, a psychologist who led the study told New Scientist.
"In my experience, musicians in China don't regard perfect pitch as anything remarkable because it's very common."
The study suggests that learning a tonal language plays a far greater role in perfect pitch than genes.
Mandarin, like Cantonese and Vietnamese, is a tonal language in which the pitch of a spoken word is essential to its meaning.
"It really looks as though infants should acquire perfect pitch if they are given the opportunity to attach verbal labels to musical notes at the age when they learn speech," said Prof Deutsch.