IS PERFECT PITCH REALLY SO PERFECT?

Can you sing the opening motif of Beethoven’s 5th symphony? Or for something a little lighter what about Karen Carpenter singing I’m On The Top Of The World or Queen strutting their stuff with Bohemian Rhapsody?

curious perfect pitch

Whatever you chose there’s a good chance that you sang it at the right pitch. Does that mean you have perfect pitch?

There was a fascinating discussion about perfect pitch recently amongst members of The Curious Piano Teachers. The questions that triggered it off were ‘can perfect pitch be taught to children?’ If so, ‘is it a skill worth developing’? Let’s find out.

ABSOLUTE PITCH

The first thing is to get the terminology right. Although the term perfect pitch is frequently used this is actually a misnomer. In research it is referred to as Absolute Pitch.

Absolute Pitch is the ability to recognise a pitch outside any context [1]. Daniel Levitin describes it as ‘an internal template, or memory, for how note names and sounds match up with each other’ [2] So someone with absolute pitch (AP) can hear a single pitch from within the 12 of the chromatic scale and label it. This is within isolation and without reference to another pitch. What’s more many possesors of AP can recognise pitches of non-musical sounds: car horns or squeaky doors for example. According to Levitin absolute pitch is connected to the brain functions of memory and categorisation. First the brain has a memory of the single pitch and second is able to categorise it according to the sound.

WHO HAS ABSOLUTE PITCH?

It’s rare. The commonest figure around is that 1 in 10,000 people have AP. Whilst it is more frequent amongst musicians being a musician doesn’t mean that you have AP.
Interestingly research suggests that people of Asian descent have a slightly higher chance of having AP. [3] Why has yet to be established.

CAN ABSOLUTE PITCH BE TAUGHT?

Whether AP is a genetic inheritance or can be taught is still a matter of much debate. Whilst genes seem to play a role to some extent, evidence does seem to point towards AP as a learned experience developing within critical windows of brain maturation.

One research study in Japan tested 104 children aged between 4-10 years old. They had been  receiving intensive training using a fixed doh system for between 3 months – 2 years (dependent on their age). At the end of the study all the children generally showed an increase in their accuracy to recognise individual pitches. The authors concluded that there was some evidence for a critical period of experience and training between ages 4-7 for absolute pitch. [4] The question of whether AP can be learnt after the age of 7 into adulthood is still open for future research.

DO NON-MUSICIANS HAVE ABSOLUTE PITCH?

Non-musicians do appear to have the memory for AP although not always the labels necessary to categorise them. Once given labels (one experiment labelled two pitches as Fred and Ethel!) categorisation by non-musicians appears possible. [4]

ARE THERE ANY BENEFITS TO HAVING AP?

Having AP is not always beneficial to being a musician. Individuals with AP have a memory for isolated notes but are less able to hear intervals or identify chords. A Curious Piano Teacher with AP pointed out ‘I have no idea what a perfect 4th or major 6th sounds like. I have to think of the notes’. The entry on the topic in Groves Dictionary has a similiar story from an APer: ‘I don’t hear melodies, I hear pitch names passing by’. [5] This leads to a resulting loss of enjoyment of the music.

On the other hand listening tests prove pretty straightforward. Although individuals with AP seem to have no memory of chords they can recognise each note and subsequently label the chord. Furthermore, having a memory for each individual pitch means that sight-singing is fairly easy. That is until you are singing with a choir that goes flat or sharp by at least a semitone. Then APers have their work cut out for them with transposition!

RELATIVE PITCH

So what do the rest of us have? It appears that many people do have the ability to develop a memory for pitch given the right exposure.

Back at the start of the post I encouraged you to hum one of the melodies mentioned. If we hear enough repetitions of well known pieces of music that are always played in the same key this will become stored in our memories. In one experiment a group of non-musicians were asked to sing their favourite song. Nearly all were able to do this consistently close to the home key. However, this won’t apply to songs that have no set starting pitch, Happy Birthday or Frere Jacques for example.

Although the majority of musicians don’t have AP many develop a sense of relative pitch through exposure and training. As an orchestral string player I’ve tuned to A440 so many times that I can pitch it pretty reliably. What’s more the older I get the more recognisable other notes have become from their pitch alone. And as for keys, well these days they have definite colours and feelings for me.

SONIC COLOURS

‘Red and yellow and pink and green, purple and orange and blue’. Most people have no problem in seeing the different colours of a rainbow. Levitin argues that the musical equivalent is our recognition of sounds by their colours and timbres. The voice of someone close to us or a friend, the distinctive tones of someone famous, the crunch of crisp snow underfoot are sonic colours that nearly all of us can conjour up.

In turns out that we’re also pretty good at recognising bands and artists by their distinctive timbres. The sonic sound world, as Levitin calls it, of Cold Play is instantly different from that of the Beatles. The orchestral tapestry woven in Beethoven’s symphonies is different in colours to those of Brahms.

CONCLUSION – WE ARE ALL MUSICAL

So, whilst Absolute Pitch is quite rare most people, musicians and non-musicians alike, have very strong recognition of musical colours. Furthermore, pitch memory can be developed in non-APers through regular and ongoing exposure to consistent and stable tones.

In summary, we are all musical – just in different ways.

 

[1] Music and Memory, ch.10 Bob Synder in The Oxford Handbook of Music Psychology, OUP 2011
[2] This your brain on music, p. 152, 2006. Daniel Levitin, Atlantic Books
[3] The Musical Brain. ch. 3 Donald Hodges in The Child as Musician, OUP 2006
[4] Learning absolute pitch by children: a cross-sectional study. K. Miyzaki and Y. Ogawa, 2006. Music Perception VOLUME 24, ISSUE 1, PP. 63–78
[5] ttp://daniellevitin.com/levitinlab/articles/2001-Parncutt-NGDMM.pdf

4 thoughts on “IS PERFECT PITCH REALLY SO PERFECT?

  1. Trish cummings

    Thanks for this Sally. I believe there is also a greater likelihood of having Absolute Pitch if one is on the autistic spectrum. (which I am).
    Here is an interesting website of an autistic researcher in this particular area: http://www.hennyk.com

    Reply
  2. Gay Jacklin

    I have AP, but I can also easily hear intervals and chords. In fact I love harmony very much. A friend of mine did some research into AP some 30 years ago and found that of all the APers she interviewed, none of them had ‘perfect’ perfect pitch (to use the other terminology): they all had aural blind spots. I know I struggle to label notes played by a french horn and the extremities of the piano without humming first. She also found that AP can go sharp if the body temperature is raised, and it can go sharp if the body temperature is fallen. I think this is fascinating stuff!

    Reply

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