Synopsis: The ability to “know” the musical pitch of any sound has traditionally been thought to be learnable only at a very early age through musical training. But new research shows perfect pitch is teachable to adults as well. Experts discuss the implications on all forms of learning.

Host: Reed Pence. Guests: Dr. Diana Deutsch, Professor of Psychology, University of California, San Diego; Stephen Van Hedger, PhD student in cognitive psychology, University of Chicago; Dr. Howard Nusbaum, Professor of Psychology, University of Chicago

Links for more information:

Perfect Pitch

Reed Pence: If you’re a musician, it’s always helpful to hit the right notes. But some people are a lot better than others at finding the right notes–people like Mozart, Beethoven, and John Phillip Sousa, who could hear any sound and tell you exactly what note it is. Dr. Diana Deutsch, Professor of Psychology at the University of California, San Diego, says it’s called “perfect pitch.”

Diana Deutsch: It’s generally used to refer to the ability to identify a note by its name in the absence of a reference note so if you hear a particular note you can say that’s C-sharp or that’s G and so on.

Steven Van Hedger: So what tha12t means is you would be walking down the street you’d hear a car alarm and you’d be able to say “Ahh that’s in G or G-sharp” or something like this so absolutely no reference on being able to name musical notes seemingly out of thin air.

Pence: That’s Stephen Van Hedger, a PHD student in cognitive psychology at the University of Chicago. He not only researches perfect pitch, he has perfect pitch, which some experts call “absolute pitch.” And he says many people who have it cannot only name any note they hear… They can produce any note on demand.

Van Hedger: In many cases it should work in terms of both perception and production. But production can be measured in a couple of different ways.

Pence: If I asked you to give me a C-Sharp could you give me a C-sharp.

Van Hedger: Sure! Ahhhhh (musically sung).

Pence:  So is that really a C-sharp? Yep. But how do they know that? Dr. Howard Nusbaum, Professor of Psychology at the University of Chicago, says people with perfect or absolute pitch don’t even have to think about it.

Nusbaum: For people who don’t have absolute pitch to get a sense of something that is like absolute pitch, as you’re listening to me talk and I say a word like dog, you just hear the word. The word just merges in your head from the sounds coming out of my mouth, and you know that word has the consonants “D”, the vowel “aw” and the consonant G in it. So, I say dog, and you hear it as a word as if you were seeing it in print. Absolute pitch is kind of like that. The note is heard as the note, so it’s not that you hear something like a sound in the distance and you go “Oh, what is that sound? I think that sound might be a gunshot?” It’s something that comes to you as the note itself.

Van Hedger: So, I started piano when I was about seven or eight years old, but never had the kind of of insight that I was different in any way. In fact, I found it very surprising that other members of my family couldn’t do this ability– be turned around and name notes that were being played on the piano. A “C” had a certain “C-ness” about it; a “G” had a certain “G-ness” about it, right, that just seems self-evident. So, it was very surprising to figure out that not everybody could do this.

Pence:  So how many people can do that? Deutsch says it’s a matter of debate.

Deutsch: The number that’s generally given is one in ten thousand. And that was initially sort of pulled out of the air. But I think that it’s actually reasonable. In my experience with testing an awful lot of people, I’m constantly surprised at how very rare perfect pitch is.

Nusbaum: We quote in our papers the number that everyone expresses which is one in ten thousand, but Steve has been able to find lots of people with absolute pitch. And these are people who actually pass all the tests. The estimate that’s out there in the public of one in ten thousand is really low.

Pence: Deutsch believes that most of us are born with the capacity of developing perfect pitch, if we’re given the right environment early enough.

Deutsch: Studies have shown that babies will use the sort of absolute pitch level of tones rather than relative pitch level in making various judgments that have been designed for babies to be able to make. On the other hand, that’s different then being able to label a note, to name one, and of course babies can’t speak so they can’t do that anyway. I think that most people have a form of implicit absolute pitch, that is, that they can get a pretty good idea of what key a piece is in, or whether or not when they hear it, if it’s being played in the correct key. But they are unable to actually name the note.

Pence:  But isn’t that simply a matter of not having musical training? Could there be millions of people who have perfect pitch and don’t know it?

Van Hedger: So, that’s one of the classic kind of catch 22’s of actually measuring absolute pitch ability. So, many of the traditional ways in which we would test for absolute pitch necessitate a kind of musical knowledge, right, because they’re being tested and asked to give an explicit musical label. But, I think you’re hitting on an important point, which is an individual could process pitches in an absolute sense but having absolutely no musical training would not have the kind of a cultural label to ascribe to any particular isolated pitch. And so that has been proposed as one reason why absolute pitch estimates might be actually artificially low.

Pence:  And it could be there’s a little perfect pitch in all of us. That earworm, the tune that’s stuck in your head and won’t leave? That’s auditory working memory–the same place that perfect pitch comes from.

Van Hedger: There’s actually a growing body of research that suggests regardless of whether or not you have perfect pitch, or regardless of whether or not you’re a musician versus, you know, a musical novice, that most individuals have some kind of absolute pitch representation for the right kind of stimuli. So, you mentioned songs getting stuck in your head, for instance. So, there’s good evidence that suggests that if I play you a song that you’re very familiar with when I play you two versions one that is at the exact absolute pitch that you would hear in your environment and one that is ever so subtly shifted let’s say by one note, one semi-tone, that you might not be perfect at being able to tell the correct one, but you would be significantly above chance at saying yes this is the correct version that I hear in my environment. So, even though you wouldn’t necessarily be able to say “oh well this one’s in C and this one’s in C-sharp and I know that the song I hear in my environment is C so therefore that is the correct answer,” you still have a kind of an implicit knowledge of this one sounds more correct than this other one.

Pence: Deutsch says that absolute pitch is much more common where tonal languages, such as Vietnamese and Mandarin, are spoken. Toddlers learn to match pitches, because the same syllable spoken at different pitches means different things.

Deutsch: For example the word “Ma” means Mother, and “Ma” means hemp, and “Ma” means horse, and “Ma” is a reproach in Mandarin.

Pence: In the western world, Deutsch says musical training is more likely to produce perfect pitch. But the traditional belief is that it has to come at an early age, or the window closes.

Deutsch: People who began musical training at age five do a little bit better, you know, statistically as a group, then people who began musical training at say age six, who do a little bit better than people who began training at age seven, and then by age eight it’s really unlikely that a person would score well on a test for perfect pitch.

Van Hedger: So, it has been generally assumed that whatever kind of absolute pitch knowledge that you may have is either completely genetically predetermined or cultivated in a critical period. So, a very early period of musical instruction, and then by adulthood that ability is essentially crystallized. There’s not much wiggle room in terms of your absolute pitch ability.

Pence: In other words, traditional thinking is that if you haven’t acquired perfect pitch by about age 10, you’ll never get it. But Hedger and Nusbaum, along with University of Chicago researcher Dr. Shannon Heeld, are producing studies challenging that assumption. In one of them, the team recruited a group of adults without regard to musical training and pretested them to be sure they didn’t have perfect pitch.  

Van Hedger: After we pretested them, we gave them a little bit of feedback so we would go through the same kind of procedure. But after they made their decision we would re-play the note, and we would give them a little bit of feedback: that was a C, that was a G, that was an F-sharp, things like this. So, we did this for approximately– the training lasted around forty minutes. And then afterwards we would test them without feedback on the same piano notes that they were trained on. And so what we found is a significant improvement over the course of training. I think it’s important to note, likely due to the short nature of training here, that we weren’t suddenly seeing, you know, everybody have perfect pitch. We saw significant learning, but the kinds of levels of learning that we were seeing were still below what would typically be defined as a kind of a cut-off for a truer and genuine AP: absolute pitch ability.

Pence: Participants even did well with notes they hadn’t been trained on, in different octaves and played by different musical instruments. But even that improvement wouldn’t mean much if the participants forgot everything they’d learned as soon as they walked out of the lab. Hedger says that didn’t happen.

Van Hedger: They had done a single session of learning, and then went out into the world and then came back several months later, and seemed to retain a lot more of this absolute pitch knowledge than I think anybody would actually believe. So, we actually did not see any significant decreases in performance for this generalized learning test which I think is probably the most stringent test on absolute pitch ability. So, a very slight decrease, but not statistically significant. So, whatever kind of knowledge that they actually learned in the initial learning session seemed to be relatively stable even many months after training had ended.

Pence: But if people can improve a lot with less than an hour of training, is it possible that a little more work can actually teach perfect pitch? Hedger says that ongoing studies indicate yes.

Van Hedger: There is good evidence that, at least for some adults who would not pass any tests for absolute pitch, after eight weeks which is approximately forty hours of training, they are behaviorally indistinguishable from absolute pitch possessors. So, we see this in a subset of participants, and so an interesting question is would we see this in all participants given more training, or does this have to do with potentially a kind of a genetic predisposition that is being shaped with the right kind of environmental experience? So, it’s much too early to tell but expanding this kind of training paradigm to a much longer term setting does seem to successfully train what you would call a genuine absolute pitch ability, at least in some adults.

Pence: This learned perfect pitch may be indistinguishable at first from the kind that’s acquired in childhood, but what about later on?

Van Hedger: We have, once again, preliminary data on this suggesting that for the individuals well for everybody but including the individuals who passed tests of absolute pitch ability after training that kind of knowledge seems to stick. So, there’s absolutely no loss of this information once it’s been trained up.

Pence: But what’s perhaps more important to all of us, and not just musicians, is that these studies may apply to a lot more than just perfect pitch. They may apply to how we learn almost everything. These new studies are challenging old assumptions that some things are simply unlearnable.

Nusbaum: People have argued that this is something you have to be born with, that you need experience with, that there’s a critical period for. And they make those claims about a number of things and so one of the issues that we are interested in generally is to try to understand are there limits that people have made assumptions about there’s no evidence for that those are really assumptions people make. Are we that limited as humans, and the work on perfect pitch is actually a testing ground it’s a way of trying to understand that general problem and to challenge some of those notions. And, so we look at this not just as trying to understand perfect pitch and what we’ve acquired from our environment what our exposure does and what are the tool kits that we need in order to promote that learning. But also in terms of a more general problem of how do we learn spoken language? How do we learn to perceive things in the world like regularities and structure?

Pence: So it may be that the limits of learning we’ve always accepted aren’t really limits at all. It may not matter that you can’t tell a C-sharp from an A-flat, but it may mean you’re never to old to learn. You can find out more about all our guests on our website, where you’ll also find archives of our programs. You can also find those on iTunes and Stitcher. I’m Reed Pence.

Join the discussion

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.