Can you identify musical notes being played on a piano? If you can, congrats, you have perfect pitch; if not, well, sorry. About one in every 10,000 people possesses perfect pitch — that remarkable ability to name music notes as if you’re identifying faces. How this ability is achieved is one colossal mystery to science; some say you’re born with it, other say you’re not, and can be learned. Fortunately enough, how you get a perfect pitch might be possible; the truth is probably just up to you to practice and be, well…
Related media: Can You Learn Perfect Pitch?
What’s The Perfect Pitch?
According to musician Peter Hung, you can liken the experience of having a perfect pitch to how someone knows the color of the sky at any given moment.
“Sometimes your friends ask you to tell them what color the sky actually is,” he wrote on Quora. “You say it’s blue. They’re all amazed that you know the sky is blue and you look at them funny, puzzled by how their shifting notion of color doesn’t bother them in the slightest. That’s what it’s like having perfect pitch.”
You might not be able to notice the difference of your favorite symphony being played in a different note, or car horns in another country that’s been pitched differently. That’s the life of people with perfect pitch, also known as absolute pitch. In fact, some seasoned musicians could notice an anchor pitch and even identify other pitches — an ability known as relative pitch — people with absolute pitch could identify any note with total ease. How does one even possess such powers?
Decades of research have determined that this ability is only obtained during childhood, before the age of 9 — that so-called “critical period” before adolescence. That’s when a child’s brain basically adapts to learning new traits like language and certain skills. So if this trait was solely acquired during your youth, then you’d have absolute pitch. This ability requires training just as any thing else, not just any musical training, but the kind that involves learning individual notes off hand.
And yet even that isn’t always enough; you can get the right musical training at the right age, and still not be able to identify every note upon hearing it. That suggests that there might be something going on.
Blame It All On Genetics
In a 2011 study published by Jane Gitschier, a professor of medicine and pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco, she led a team that analyzed data from a large group of twins who were known for having an absolute pitch in a prior study. In their study, they found a correlation, if one fraternal twin had roughly 45 percent chance of having absolute pitch, then their twin also has it; whereas if an identical twin with absolute pitch — ones with similar DNA — then their identical twin had roughly a 79 percent chance of also having it. That suggests that genetics has a role to play in having an absolute pitch.
Also, in another 2019 study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, researchers focused all attention on the genetic factors that could influence an absolute pitch. For this study, the researchers scanned the brains of three groups of people: non-musicians, trained musicians with absolute pitch, and trained musician without it. The musicians with absolute pitch had a significant larger auditory cortices (hearing centers) in their brain scans than either of the groups.
This is even despite the fact that nearly a quarter of musicians with absolute pitch who took music lessons before adolescence. Obviously, if you want to have absolute pitch, you better be born with the genetic predisposition for it, and better start your music lesson before adolescence. But what if you’re 30 and still want to learn? Can you be able to pull off such a stunt?
Practice Makes A Pitch Perfect
Fortunately enough, there’s been decades of countless attempts in trying to answer that question. The most promising one is a 1970 study by Paul T. Brady, who claims to have successfully mastered absolute pitch in one subject. “This subject was myself,” he wrote. Though Brady had a lot of musical lessons, he admitted that he was never ever able to identify notes with ease upon hearing them; and yet, he claims he was able to learn them.
He accomplished this by programming a computer to randomly play notes in sequence — excerpt with different numbers for ‘C’ notes which were included. (In previous studies ‘A’ was mainly used — the note you choose doesn’t really matter). First of all, his sequence had more ‘C’ notes than any other note, but declined in quantity until the sequence had no more ‘C’ notes than the others.
For every note he heard, he’d guess it’s name, then look it up to know for sure if he was right. He recounted that guessing the notes from the interval from the previous note was forbidden — that’s relative pitch, though he was training for absolute pitch. Of course, that was just his training session, and wouldn’t really know if he had absolute pitch until he tested himself.
“After some two months of daily half-hour sessions, I was able to identify every note (with negligible error rate) from a uniform-tone distribution played at the fastest rate, without feedback,” he wrote. “The crucial test for myself was in detecting tones ‘cold.’ For 57 consecutive days in August and September, just after I awoke, my wife would play a single note on the piano. She used a computer list for the randomized notes, but was free to select the octave.”
Brady scored an incredible 65 percent: not bad for a two-month musical course, that’s better than chance. Later on, he tried to implement his method to teach two other subjects absolute pitch in a couple of weeks. Spoiler: it didn’t work out.
Studies since then have proven that adults can really learn how to identify notes upon hearing them, and even keep that ability several months afterwards. Nowadays, there are even quite a lot of Android and iOS apps that can help you out. In summary, we can’t give you an optimistic hope of having perfect pitch, its just like becoming fluent in a foreign language, you’ll require conscious thought at first, but over time, you’ll eventually notice that you’ve mastered it with ease.
“I strongly suspect that my several months of ‘floundering’ did in fact lay a good foundation for this task,” Brady concluded, “and that, for an adult, advancement in pitch skill from any level to any other requires much practice.”
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Written by: Nana Kwadwo, Wed, Jun 26, 2019.