Is perfect pitch learnt or innate?
In another thread I failed to make myself clear and I'm sorry about that. My question concerns how one might demonstrate the presence of perfect pitch in an infant who is too young to name notes. It has been suggested (although I can't remember by whom) that perfect pitch isn't a faculty which is learnt from experience, but could be present from birth and is actually "unlearnt" by most of us. This is not as ridiculous as some may think. Most of us would probably agree that the absolute recognition of different colours across the light spectrum is likely to be innate so why not absolute pitch across the sound spectrum? To consistently recognize a colour or a pitch doesn't necessarily imply we must be able to put a name to it.
One way of testing this in infants might be by a form of Pavlovian conditioning. If a particular note, say A, is consistently followed by the appearance of the mother's face, the infant may soon come to anticipate the latter every time he or she hears the former, and make recognizable signs of pleasurable anticipation. If, on the other hand, a different note say D is consistently followed by no maternal face, a child who possesses perfect pitch will come to recognize D as being a "null" signal and not expect the reward of maternal contact. Widely separated notes will surely be distinguished after a sufficient number of repetitions, even by infants with non-perfect pitch, but how about small separations of a tone or less?
What happened to that other thread? It completely disappeared(as well as the what violin we're playing thread, i think)? It was an interesting question until dogs were brought into it
It has been an ongoing debate, and I don't think that anyone can say for sure at this point. I can offer up my personal experience, which makes me lean a little toward the innate camp. I can basically say that for myself, I have absolutely no recollection of acquiring or practicing this skill. One day, my teacher, out of curiosity decided to test me, and much to my surprise, after around year of playing, I could accurately name the pitches she played without reference. If this was purely environmental, I feel like the process would have been more deliberate, and that more people would have it. Others I have spoken to about their experience say similar things, in that they have no idea where it came from, and cannot point to specific training episodes.
I wonder if one just has a good memory if eventually one can use the memorized reference points to identify pitches. But that is different than the people that can tell you the Hz of any sound they hear. I am the former, but not the latter. And it took several years.
Tammuz - would you prefer cats? I do think it's an interesting question and one which could be investigated experimentally, although perhaps more for zoologists than violinists.
Steve, even producing notes on command doesn't appear to require anymore practice. I developed the ability to produce notes on command roughly around the time I could identify them, I believe. There was still no conscious training involved. As for a test for non-musicians, that would be interesting, yet difficult to develop without using terminology learned through some training.
I wonder if studies of this kind, looking for links between complex behavioural/psychological traits (and of course finding some; the studies that don't find links don't get published) are actually very helpful to anyone? The bare result may be valid, but the interpretation seems anything but clear-cut. The finding of differences between AP and non-AP musicians on a score supposedly measuring "imagination" isn't in fact due to a deficit in the AP group, but to "extraordinarily low" scores (actually meaning greater imagination) in the non-AP group! The link to autism is even more tenuous, since a slightly low "imagination" score is likely to occur in all sorts of subject groups and to be completely non-specific. Sometimes I'm inclined to think that less research needs to be done!
I would say definitely learned, why, because there is nothing special or innate about A440 pitch, its a completely arbitrary designation. If you were raised around A430 pitch then some people would develop(or learn) perfect A 430 pitch. Most of these people you talk about with the "gift" of perfect A440 pitch, cannot even play at other pitches, it completely throws them off, and they play terribly out of tune.
Yes, the specific association between 440Hz and the label "A" must be learned, but the label is actually irrelevant. The ability of some people to remember a note, any note, recognize its subsequent presentation and produce it on demand with less than about 5% error (often much less I think) could be in some way analogous to the innate predisposition of humans to learn a language, any language. But there doesn't seem to be any clinching evidence one way or the other. I often think I may be better off without it.
Yeah Lyndon, I think as well that you got it wrong. Perfect pitch is not knowing that A is 440. Perfect pitch means that you recognize, just like a face, all the notes. You don't have to know 440 is A, you simply recognize it. It's like knowing a person's face, you don't need to know the name of the person, but when you see the face you know exactly who that is.
As I said perfect pitch is a curse for early music performers. Who have to be prepared to play at different pitches.
I was sitting in the viola section of our chamber orchestra earlier this year when the oboist just behind me played his tuning A. I turned to him and said "It sounds like 441 to me." He checked his chromatic tuner and then replied - "It is, sorry about that, how can you tell?" And then I confessed that I had just tuned my viola to 440 and he was just a tad sharp. No I do not have perfect pitch - and since I have been playing the violin for 79 years, if I could learn it, I would have it. It seems to me that for musical purposes, a good sense of "relative pitch" is more useful.
Perhaps it doesn't have to be "either/or"!
Hmm - now I'm starting to have doubts. Lieschen may be able to tell us for how long can she remember a randomly presented note and reproduce it? Does she remember it by its sound (the image of which must eventually become confused with later-occurring sounds) or by giving it a label - e.g. a quarter tone above E? If the latter then after almost any lapse of time she should be able to reproduce it with less than 3% error (a semitone being 5.9% in frequency terms I think). Of course only a trained musician could do this. Has anyone actually reported and studied a case of perfect pitch in a non-musician, who would only have an image of the sound to go on?
Lyndon, I have natural perfect pitch, and I would like to note that perfect pitch is not about hearing A=440Hz, it’s about being able to immediately adapt to any surrounding harmonic landscape and being able to play or sing in tune within that landscape, no matter what Hz the A is at.
Is "perfect" pitch only useful for Western <12-tone based> music?
There was a study on children (age 4-10) in a Japanese music school learning piano. (Google Miyazaki, "Learning absolute pitch by children"). Nearly all of them had developed absolute pitch by the age of ten, with most of the development happening in the age range 5-7.
", it’s about being able to immediately adapt to any surrounding harmonic landscape and being able to play or sing in tune within that landscape, no matter what Hz the A is at."
Roman - you may not know the Hz of any note except A at present, but being able to identify the note names you could look them all up in a book and memorize the Hz for future reference. Nobody knows them instinctively.
Adrian - I understand your notion of acquired but fragile absolute pitch. If I decide to sing a few bars of a well-known piece like the New World Symphony I'll get it spot on a lot of the time, unless I stop to think!
Steve and tammuz, I’m talking about extreme abilities. For instance, if your accompanist goes crazy and starts the piece you have rehearsed in e Major instead of D, a guy with perfect pitch would still be able to sing or play the whole piece in E Major, even though he only sang or play d it in D Major.
Wait, wait, wait...
Wait, we are talking about different things here.
Roman, I think that is relative pitch. Absolute pitch is the sonic equivalent to photographic memory.
Tim, maybe, maybe not in terms of the melody, and it probably depends on the person somewhat. For me, there was a bit of a learning curve learning how to transpose sung melodies on the spot, because my knee jerk reaction was to think of everything as a collection of discrete pitches, associated with various different colors. I have also experienced, on occasion, mild disgust upon hearing popular folk tunes in a different key from which I first heard them. It took time to learn how to turn off that kind of thinking, and just think about interval relationships.
These are very useful insights. My question for Roman and Lieschen is: for how long are you "accidentally" able to remember a randomly occurring tone, say of an unfamiliar doorbell, and accurately reproduce it? Does it stay in your brain as a sound image, or do you remember its note letter? In Lieschen's case, is it the associated colour you can use? I wonder how often AP is associated with this kind of synesthesia?
My violin A's (440 and 445,
I say it depends. It’s the same with sight.
Steve, I remember the pitches of doorbells, etc. the way I remember other features, such as the color of a particular car, or the shape of a piece of bread, and recall them with the same sort of ease. I have been able to notice that the pitches for certain appliances and ringtones are rather standardized, and notice when they have been transposed. I could say something such as, "Hmm...This restaurant must have gotten a different model of deep fryer, as it now beeps on G, and when I was here two weeks ago it was an F#", and then look over and see that there is indeed a different appliance in the kitchen. I would also notice that most fast food restaurants in said region have deep fryers beeping on F#. I can also tell when movies use inconsistent ring tones say 30 min. apart, even when they are the same exact rhythm and timbre, but just different pitches.
It's great to hear your two experiences so clearly articulated - similar in many ways although it sounds like Roman's recall is based on a map of pure sound while Lieschen's incorporates 3 further dimensions - verbal, colour and taste. I need hardly say this is completely strange for most of us!
Well I think that question has nothing to do with pitches anymore, and it is part of a different sphere, that of memory.
That definitely seems to answer my question. Your absolute memory for pitch isn't like an extended echoic memory which might be regarded as resembling a decaying tape loop. I believe the echoic memory plays an important role in music, since musical phrases are often of the same order of a few seconds' duration. Working memory has a similar duration but is a conscious process with a finite informational capacity, while echoic memory is like an unprocessed image. I'd love to explore this with you further, but dinner calls!
No doubt the naming of the sound (e.g. the note name, my sqeaky gate etc) will help to recall it later?
Absolute pitch can somehow be classified and some variations of it are innate some can be trained.
I have perfect pitch by birth. While I do not remember how I came to know A=440, A=441, A=442 or even A=444 at a young age, by observing and reading books about my 5-year-old autistic son, who also has perfect pitch, I can explain how perfect pitch people came to know the pitch of A.
That’s a fascinating story!
That is so convincing - thank you and also Simon. I just tried to spoil the discussion for myself by reading the Wikipedia article which supports the argument for an innate AP capacity and how difficult (or impossible) it is to teach AP to adults without it.
Whether my perfect pitch relied on storing the pitch as a note name, I can't say, because we didn't know I had it until I had already learned the names of the notes. But there was certainly a strong association, because down the road, there were big problems with transposing written music, such as sightreading music when playing a B-flat instrument. With each note on the page, I had to go through the process of mentally adjusting the note by a whole step interval, and I basically had to do that every time until I had learned the music by ear.
A question that arises to me is: Is it possible that absolute pitch and autism more than usual go hand in hand? I have heard and experienced several cases. And also I remember a music scientist saying, that absolute pitch like synesthesia is kind of a dysfunction in the brain. Having connections, where no connections "should" be.
". I cannot spit out random metronome markings, and this type of ability seems much less common from what I understand.."
With my own case as example I believe "perfect time" (or at least a pretty close approximation to it) is much more likely to be acquired through experience. That, however, fails to explain why some experienced musicians fail to acquire it!
Steve, it is indeed above average for working memory. The average person can remember 7 such units, usually tested with strings of numbers. My memory used to be a lot better, where I could remember roughly 16 digits in short term memory. Not sure what happened. Maybe its something fishy in the air. I can't find any conclusive information on Schönberg, but it is looking like he might not have.
Another thing no one appears to have brought up is the increased prevalence of perfect pitch in the blind. I believe it is something on the order of 1/1500, versus 1/10,000 for the general population. I wonder how much effect the age of going blind has on the development of this skill.
It's clearly a rare phenomenon but would fit with the theory of neuronal plasticity in which areas of the brain normally associated with a sensory faculty that has become defunct can be co-opted by another sensory modality. I believe it has been demonstrated by functional imaging that visual regions can be recruited by the somatosensory (bodily sense) or auditory system in early-blind subjects. I suspect the age of the onset of blindness is critical but whether and how this can give rise to AP I can't imagine.
Y: "In their research, they have found that around 85% of the children on the autism spectrum actually have perfect pitch."
Lieschen — would love to see the source for your data of 1/1500 perfect pitch among the blind!
Given that I displayed it in my first violin lesson, there's no doubt it can be innate (unless I'd accidentally picked it up from listening to the odd piece of music before then?)
"I only know people who have found ways to managed to cope with their challenges in society better."
I was fascinated to read Y Cheng's story. Mine is a bit different and might muddy the waters of this discussion.
In my opinion, so-called "perfect" pitch is a misnomer. I would rather call it "rigid" or "matching" pitch and here is why:
"I think this thread is still plagued by some people's confusion between perfect pitch and pitch memory."
I agree with Scott and Rocky. I think the name we give it leads to it being overrated. It just doesn't feel all that useful, especially in a Western classical setting. I have struggled to listen to baroque ensembles and have taken a long time to get used to them, as well as playing in different tunings. I wouldn't be really bothered by A442, and would hardly notice the difference. I have been turned off by some recordings that are at around 444 or 445. I would say that I haven't had to work any less hard on any of the skills that truly matter to musicianship.
"Absolute pitch" seems an OK term to me. "Rigid" has a negative connotation which seems just as slanted as "perfect" only in the opposite direction. The most inspiring orchestral leader (concertmaster) I ever had the privilege of turning pages for was proud of her AP and it clearly hadn't done her career any harm! In any case, the term isn't likely to change at our recommendation...
AP already clearly exists, especially in the scientific literature. Its also easy to use and understand by the relatively uneducated. Case in point: the term used in German is "absolutes Gehör", which literally translates to something like "absolute hearing", and is much less misleading. I just think it's a publicity issue, which may be solved either by a large mass of the not so famous converting slowly per the "charismatic toddler theory", or a huge name like Joshua Bell suddenly using it.