Mind & Body

Can You Learn Perfect Pitch?

About one in every 10,000 people possesses perfect pitch: the remarkable ability to name the notes they hear as if they were identifying colors or shapes. How this ability takes root is scientifically controversial; some say you have to be born with it, others say it can be learned. Lucky for those of us who have less-than-perfect pitch, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle.

Sing With All the Colors of the Wind

Musician Peter Hung compared the experience of having perfect pitch to being the only one of your friends who knew what color the sky was 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."

While most people might not notice when a famous symphony is being played in a different key or that the car horns in a new country are pitched differently from the ones back home, that's just a fact of life for people with perfect pitch, known more specifically as "absolute pitch." (In fact, absolute pitch is rarely "perfect"; everyone makes mistakes). While some highly trained musicians can identify one "anchor" pitch and use it to determine other pitches — an ability known as relative pitch — people with absolute pitch can identify any note on the spot, no mental gymnastics required.

But how does someone get this seemingly magic power? Decades of studies have concluded people can only acquire absolute pitch as children, before the age of 9. That's during the so-called "critical period" when kids' brains are uniquely primed to mold themselves to certain skills, like music and language. Of course, if youth was all it took, we'd all have absolute pitch. The ability also requires musical training — not just any musical training, but the kind that involves learning the names of individual notes by sound.

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 genetic going on. Jane Gitschier, a professor of medicine and pediatrics at University of California, San Francisco, has authored a number of studies on the genetic basis of absolute pitch. For a study published in 2011, she and her team analyzed data from a large group of twins who had proven their absolute pitch ability in a previous study. They found that while one fraternal twin has a roughly 45 percent chance of having absolute pitch if their twin has it, an identical twin to someone with absolute pitch — who has nearly identical DNA to their sibling — has about a 79 percent chance of also having it. That suggests that absolute pitch has an important genetic component, although it's just one piece of the puzzle.

In February, a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience gave even more weight to the importance of genetics in absolute pitch. Researchers scanned the brains of three groups of people: nonmusicians, trained musicians without absolute pitch, and equally trained musicians with absolute pitch. The musicians with absolute pitch ended up having significantly larger auditory cortices, or hearing centers, than either of the other groups. That's despite the fact that nearly a quarter of the absolute-pitch musicians didn't even start music lessons until they were teenagers.

Clearly, if you want to have absolute pitch, your best bet is to be born with a genetic predisposition for it and have music lessons as early as possible. But what if that ship has sailed? Can you learn to have absolute pitch after childhood?

Population receptive field (pRF) maps of tonotopy (center frequency) and tuning sharpness (Q) in auditory cortex in representative subjects from each group.

ABC, It's Easy as 123

Luckily, people have been trying to answer this question for decades. One of the most endearing studies came from Paul T. Brady in 1970, who claimed to have successfully achieved absolute pitch in one subject. "This subject was myself," he wrote.

While Brady had plenty of musical training, he wrote that he had never once been able to identify a note upon hearing it. And yet, he says he was able to learn. He did this by programming a computer to play tones at random, except with different numbers of "C" notes included in the sequence (previous studies have used A; the note you choose doesn't really matter). At first, the sequence contains more Cs than any other note, but these notes drop in quantity until eventually, the sequence has no more Cs than any other note.

Every time Brady heard a note, he'd guess its name, then look it up to see if he was right. He stressed that guessing the note from the interval from the previous note was not allowed — that's relative pitch, and he was training absolute pitch. "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. Of course, that was just training. He wouldn't really know whether he had learned absolute pitch until he tested himself objectively.

"The crucial test for myself was in detecting tones 'cold,'" he continued. "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." Over that entire two-month period, Brady scored a respectable 65 percent: not perfect by any means, but better than chance. Later, he attempted to use his approach to teach two students absolute pitch in two weeks but wasn't successful. "I strongly suspect that my several months of 'floundering' did in fact lay a good foundation for this task," he wrote, "and that, for an adult, advancement in pitch skill from any level to any other requires much practice."

Studies since then have shown that adults really can learn to identify notes on hearing them, and even retain that ability for months afterward. And while not everyone has the privilege of learning absolute pitch in a lab study, there are plenty of Android and iOS apps that can teach you. Though we don't have a poetic explanation like Peter Hung's of what having absolute pitch is like after a life without it, it's probably like becoming fluent in a foreign language: It takes conscious thought at first, but over time your brain starts to work so quickly that you barely notice it. It's likely not the same as looking at the sky and immediately knowing that it's blue, but knowing the color of the sky is an important skill no matter how you learn to do it.

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Want to learn absolute pitch yourself? Check out "Hal Leonard Perfect Pitch Method: A Musician's Guide to Recognizing Pitches by Ear." We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Ashley Hamer April 18, 2019

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