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How Perfect Is Perfect Pitch?


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When I was in college, the choir director used to begin every rehearsal with “Sing me an A!”. The 100 person choir would muddle around, with often hilariously off key results. Over the year, we’d get better and better, usually because we’d tune in to the few people in the choir who we KNEW had perfect pitch, the ability to name a music note (and then, hopefully, produce it) without the aid of another note to give them a clue.

And usually, if we all tuned in to the people with perfect pitch, we turned out ok. But sometimes…sometimes even THEN we didn’t. Then the people with perfect pitch would look pretty embarrassed. After all, perfect pitch is supposed to be, well, PERFECT!

But is it really?

Hedger et al. “Absolute Pitch May Not Be So Absolute” Psychological Science, 2013.


(Source)

Most people can SORT of remember a note from day to day or from hour to hour. That A might vary a pitch or two (or three) up or down from day to day, but it’s often (for trained musicians, anyway) in the rough range. But people with absolute pitch are spot on, varying by only 0.05 semitones within a day.

But how does it work? Some scientists hypothesize that people with perfect pitch establish the pitches early on in life, and they then never change, and that there might even be a physical neural map for the notes laid down in these people. But these scientists were not so sure. They hypothesized that people with perfect pitch were still dependent on what they were listening to. If this is the case, then you SHOULD be able to get someone with perfect pitch…out of tune. If people with absolute pitch just learn early and then maintain the pitches, then changing the pitches around them should not be able to “mess them up”. They should always be able to tell if a pitch matches their interior learned pitch. In contrast, if someone maintains their pitch by hearing pitches around them constantly, then changing someone’s pitch experience (by exposing them to off key pitches) should make them go off key as well.

To test this, the authors of this study wanted to see if they could shake up a sense of perfect pitch. They didn’t want to just expose the subjects to jarring pitches. In the words of the authors:

It is said that if you want to boil a frog alive, you cannot
simply drop the frog into boiling water because it will
hop right out. Instead, you need to place the frog in cold
water and raise the temperature in such small steps that
the frog does not perceive a particular increase.

Just as someone with absolute pitch would probably notice immediately if they were off key, a frog will notice when you drop it in boiling water. So for this study, the authors slowly “turned up the temperature” of the pitches. They took 13 participants who they confirmed to have absolute pitch. Then, after testing their abilities, they had them listen to Brahams symphony number 1 in C minor.

No word on why they picked this particular piece, but there you have it. The symphony started out in tune, but during the first 15 minutes, the tuning was gradually tweaked, at such a slow rate that it could not be detected, ending at a pitch that was 33 cents off the original (in this case, it went flat), will within most people’s ability to detect a difference. The participants then heard the rest of the entire symphony off key.

Afterward, they were tested for pitch perception again. And the participants, all with absolute pitch…were flat.

You can see on the left side of this figure that the participants rated the flat notes as being in tune after listening to the off key symphony. This effect persisted whether they were listening to an entire symphony, or to patterns of only 5 notes, their perception of all notes tested later became less accurate. And it persisted across different instruments as well, whether piano, violin, or French horn.

This means that people with absolute pitch? It’s not really absolute. Instead, it relies on the person hearing and identifying the tones around them constantly. And if the tones around them are flat or sharp, the person with absolute pitch will be flat or sharp as well.

But it should be noted that they are probably still much more accurate than those without absolute pitch. People without absolute pitch were not tested, but it would be interesting to see how they compare. Also, the effect size was very small. The authors were able to throw perfect pitch off, but not by much. It’s possible that people with absolute pitch have a memory for the pitch that the authors were unable to completely throw off. It would be interesting to see how much it would take to throw someone with absolute pitch off completely.

Thinking back to my choir days, I remember all the times the people with perfect pitch were right. But I also remember all the times even they were off key. And I can still “hear” that A in my head, though it’s probably not right. It may not be perfect, but then, nobody’s pitch really is.

Scicurious About the Author: Scicurious is a PhD in Physiology, and is currently a postdoc in biomedical research. She loves the brain. And so should you. Follow on Twitter @Scicurious.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. stemdent 6:22 pm 06/25/2013

    As someone with “perfect pitch,” I can testify that this absolutely is true. I have been guilty of not recognizing that things went flat/sharp because they did so gradually. Anecdotally, though, I can recognize things when they become about a quarter tone off, regardless of whether or not it was done graudally.

    Link to this
  2. 2. ripley32 11:50 am 06/29/2013

    Very interesting research, but I’m sorry to see the boiled frog myth perpetuated: http://www.snopes.com/critters/wild/frogboil.asp

    Link to this
  3. 3. PatriciaJH 2:01 pm 07/4/2013

    Interesting! I’m now thinking of a friend who is a choir director and early musician with perfect pitch. He’s used to A sometimes not being 440, and he’s also used to detecting a vocal ensemble going flat. Some people with perfect pitch claim to be bothered by casual singing that isn’t pitched to a proper note — not Jay, not if the relative pitch is good.

    Is this just a more sophisticated ability to detect and adjust? Would Jay also be shifted by the gradually-shifted Mahler — and if he did detect it, would a slower shift do the trick?

    Link to this

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