Friday, August 31, 2012

How common is perfect pitch?

Perfect pitch, the ability to recognize (and usually name) a musical note heard without reference to any other note, is considered rare and special in the western world.  A common estimate is that perfect pitch in found in only one person in ten thousand in the US and Europe.

Perfect or absolute pitch is more common than that among singers and musicians, including Julie Andrews, Beethoven, Chopin, Mozart, Jimi Hendrix, Bing Crosby, Yo-yo Ma, and many more. (See one list here.) Perhaps half the musicians in a symphony orchestra can identify a note by name when it is played alone.  Is perfect pitch a marker of musical talent?
Chopin at the piano

Probably not.  True, musicians with absolute pitch can tell whether a tune is played in the key of A flat or B flat.  Their ability to distinguish notes by name probably leads a different esperience of music, allowing them, for example, to unconsciously associate colors with particular pitches.  In practice, however, playing music is more about patterns and relationships among notes than it is about the names of the notes.  Skilled musicians can easily transpose from one key to another. 

It turns out that relative pitch - the ability to tell how far one note is from another - shows up later on the evolutionary tree than absolute pitch. Birds and many mammals recognize particular notes.  Songbirds, for example, can recognize a series of notes, but if the researcher transposes the notes up or down by a couple of steps, the birds are completely flummoxed.

Recent research has built on this bird research to demonstrate that many more people have absolute pitch than previously thought.  In the past, researchers asked subjects to name notes they heard.  People untrained in music can't do that - they don't know how to label the notes they hear.  But if a researcher asks people untrained in music to sing a well-known folk song, many will sing it in the correct key.  That is, they retrieve and produce the "right" starting note, even if they can't name that note.

So it's hard to test for absolute pitch among non-musicians, because they can't "name that note." Researchers at the University of Rochester have found a way around this problem.  Elizabeth Marvin and Elissa Newport taught non-musicians a short string of notes and then asked them to identify this sequence when it was embedded in a longer melody. Musicians with absolute pitch and many non-musicians tended to identify the sequence of notes when it was played in the right key but "miss" it when it was transposed into another key.  That is, those with absolute pitch were relying (like birds) on identifying the exact pitches they had learned rather than the pattern of notes.  

Perhaps, then, the fact that absolute pitch is more common identified among musicians than among non-musicans simply means musicians know the names of the notes they hear.  But again, it's not that simple. Researchers in the US and China have studied absolute pitch among music students in the US and China.  Their findings are clear: absolute pitch is more common among students who began their musical studies earlier.  Starting at age four makes absolute pitch much more likely than starting at, say, age eight or nine.  But an even more striking finding was that Chinese students who started learning music at any age were many times more likely than American students to have absolute pitch.

The researchers hypothesize that tonal languages such as Chinese, which require young children to hear and reproduce different pitches for different meanings, help children develop a stronger sense of pitch.  Growing up with a tonal language is like starting musical training at birth.

Perfect pitch and the question of musical nature vs. nurture play important roles in the society of the Land of Winter described in my novel THE ICE CASTLE.  Only students with perfect pitch can graduate from school and enter the highest ranks of society.  Children of the rich and privileged are raised with music all around them. The poor, on the other hand are discouraged from making any kind of music, and musical instruments are banned.  The society strongly believes that musical ability is an inborn marker of virtue and nobility, and the rich and powerful create a self-fulfilling prophecy where the children of the poor are very unlikely to show evidence of such ability.  Kids deprived of music are less likely to develop absolute pitch, and even those with this ability will be unable to demonstrate it without musical training.

Is there any analogy between the way the citizens of the Land of Winter approach the question of musical talent and the way we in our society approach other aspects of intelligence?  Musing on that question is left to the reader.  Meanwhile, to test your own relative pitch, check here, and to learn if tone deafness is real, visit here.

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