July 15, 2010

It is very difficult to acquire absolute pitch as an adult, says Jamshed Bharucha. Photo: iStock

Ask The Professor

Can one develop perfect pitch?

Jamshed Bharucha, senior vice president and provost and a professor of psychology, gives us the lowdown:

First, I need to clarify the term “perfect pitch.” Psychologists prefer the term “absolute pitch” because it contrasts with “relative pitch.” Absolute pitch is defined as the ability to name a pitch (for example, C#) when it is played, or to sing a pitch when it is named, without first hearing a reference pitch.

It is very difficult to acquire absolute pitch as an adult. Attempts to do so often involve associating pitch with timbre (sound quality). For example, I do not have absolute pitch per se, but when I hear a violin, I am pretty good at figuring out the pitches because the strings (and specific finger positions on them) have distinct timbres.
There is probably a strong genetic component in determining whether one has absolute pitch. There is also a strong likelihood that it can be acquired early in childhood with the right kind of exposure or training.

While only a fraction of the U.S. population possesses absolute pitch as adults, significantly higher percentages of East Asian populations have absolute pitch. This could be because of the tonal or other aspects of some East Asian languages, or because of cultural differences in how children learn music. For example, Japanese music conservatories report rates of absolute pitch as high as 75 percent.

There is some evidence that we all have absolute pitch to some extent, albeit not using the narrow definition above. Studies have shown that when people are asked to sing songs that they had heard repeatedly in the same key, they tend to sing them back closer to the original key than would be expected by chance alone. I have always maintained that we all have a certain type of absolute pitch that enables us to recognize vowels in language; the brain identifies vowels primarily from the absolute frequency of the vocal resonances (called “formants” in speech research).

As with most scientific questions, the answer to this question is complex. But the short answer, posed in terms of the traditional, narrow definition of perfect pitch is: “No, except perhaps very early in life.”

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