As I touched on in the first post on this subject, there are a wide variety of ideas about how absolute pitch works. Why do some people ‘just have it’? If you’re not born with it, how can you develop it? Why do some people hear real differences in a C and a D, and others not?
In this post I want to discuss some of the ideas around how absolute pitch works, and highlight what I thought was particularly promising in the forum post on absolute pitch training I mentioned before.
If you look at training courses for absolute (or “perfect”) pitch, you’ll find a lot of conflicting explanations of what makes the ear hear different pitches differently. Anything from the relative strength of the harmonics, to timbral clues (like the start and end of notes), to an inexplicable ‘character’ that you must try to hear through very deep listening.
My educational background is scientific and I’m a big fan of Occam’s Razor – so it’s probably no surprise that I tend to subscribe to the more basic explanation, one grounded in fundamental science:
The ear already distinguishes absolute pitches
but your brain has forgotten it should care!
The simple explanation
In terms of biology, we know the ear distinguishes absolute pitch. It’s why you can tell a high-pitched sound from a low-pitched one, regardless of the type of sound or whether you’ve heard another one recently to compare it with. Take the simplest case: just about anybody can distinguish between a treble/high sound and a bass/low one. There might be a fuzzy area in between, but we can safely say that for the two-class case, everybody has absolute pitch.
Of course the more common use of the term is to mean distinguishing between the notes in the (Western) diatonic musical scale. It can also encompass finer degrees, such as telling whether notes are in tune, but the most common usage of “perfect pitch” or “absolute pitch” is to mean this note identification ability. In fact this is the same skill as in the bass/treble case – it’s just more refined.
What makes for a more “refined” sense of absolute pitch? Is it a matter of biology? You might think that some people’s ears are just physically more capable of telling different pitches apart. That would certainly seem to agree with the magical “some people just have it” argument.
Train Your Brain
In fact, the fundamental pitch-sensing apparatus in the ear is pretty consistent, and always capable of distinguishing pitches to the degree required for identifying notes. There may be some variation due to age, genetics, and exposure to loud sounds, but this variation almost never compromises the resolution of the ear beyond what absolute pitch requires.
So if the ear is up to the task, then the lack of absolute pitch discrimination must fall in the brain side of things. As we’ve discussed previously on the site, the brain can be taught how we want it to classify things, and become very reliable at making these classifications automatically. So to me, absolute pitch training should be something designed to:
- Remind the brain that this information is available to it, from the ear
- Make the recognition/reproduction of pitches gradually easier and more reliable
The training methods that appeal to me then are ones which take this approach – no tricks, no strange explanations of how the brain recognises pitch (except the one basic one that any biology student could tell you!), and no promises that it will be an instant, magical awakening which leaves you with a permanent gift.
Purity of Training Methods
What appealed to me about the forum post was that the experiment being suggested was a very simple one:
- ‘Notes’ of a single frequency
(i.e. a pure tone, not an instrument sound)
This gets away from issues of whether your training is dependent on the particulars of the instrument you’re using, and is a very solid base to build – if you can reliably recognise the pitch of single frequencies, you should have no trouble with more complex, harmonic sounds.
- Long tones
This avoids issues of the start and end of notes, and gives your ear (and brain) a chance to tune into what you’re hearing – and the fact that you’re interested in the absolute pitch, not what any other notes are doing in relation to it.
Personally I’m not sure if really long tones (i.e. longer than 10 seconds) are beneficial – but that’s one of the interesting questions of the experiment.
- Gradual introduction of pitches