Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Is Perfect Pitch Dying Out Like the Honeybees?

Over the past few weeks, I've heard several accounts of perfect pitch recently starting to fade for people who'd possessed the faculty all their lives. Other musicians have reported hearing the same.

I'm no expert on perfect pitch, but, as a musician, it's something I've been around for years. (I, myself, don't possess it - and wouldn't want to, as it would annoy me when listening to musicians tuned above or below the standard A440, or using non-traditional and microtonal tunings.) But I've never before heard of perfect pitch fading. I'm guessing it's a new - or, at least, newly common - phenomenon, and surely a great subject for some enterprising psychology graduation student to study.

24 comments:

pat said...

My uneducated guess would be that the cause would be more medical than psychological. I wonder if the cacophony so many of us live with these days could have such an effect?

cj said...

http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2008/12/when-you-notice.html

Crafty said...

It's just the aging process. Hearing and sense of taste and smell change for most people. It's probably happened since time began but you've just started to hear about it.

Jim Leff said...

Thanks for the link, CJ. I think Seth is right, generally, but wrong on this. Yes, everyone's grapevine is vastly expanded by the Internet (including, let's not forget, email, which keeps many of us in touch with a wider range of acquaintances than was ever the case in the age of the telephone).

But while evidence for just about anything might be found if you look hard enough for it these days, the perfect pitch thing hasn't come to me via scant points on a huge data set. It comes through the musician grapevine, which is smaller, older, and (this is the most important) very much on top of issues related to perfect pitch. To be a musician is like being in a medieval guild...there's certain specialized knowledge, and, flaky though musicians are, when it comes to matters falling within their zone of expertise, you can usually count on that info.

So that's why I feel like this info is more credible than distant rumor or random data from an enormous data set.

Jim Leff said...

Crafty, there's no reason, as far as I know, to believe that perfect pitch functions in anywhere near the same way as a perception. Sure, if you can't physically hear a note, you can't identify which note it is, so in that sense the perceptual loss of aging would have an impact.

Scientists don't yet understand where perfect pitch happens, but I think it's clear it doesn't happen in the ear and related perceptual pathways which degrade with age.

And since perfect pitch is a great aid in some realms of music, musicians and composers with the faculty tend to be more successful. Many of the most famous composers had it, and nearly all continued their careers into ripe old age. And yet the notion of perfect pitch fading is something I've never EVER heard of....until this month, when multiple reports have reached me.

Robert said...

David Foster, successful pop producer, states his perfect pitch faded. He attributes it to age.

And is perfect pitch relative given the western scale is arbitrary compared to the micro tonal range of non European composition?

Torley said...

Intriguing, because Seth bringing this up is only going to make it more newsworthy. :)

Jim Leff said...

To twist it still more, it wouldn't be news for Seth if he hadn't "noticed it".

Meta meta meta, baby....

Jim Leff said...

Robert, I'm not sure how Foster would be in a position to attribute a cause. Though I can understand that if lots of other things are falling apart for him, this might seem just one more facet of THAT. But, anyway, thanks for the actual data point, which brings the issue beyond hearsay.

As for microtones, yes, indeed, that's a mind-bending mystery. It leads into deep questions, e.g. is the western scale not arbitrary, but somehow wired into our neurology? Seems unlikely.

Dan said...

Is there any difference between perfect pitch and very good pitch memory?

I know my memory is getting worse as I get older, in general.

Jim Leff said...

Maybe, Dan. If perfect pitch isn't quite a direct function of memory, it's got to be somehow associated, because there is obviously no fundamental specialness of B-flat and F-sharp in nature that could be somehow hard-wired into us as some sort of standard.

Those notes are learned, and, in some respect, "remembered", though I suspect people with perfect pitch would insist it doesn't feel like "remembering" to them.

Ken Row said...

I'm a musician who lacks perfect pitch in that if someone asked me to sing an A note, I wouldn't be able to do so.

I do, however, grate my teeth when things are out of tune -- that is, when everything else is in tune except for one singer or one instrument.

I wonder if the decrease in perfect pitch might also be due to the decreased need for perfect pitch?

Fiddlers are now able to run their instrument through software that brings all their notes back into tune. Similar software exists for vocalists. Who needs perfect pitch? Perhaps trombonists or bugelers.

I realize this doesn't explain why an ability would disappear in one who previously had perfect pitch, but it might explain why fewer develop it.

As for the decrease, read Brain Rules by John Medina. I learned that our brains do not work exactly like computers -- memories are not made permanent until many years after events occurred, memories are erased and rerecorded every time we remember an event, and memories are stored in the brain as if they were first thrown into a fan -- fragments are all over the place.

Peter Kearns said...

There's no such thing as perfect pitch. I've been a working musician all my life and I can pull a 'perfect' C out of thin air for you. But it's more 'remembered' pitch. I'm used to tuning to 440hz but half the world tunes a quarter tone away from that. So if they can sing a perfect 'C' according to their system, which is different, then who's wrong and who's right? No one. It's a man-made thing and there's nothing natural about it. The important thing is to be in tune with whatever system you happen to be on at a given time. And god knows that's suffering these days.

Jim Leff said...

Peter, I disagree with you...and you've also nailed it!

Let me explain. When I'm in practice, I, too, can pull a "C" out of thin air (it helps if I'm actually holding a trombone, even if I'm not actually playing it. Weird, no?). When I'm out of practice (e.g. ten years of 15 hour days spent running a web site), I lose that ability.

Thing is, that is NOT perfect pitch. It is, as you say, remembered pitch. Someone with real perfect pitch can tell you every note played when a kid smashes a piano keyboard with his forearm. And can (per the comment above) distinguish between an A440 and an A tuned just ever-so-slightly flat or sharp. Stuff which defies mere calculation and memory.

So this may be my answer. Maybe the people for whom perfect pitch is fading may not have had genuine perfect pitch, but just the simpler remembered pitch. I never had perfect pitch, but I do know that remembered pitch fades.

Well, it's a hypothesis....

Doug said...

Hi All:
I read about this from Seth's note...and for what it's worth, here are my thoughts...

http://www.audiology.org/news/Pages/20081117a.aspx


Happy Holidays, ---Doug

Ben Washer said...

I would guess it's due to the fact that perfect pitch isn't needed that much anymore. You can easily tune everything after you record it so the micro-discerning ear isn't needed as much to nail the take live.

Even people who can't sing on pitch can make hit records with an engineer tweaking their vocals or instrument after the recording stops.

spyscribbler said...

This is fascinating to me! I'm a pianist, and I had perfect pitch until I started clarinet in fourth grade. Then I went through some confusion, and I never really straightened it all out.

When I was in conservatory for piano, I learned about overtones, but a few years out, I was practicing, and suddenly I could hear ALL the overtones so clearly, I couldn't tell which note was the "real" note and which note was the overtone.

It was really freaky, and I had to sort of shut down my listening. It took me a couple months to train myself not to hear them. I just couldn't cope.

And then, in my thirties, my piano suddenly, incessantly sounded out of tune. Always. It literally became excruciating for me to listen to it, even if it had been just tuned, and I could see it was perfectly tuned.

I just sorta figured I was a little crazy, and didn't tell anyone about all this. It has made teaching difficult, though.

I can play again, but it's still hard for me to listen to my students play. (Sh! Don't tell, LOL!)

Sheila Joynes' Musical Diary said...

I have perfect pitch - yes, it does exist - I can sing you any note you ask me for and I can identify any old cluster of notes you play me, easiest to recognise on the piano though. If I hear things in other pitches, I can feel my pitch adjusting itself, though if it's a whole semitone I just transpose mentally. Period instrument drive me nuts - I'd rather be operated on by a doctor using 17th century medical instruments!

However there are moments when my pitch gets lost - right in the middle of my A level aural exam, for instance! And I have heard from other musicians that their sense of pitch went sharper as they older.

I'm very good at estimating what time it is too. My partner, who is a bit of a scientific geek, reckons perfect pitch is the ability to rocgnise the number of vibrations - some ability to count without realising it. Maybe it's a bit like autism - remember Dustin Hoffman counting all those matches?

I have to say practice comes into it as well - if I've been on holiday for a few weeks, it gets more honed in when I get back to teaching. I'm 53 now but haven't noticed any major change in Perfect Pitchedness.

Oh, and you don't have to physically hear a sound to recognise it. I hear them in my head too - as presumably Beethoven had to!

John Althouse Cohen said...

All this talk about perfect pitch, and no one -- including the linked blog post and the linked article -- is talking about whether it's a good thing or bad thing, and whether it's important or not. It's not clear to me that perfect pitch is a net benefit if the person without it can more effortlessly switch to a different key and feel like not much has changed. Relative pitch is far more important than perfect pitch, so I don't understand why the latter gets so much more attention.

PierreSmack said...

Funny you should mention it. I definitely noticed my perfect pitch fading around the age of 6 months.

jaywilsonmusic said...

Mr Cohen, perfect pitch being good or bad is rather a moot point. People with perfect pitch (or absolute pitch, as it's sometimes referred to) seem to have the ability innately and it can't be learned or dismissed at will. I sing in a choir and there are a couple of singers who have perfect pitch. From the expressions on their faces when the pitch drops during a piece, I wouldn't wish to have their ability! Of course, on the other hand, those people are vital in keeping the pitch correct in unaccompanied music, not least by alerting all of us mud-bloods to the fact that it has changed at all!

As to why it gets more attention, well, it's kind of like a musical superpower, isn't it?!

For a fascinating look at this topic (and many others) from a neurological point of view, I'd recommend Oliver Sacks's wonderfully readable book, 'Musicophilia'.

Anonymous said...

One for the anecdotal evidence file: I'm an ex-musician (opera singer)who used to have perfect pitch but seems to have lost it. Maybe it's that I'm getting old. But I think it's that I'm out of practice.

Anonymous said...

Hi all, this is the only post I can find on the net (after looking for 3 minutes!) that is discussing this issue. Mine is slightly different in that I still have perfect pitch, but it's wrong! (obvious contradiction there!). I had perfect pitch from a very early age. I played the violin and other instruments a lot back then. I subsequently stopped playing and noticed some years later that my pitch is now tuned a semitone higher! When I hear an "A", my brain tells me it is a B flat. I cannot retune it either. Extremely confusing, especially when trying to take up the violin again.....
Am I alone in my weirdness??!!!

George

Anonymous said...

The most likely reason people will lose their perfect pitch is because they have to listen to and work with music that is out of tune their whole lives (equal temperement).
I believe we are all inherently born with a sense of relative pitch. Musical ratios and their ralationships (i.e. musical scales etc.) are as natural as the physical laws that govern the universe and as old as time itself.
Unfortunately most people listen to the western scale their whole lives and so no wonder they lose their basic instinctive sense of pitch! It really is a shame.

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