Saturday, December 13, 2008

More on Perfect Pitch

Some interesting comments were posted in the "Is Perfect Pitch Dying Out Like the Honeybees? entry. Thanks! I've found some interesting information, though not an answer to the mystery:

From an Interview with Joseph Chilton Pearce
"My very young pre-school son learned to play the piano quickly and easily, sitting in my lap—to the point that by age five he was considered quite precocious and was studying with an excellent pianist. His mother, however, was concerned that he would become “one-sided” if he went on being completely absorbed in music and insisted that he attend school and learn to read and write. We put him in a small private school, and within a few months his freely-expressed musical facility began to falter. Little by little his coordination between the hands was not as good, nor his sight reading. Even his perfect pitch declined, and by age seven he had lost much of that original spontaneous capacity."
This next one's particularly interesting to me, as I've always wondered how "tone deaf" people manage to communicate in Asian societies with pitch-based languages, e.g. Chinese or Vietnamese). From an article by Jonathan Ames:
"... psychologists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, US...think perfect, or absolute, pitch - the ability to precisely recognise musical notes - is what actually helps babies to learn to speak.

Once this task is achieved, perfect pitch is lost - unless it is deliberately cultivated in some way, either by learning a musical instrument or by speaking a language that conveys subtle meaning with different tones."
More on that same theory (courtesy of this discussion): according to this National Geographic program, the human brain goes through two stages of cutting off unused connections: in early childhood, and again at adolescence. So, again, if you don't use your perfect pitch, you might lose it. 

But wait! What does "using your perfect pitch" mean? Music's everywhere! Is perfect pitch more of a skill than a faculty, involving an intentional, conscious processing of what's being heard? I believe people with perfect pitch don't experience it that way. Also, the reports I'm hearing are of adults losing this faculty, not children.

3 comments:

Jordan said...

Shalom All,

I've had perfect pitch since it was discovered that I had
it more than 50 years ago, when I began to play the piano. No degradation other than in pitches over 4000hz where some age related hearing loss has taken place. It is involuntary; i.e., I hear a train whistle or a car horn, and the names of the pitches "appear." I can also sing any requested pitch within my vocal range and be accurate to within +/_ 5 hz (as verified by an electronic strobe). Perfect pitch or absolute pitch as its also called, may or may not have anything to do with overall musicality.
Check out the link below for more info.
http://perfectpitch.ucsf.edu/

Harmoniously,
Jordan

Jim Leff said...

Thanks, Jordan. A few quick questions:

" I can also sing any requested pitch within my vocal range and be accurate to within +/_ 5 hz"

that's actually not SO accurate...how much do you suppose failure to get closer is a function of lack of vocal training (i.e. you could get closer if you could just get your voice to produce more accurately what you intend it to)?

Do the names of the pitches "appear" visually? If so I'm wondering if you're an exceptional case, with a touch of synaesthesia...

Also, doesn't it strike you as strange that arbitrary western tunings are somehow "special" for you? There's no intrinsic reason, after all, that "A" should be 440hz....might just as reasonably have come to be played at 440.8 hertz (in fact, non-musicians don't know that Boston tunes A higher, at like 443 or 444). So it's really more an ability to imprint a given frequency than an ability to perceive some absolute, right?

Jordan said...

You wrote/asked:
"Thanks, Jordan. A few quick questions:

 'I can also sing any requested pitch within my vocal range and be accurate to within +/_ 5 hz' 

that's actually not SO accurate"

Shalom Jim,
You are correct. What I meant to say was “+/- 5 cents.” Which is much closer as a cent is .01 of a semitone (a half step). You continued:

"...how much do you suppose failure to get closer is a function of lack of vocal training (i.e. you could get closer if you could just get your voice to produce more accurately what you intend it to)?"

Good point as well, as I do not by any means have a trained voice. And I’d still be curious to hear if others of your readers with perfect pitch
trained voice or not could actually give closer error tolerances than those I gave. You continued:


"Do the names of the pitches "appear" visually? If so I'm wondering if you're an exceptional case, with a touch of synaesthesia..."

I used the word “appear” as I didn’t have a better way of describing the involuntary nature of my ability to identify the pitches. I don’t see visions “out there;” the pitch names involuntarily enter my consciousness. You continued:


"Also, doesn't it strike you as strange that arbitrary western tunings are somehow "special" for you?"

“Special” only to the extent that “A” above middle “C” = 440hz, has become the “international standard” for that pitch, and the octave of twelve equally tempered semitones (the ratio of frequency in hz of “A#” down to “A,” is the same as “C” down to “B” or any other semitone, i.e., 1.059:1), is what I grew up with and repeatedly heard. I don’t know
if any studies of perfect pitch have been done on people who’ve only experienced other tunings. You continued:

"There's no intrinsic reason, after all, that "A" should be 440hz....might just as reasonably have come to be played at 440.8 hertz"

Correct. A=435hz or lower was the "standard" for Beethoven. You continued:

"(in fact, non-musicians don't know that Boston tunes A higher, at like 443 or 444)."

Correct again, though “absolute pitchers” (depending on the acuity of their ability), may be able to tell. And their description (assuming they didn’t know up front that the tuning wasn’t A=440 hz) wouldn’t likely be “oh the orchestra/soloist is tuned 3-4 hz sharp;” more likely would be that they’d ascribe a subjective “br” word like bright, brilliant, brassy or brittle to what they were experiencing. You continued:

"So it's really more an ability to imprint a given frequency than an ability to perceive some absolute, right?"

I did a research paper on absolute pitch when I attended conservatory in the early 70’s, and the imprinting theory was around at that time, though my personal story doesn’t really square with it. Until I was eight, there were no instruments in our home. My folks constantly played music on the radio and phonograph but there was no mention of “tonalities” “keys” or “pitches.” When we got a piano (I was 8), my mother taught me the names of all the notes before I had a formal piano lesson. Within a week or two (still before formal lessons) a piano tuner came to the house. While eating lunch with my folks, I asked “isn’t that a “d” he’s tuning?” My mom said she didn’t know and to go ask him. And the rest is history. In retrospect our piano must not have been too much out of tune as “d” before tuning must have been close enough to “d” after tuning so as not to create cognitive dissonance. I have three siblings; all are music appreciators, two have good relative pitch, and one has perfect pitch but to a lesser degree than I.

Hope this answers your questions. Feel free to ask more.

Be well,
Harmoniously,
Jordan

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