can’t see the forest

Sing Me an E, Any E

Posted in Music, musicians, Psychology by Curtis on 3/11/07

Digg it! | Refer to StumbleUpon. | Add to Reddit | Add to | Add to furl. | Add to ma.gnolia. | Add to simpy. | Seed NewsVine.

From Discover Magazine comes an interesting article on the phenomenon of perfect pitch. Says researcher Diana Deutsch: “The real puzzle about perfect pitch is not why so few people possess it but rather why most people do not. Everyone has an implicit form of perfect pitch, even though we aren’t all able to put a label to notes.”

According to Deutsch, perfect pitch—commonly understood as the ability to identify a given pitch by its ‘note name’ as instantaneously and effortlessly as one would identify the name of a color from looking at it—may be an ability that most humans learn as young children, or even in the womb. It’s just that if we don’t use it, we tend to lose it.

Many musicians have relative pitch, a form of pitch recognition in which an individual can identify one or two pitches by memory and so can identify any given pitch by judging its distance from the reference tones he or she holds in memory. I happen to fall into this category; the pitches E-flat, B-flat, and F I can normally identify without fail, and so by referring to these tones I’m practiced enough in the language of musical intervals to be able to pin down the name of any pitch, say, 99 out of 100 times. But it usually takes me a second, and I do occasionally make a mistake.

Because those people who exhibit truly perfect pitch never make mistakes, and because many of them can discern when a tone is out of tune by even the tiniest imaginable interval of pitch, many scientists have assumed that perfect pitch is an ability which is passed through the genotype.

Not so, says Deutsch. She developed her theory partially by studying the speakers of tonal languages, such as Chinese or Vietnamese, in which the same word spoken at different pitches can have totally different meanings:

For decades, biologists thought that perfect pitch was a genetic anomaly, passed on from generation to generation. Identical twins are far more likely than fraternal twins to have perfect pitch, and nearly half of all people with perfect pitch have relatives who have it. But studies by Deutsch and others have shown that perfect pitch is far more common than it seems. It’s a form of speech rather than a feature of music—and like speech, it can be learned.

The essential idea began to take shape in Deutsch’s mind three years ago, when she was studying music perception among people from Vietnam. The study subjects, she found, had no trouble understanding her Vietnamese when she spoke at the correct pitch. “But when I deliberately shifted my pitch—to an extent that would be barely noticeable in English—it was as if I’d said, ‘I like your beat,’ or ‘I like your bite,’ when I’d meant to say, ‘I like your boat.'” Just to communicate, she realized, Vietnamese have to identify pitches correctly. What seems like magic to Americans is just second nature in other parts of the world.

Perfect pitch, then, while perhaps facilitated by genetic factors, appears in this light to be primarily a learned skill. Just like a great performer’s musicianship or an artist’s uncanny eye, there is appeal in chalking up such a wonder to a ‘gift’ or a ‘talent’—but, in reality, it’s mostly diligence and hard work that are to blame.


2 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. peoplesgeography said, on 3/12/07 at 4:26 am

    A very interesting article, for the reasons you highlighted well and also for the fact that Deutsch seems to be a veritable modern-day Professor Higgins. As noted in the article, pitch is also tied to locale:

    “Pitch ranges are so clearly tied to geography that Deutsch can often guess where her subjects or their parents grew up.

    Thanks very much for posting, I learned much about pitch and language I previously had no idea about. I knew some languages were tonal but that’s about it.

  2. Curtis said, on 3/12/07 at 9:13 am

    Thanks! I thought it was very interesting–I’d never thought to correlate musical pitch recognition with the same faculties as exercised in a tonal language, but it makes a great deal of sense.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: