For ages we’ve assumed that early musical training in childhood is needed to have perfect pitch and that it’s just not possible for adults to acquire the skill. But new research proves that, with a little training, adults can learn how and that the effect can last for months.
Absolute pitch, commonly known as “perfect pitch,” is the ability to identify a note by hearing it. It’s remarkably rare with less than 1 in 10,000 people having it—and has always been a desired ability among musicians—especially since several famous composers, including Mozart, reportedly had it.
Researchers tested how much an individual’s general auditory working memory capacity can predict the success of acquiring absolute pitch.
Published in the journal Cognition, the study follows up earlier research that showed people with absolute pitch can be “retuned” in about 45 minutes of listening, suggesting that absolute pitch is not so absolute, after all.
The findings also show that people without absolute pitch have the ability to learn notes quickly.
A 2013 study from Harvard University researchers reported that a drug commonly used to treat epilepsy could effectively reopen a critical period of learning ability, allowing a person to learn skills like absolute pitch. The current study does not use medications to train the brain to learn absolute pitch skills to a comparable degree.
“This is the first significant demonstration that the ability to identify notes by hearing them may well be something that individuals can be trained to do,” said Howard Nusbaum, professor of psychology at the University of Chicago. “It’s an ability that is teachable, and it appears to depend on a general cognitive ability of holding sounds in one’s mind.”
The study was conducted in two experiments. Seventeen college students participated in the first experiment. None had absolute pitch, and all had variable amounts of music experience.
The student participants listened to notes sampled from real musical instruments through studio headphones. They heard a brief note, which was then masked by white noise. The participants were then asked to try to recreate the originally heard target note. Another part of the experiment involved testing participants after they heard an isolated piano note, and then they were asked to identify it by its musical note name (for example, C or F-sharp).
True Perfect Pitch
When researchers retested some of the study participants a few months after the training session, they found that although the participants’ learning had decreased slightly, they still retained most of their ability to identify notes with absolute pitch.
In the second experiment, 30 college students, staff, and community members participated. The experiment was similar to the first one in attempting to identify notes heard through headphones. They were trained on 12 piano notes repetitively and received both visual and auditory feedback on their responses. They were then tested to determine if the training made any difference toward acquiring absolute pitch.
Although training adults to learn absolute pitch has been met with much skepticism, there is now evidence that it can be done.
“We demonstrate three important findings in this paper,” Nusbaum said. “First, in contrast to previous studies, we are able to establish significant absolute pitch training in adults without drugs. Second, we show that this ability is predicted by auditory working memory. Third, we show that this training lasts for months.”
While the findings suggest that adults can acquire absolute pitch even without that early exposure to pitches and musical labels, they cannot directly address whether this adult-acquired absolute pitch ability is comparable to the performance of true perfect pitch.