Why Adults Can't Develop Perfect Pitch
August 9, 2018 9:59 PM   Subscribe

 
That was fascinating. Thank you.
posted by greermahoney at 10:30 PM on August 9


I hadn't connected perfect pitch to categorical perception, but of course this makes sense. There is also a similar developmental window for understanding rhythmic patterns used in different cultures.

Since I'd heard about the rhythmic pattern categorical perception result, I exposed my son to as many varied musical traditions as possible before the age of 6 months. Later, I attempted to teach him note and interval names during his fast mapping period (18 months). This wasn't because this was a big priority or anything; I was just curious as to whether the power of fast mapping extended to note and interval names.

He could thereafter accurately name notes, but intervals still take time for him to identify. I hadn't even considered before seeing this video (though now it seems obviously true) that his success learning note names may only have been possible because of his earlier exposure. The perceptual categories had to be formed before they could be named.
posted by Jpfed at 10:58 PM on August 9 [4 favorites]




I have excellent relative pitch, but not perfect pitch. I had classmates who had perfect pitch and it seemed like a curse, in that it caused them discomfort when A wasn't 440, even if things were otherwise in tune.

I feel like there's more to dig into here. After all in most traditional musics there is no standard pitch, that's an innovation in Western music fairly recently. And in many musical traditions, intervals in scales are somewhat... contingent. It's not clear to me that perfect pitch is really very helpful, even in the more recent Western tradition. Which might be an alternative answer to "why don't Juillard et al have a course and train people". Well, because it's a party trick, not a useful skill. Relative pitch, ie getting the intervals and relationships between tones that you want, that's where it's at.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 2:23 AM on August 10 [21 favorites]


One point he didn't make about tonal languages (Mandarin for example) is that they don't depend on perfect pitch in any way, it's all relative, that way people with naturally high voices can talk to people with naturally low voices.

Young kids do have to get better at recognising tones as they learn their vowels so it's not surprising more end up with perfect pitch.

BTW: tonal languages also explain Chinese opera and why westerners don't get it
posted by mbo at 2:47 AM on August 10 [11 favorites]


Test your pitch: (1) (2).

And I missed the window for my son and feel bad. I grew up with the stereo on all the time, he grew up with everyone in their private media bubble. Shame.
posted by Meatbomb at 5:30 AM on August 10 [13 favorites]


I have perfect pitch and everything he said checks out for me. In fact, I use the exact same metaphors that he does (it's like when you see a color and just know it's green; pitches get put in discrete buckets).

Neither of my parents is a musician particularly, but they both love music and I'm sure the stereo was on all the time when I was a baby. We also had a piano in the house from the time I was very young and I started playing it probably when I was 3 or something, since I know I was taking lessons by 5. Like this guy's kid, I discovered I had perfect pitch; I didn't work at all to acquire it.

Unfortunately, my pitch has degraded with age, which I understand is common.
posted by dfan at 5:41 AM on August 10 [1 favorite]


(I am skeptical, though, of his claim that you can guarantee that your kids will develop perfect pitch if you just play lots of complicated music around them. But I am sure it doesn't hurt!)
posted by dfan at 5:43 AM on August 10 [2 favorites]


I’m skeptical too, we play A LOT of different music in the Creature house —Pandora is on all day and we switch between Calasical, Jazz, Hip-Hop, EDM, and avante-garde channels several times a week. It has been this way ever since my kids were babies. I am also an accomplished musician with excellent relative pitch bordering on perfect pitch, and my wife trained as an opera singer. We are a very musical family, and while my kids all have some degree musical interest and ability I have yet to see any kind of perfect pitch powers from them.

¯\_(ツ)_/¯
posted by Doleful Creature at 6:09 AM on August 10 [1 favorite]


@Meatbomb: I feel as though these pitch tests, upon submission, should display both your score and a humble apology if you scored well. I got all 26 of the 26 tunes from the first link, and now I need to go put bleach in my ears.
posted by XtinaS at 6:16 AM on August 10 [5 favorites]


So according to Meatbomb's first link, I have good pitch 26/26. I can't play an instrument or sing worth anything however. Does this mean I just need to practice a bunch more? Even though I took piano lessons as a child, I still can't pick out even the melody right hand notes from songs I know and need to look at sheet music and memorize it. And then I can't transpose it to a different key.
posted by GregorWill at 6:24 AM on August 10


Even though I took piano lessons as a child, I still can't pick out even the melody right hand notes from songs I know and need to look at sheet music and memorize it.

Since most piano lessons teach nothing but reproducing music from a written score, that is not surprising.
posted by thelonius at 6:44 AM on August 10 [3 favorites]


Dunno, I also got a perfect score on that one, and an above average on the second one (83%), but it doesn't mean that I can pick out or transpose melodies on a piano (though I can sing them, and transpose them when singing). But discernment feels like a different/easier skill than reproduction? Or maybe there are just fewer opportunities to practice reproducing melodies on an instrument? And it's not the focus of what's taught.
posted by unknowncommand at 7:11 AM on August 10


The only person I've known with perfect pitch could not enjoy imperfect music - I remember that we both attended a performance of a notable local amateur choir, and she had a horrible time and I had a nice one, and afterward she said it was because her pitch was perfect and she couldn't stand their singing.

I don't know if this is characteristic of everyone with perfect pitch, but it did make me stop feeling bad about Not Being Good At Notes.
posted by Frowner at 7:15 AM on August 10 [2 favorites]



Video: what a roller coaster. He starts off with this structure:
I made a claim, a viewer disagred, so the viewer was wrong because I'm right of course.
But i'm glad i watched long enough for him to get to the explanation and evidence and definition part. Arguing with this guy at a cocktail party would be so frustrating but the info is interesting.


19/26 on test(1).... which is funny cause i could only recognize maybe half the songs (the first 10 and then two religious ones) . Others sounded sour.
posted by Anchorite_of_Palgrave at 7:19 AM on August 10 [3 favorites]


25/26. Which one did I get wrong?? Wasn't sure about the Marseillaise but the off key ones were so obviously off. Can't sing at all and was once told I whistle off key.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 7:19 AM on August 10


Rick Beato previously.
posted by rocket88 at 7:28 AM on August 10


Given all the crappy pianos I've had to play in clubs around the world, I consider my lack of perfect pitch to be a blessing.
posted by kozad at 7:43 AM on August 10 [5 favorites]


The only person I've known with perfect pitch could not enjoy imperfect music - I remember that we both attended a performance of a notable local amateur choir, and she had a horrible time and I had a nice one, and afterward she said it was because her pitch was perfect and she couldn't stand their singing.

I don't know if this is characteristic of everyone with perfect pitch, but it did make me stop feeling bad about Not Being Good At Notes.
It is not. In fact this sounds more like the result of having excellent fine-grained relative pitch (being sensitive to things being slightly out of tune with respect to each other) than absolute pitch.

The usual thing people with absolute pitch complain about is when pieces are played at old pitch references, which makes them sound like they're in a different key. I don't actually mind this so much unless I'm trying to follow along with a score. On the other hand, sit me down at a piano that's a semitone off and I'm completely hopeless.
posted by dfan at 7:50 AM on August 10


I got 26/26 on test 1 and 97.2% on test 2, I've had 2 years of piano lessons and 3 years of guitar, and I still can't play a melody perfectly after hearing it. I have to stumble around a few times until I find the right notes. They're two different skills for sure.

I don't have perfect pitch but 10 years ago when I was practicing regularly, you could test me by hitting a random note on a piano and I could tell you which note it was almost every time. I just used a reference tone, either by hitting "C" on a piano a few minutes before and remembering the tone, or by listening for 60Hz harmonics in the room -- tons of rooms in the US have a faint hum from a speaker, fluorescent light, etc. and it's usually a slightly flat "B" note.

It is not. In fact this sounds more like the result of having excellent fine-grained relative pitch (being sensitive to things being slightly out of tune with respect to each other) than absolute pitch.


Speaking as someone with excellent relative pitch, I agree. You could tune my piano down a semitone while I wasn't looking and I'd never know the difference until I played along with another instrument. But I have had absolutely terrible experiences at high school band performances and even semi-professional choirs, and I can spot out-of-tune notes in lots of popular music.
posted by mmoncur at 8:00 AM on August 10 [3 favorites]


You could tune my piano down a semitone while I wasn't looking and I'd never know the difference until I played along with another instrument.

Yep. I've tuned up a guitar to a reference E from my memory, and later discovered I had tuned it to E-flat.
posted by thelonius at 8:40 AM on August 10 [2 favorites]


But discernment feels like a different/easier skill than reproduction?

I think discerning a difference, playing something back by ear, and identifying the notes directly are three different skills or levels of skill built on the same underlying ability. I've always been pretty good at hearing something and playing it right back (on an instrument I'm familiar with), but I couldn't tell you the notes without looking at what I just played, because that's something I never really fully learned in a disciplined way.

(Also I am a lot better at picking up melodies than chords, because it wasn't until later in my life that I played a polyphonic instrument.)
posted by atoxyl at 8:49 AM on August 10 [1 favorite]


i_am_joe's_spleen's comment makes a great distinction about the practical usefulness of superb relative pitch, and the relative uselessness of perfect pitch in practice. I was taught and trained in a couple of high-end music schools, and the handful of musicians I've known with real, honest-to-goodness comprehensive perfect pitch found it debilitating, and about half left music as a profession fairly early on because of it.

Real, active perfect pitch recognition forces discrete perception of musical information, which actually impedes the holistic cognitive recognition of musical patterns that are necessary for music to make sense and have expressive effect. In other words, when most of us hear the notes C, E, and G sounded simultaneously, our brains register and respond to the sound of all three of those notes richly interacting in a sound that we call a "major chord". I had a student years ago whose pitch was so good that she struggled to recognize the major chord part--her brain kept telling her that she was hearing C, E and G, and she had to work to learn to hear the affect of those three pitches in harmony (she was a really phenomenal pianist and oboist, who now works providing active therapy for kids on the autism spectrum).

It also can really distract a performing musician's brain, because naming and/or knowing the information coming at you from other musicians is often less important than responding to it qualitatively (i.e., am I in tune or do I have to adjust, am I too loud or soft, etc.). I definitely add another vote for 'great relative pitch is the way to go'.
posted by LooseFilter at 9:09 AM on August 10 [5 favorites]


I think that it can be more than a party trick, i_am_joe's_spleen. I have a friend who is a composer for film and television. He has perfect pitch. One of the ways he uses it in his work is that he perceives the natural key that speakers in a scene are talking in (because speech has a pitch, too), and then composes his music to match that pitch. That way, the audio all becomes part of a single, coherent piece of music. It's pretty cool to watch.
posted by MythMaker at 9:10 AM on August 10 [11 favorites]


I got 24/26, which is surprising, because I have poor hearing and don't hear in one narrow range. There were a couple I wasn't sure of; would be nice to see the details. Great post, thanks you.
posted by theora55 at 9:16 AM on August 10


also, thanks for those tests, meatbomb.
posted by theora55 at 9:17 AM on August 10


The only person I've known with perfect pitch could not enjoy imperfect music

I don't have perfect (or even good) absolute pitch, but I have very good relative pitch, and amateur violinists are the bane if my existence. It can be outright painful to listen to. Same goes for all the bar bands who don't notice their guitars slipping out of tune during a set, or who have a horn section and tune to a tuner rather than their horns*, often resulting in a slight... disagreement about what exact pitch an A is.

*Yes, a good horn player can get their instrument properly in tune. Most horn players on the DIY/pub circuit are not that good, and don't tend to adjust for gradual changes as they get their instruments under stage lights.
posted by Dysk at 9:33 AM on August 10 [1 favorite]


I had two reactions to the "wrong" tunes in Meatbomb's first link. One was, "I really want to hear how the rest of that song goes!" and the other was feeling like Yosemite Sam watching Bugs Bunny fail to detonate the exploding piano.
posted by Daily Alice at 9:34 AM on August 10 [3 favorites]


In other words, when most of us hear the notes C, E, and G sounded simultaneously, our brains register and respond to the sound of all three of those notes richly interacting in a sound that we call a "major chord". I had a student years ago whose pitch was so good that she struggled to recognize the major chord part--her brain kept telling her that she was hearing C, E and G, and she had to work to learn to hear the affect of those three pitches in harmony (she was a really phenomenal pianist and oboist, who now works providing active therapy for kids on the autism spectrum).
I have never really understood this complaint, although obviously the issue must exist. I have never felt that being an excellent speller has ever inhibited me from fully appreciating written or spoken language, nor do I feel that being able to identify the individual notes of a chord has a deleterious effect on my ability to appreciate the chord as a gestalt (quite the opposite).
posted by dfan at 10:14 AM on August 10 [3 favorites]


Same goes for all the bar bands who don't notice their guitars slipping out of tune during a set

also a lot of people bend the notes of chords sharp, without realizing it
posted by thelonius at 10:22 AM on August 10 [2 favorites]


also a lot of people bend the notes of chords sharp, without realizing it

This is why I personally play with the biggest, highest tension strings I can lay my hands on. Those fuckers aren't bending unless I make a serious effort to make it happen.
posted by Dysk at 10:24 AM on August 10 [1 favorite]


Guitars are never really in tune of course, and people have tried some extreme solutions to that
posted by thelonius at 10:29 AM on August 10 [2 favorites]


That's why God invented vibrato.
posted by Dysk at 10:32 AM on August 10 [3 favorites]


Guitars are never really in tune of course

The piano is the worst offender, to me. A piano can never play in tune because it's stuck with equal-tempered tuning. Voices, strings, winds, many percussion instruments, even electronic/digital instruments can all be pitch-adjusted on the fly (which of course is absolutely essential to playing/singing "in tune," that's always an on-going, dynamic adjustment moment-to-moment for everyone performing)...but the piano, nope. The B-flat in that C7 is always going to be about 31 cents too high. As an ensemble musician, it makes my teeth hurt, sometimes.
posted by LooseFilter at 10:36 AM on August 10 [4 favorites]


Rick Beato presents evidence that only babys can acquire AP in the larger context of adults arguing about whether adults can acquire (or learn) AP, which as Anchorite_of_Palgrave notes, is an information-inhibitive structure, especially for viewers who don't need that context to accept the evidence.

To more quickly navigate through information-inhibitive context/structure on YouTube, one may click the gear icon in the control panel. Doing so opens "Settings" one of which is "Speed". In that panel, video playback speed can be set to go faster or slower.
posted by mistersquid at 10:36 AM on August 10


Given all the crappy pianos I've had to play in clubs around the world, I consider my lack of perfect pitch to be a blessing.

"But we just had that piano painted last week!"
posted by corvikate at 10:44 AM on August 10 [1 favorite]


The piano is the worst offender, to me. A piano can never play in tune because it's stuck with equal-tempered tuning

I don't think equal temperament is the thing that's causing pianos to grate in a case where a guitar does not.

(Common commercially-available) fretted string instruments are locked into (per string, at least) equal temperament. Theoretically you could do some just intonation thing from one string to the next, but the intervals produced when moving up X frets on a single string will always be X twelfth-roots-of-2.

Pianos are actually not subject to this restriction; a piano tuner does have the freedom to choose a different tuning. And they often do! Because physics, piano notes' frequencies don't go up by a factor of 2 between octaves, but a number slightly higher than two. And if you really wanted to, within certain limits imposed by the strength of the piano's frame and the strings you could get rebellious.
posted by Jpfed at 11:43 AM on August 10 [3 favorites]


(Common commercially-available) fretted string instruments are locked into (per string, at least) equal temperament. Theoretically you could do some just intonation thing from one string to the next, but the intervals produced when moving up X frets on a single string will always be X twelfth-roots-of-2.

Right - this is why the commonly used method of tuning guitars by matching the harmonic at the 5th fret to the harmonic at the next string's 7th fret is wrong. The frets, laid out for equal tempered tuning, do not and will never match the pitch of the just-intonated harmonic at the interval of a fifth (the harmonic at the 7th fret, which is at 1/3 of the string's length).

In the tuning method(pdf) taught by the Guild of American Luthiers, only harmonics at the 5th and 12th fret are used; these are matched to either an open string, or to a fretted note on the neck.
posted by thelonius at 12:01 PM on August 10 [3 favorites]


I don't have perfect pitch, but I guess I have very good relative pitch - I got 26 out of 26 on the first test, and the ones that were wrong seemed immediately, hideously, horribly wrong. A few of them would have been effective torture devices - "I'll tell you where I hid the treasure! Make that noise stop!"

But when I tune my guitar, I depend totally on my tuning app - I can only roughly guess where the low E is.
posted by tallmiddleagedgeek at 12:23 PM on August 10 [1 favorite]


Pianos are actually not subject to this restriction

Sure they are: once a piano is tuned--however it's tuned--it's fixed. So, if you tuned the whole piano to be in tune in C major, what happens when the music modulates? Moreover, how can an equal-tempered piano play in-tune within any single key? The player can't lower the third of a major chord appropriately (~14 cents by quantification) or any of the constant adjustments (because of physics, natch) that actual in-tune-ness requires.

At least with a guitar there is some flexibility, and the player definitely has the easy ability to adjust the lengths of the strings as needed. Pianos just sit there, pretending like we can actually fit 12 semitones equally within an octave, and that it would sound good even if we could. (Piano tuners "stretch the octave," as mentioned, because you can't fit all the notes that we want, within a doubling of frequency, evenly. That's why they start from the middle of the keyboard and work outward, so that octave displacement conceals the compromise that shifts the top half of the keyboard continually sharpward, and the bottom half continually flatward.)
posted by LooseFilter at 1:41 PM on August 10 [3 favorites]


I've always had perfect pitch, but even as I have gone to classes, and learnt the basics of various instruments, doing music isn't really my thing *. I am thinking of posting an ask, because I've moved into a home with a piano, and I feel I need to use it.

Anyway, listening to music has always been important for me, and when I became a parent, I resolved to actively work to involve my kids in music.
My firstborn has a dad who is almost impressively un-musical. It's weird. Anyway, I decided that instead of kiddy music, every day after school, we'd listen to Mozart and discuss what we heard. she'd have Coltrane for bed-time music, and we signed her to a school where music was the main emphasis. All that seemed to go badly. Minimumi has inherited her dad's lack of understanding of music, and he went on the school board and worked hard to change the focus toward book-learning rather than music. She never learnt to play an instrument or sing. BUT, the Coltrane nights did work, only I didn't understand this till she was 15. Her taste in music is excellent and she is an amazing listener. She still can't practice music, but she enjoys music at a far better level than if she hadn't learnt it from childhood. To all you young mefites out there: it's an unbelievable scoring trick.

My second child has a musician as a father, and she is naturally involved with music at all waking hours. But weirdly, because I never imposed the discipline I did with her older sister (because at first I thought we had failed), there is a lot of stuff she never learnt and struggles with.

To all of those who are parents: its really worth giving your kids the gift of an instrument, even if it feels hopeless at the time.

*Well, that's an interpretation. I was a singer, and chose to take another direction. But one reason was that I felt it was hard to develop as a singer when I didn't play an instrument well. Thousands of singers will disagree.
posted by mumimor at 2:29 PM on August 10


before i spend the next 10 minutes of my life on this video, does it get more interesting than just him showing off what his son can do and calling out all the people who are wrong?
posted by numaner at 2:55 PM on August 10 [4 favorites]


before i spend the next 10 minutes of my life on this video, does it get more interesting than just him showing off what his son can do and calling out all the people who are wrong?
Yes, but if you're already annoyed at him, you may want to cut your losses.

By the way, the first test that Meatbomb linked to isn't testing whether your relative pitch is good (e.g., being able to identify a major sixth or a minor sixth), it's testing whether you can distinguish different pitches at all (not being able to do this is what tonedeafness is).
posted by dfan at 3:20 PM on August 10 [6 favorites]


I had classmates who had perfect pitch and it seemed like a curse, in that it caused them discomfort when A wasn't 440

Yep. My (professional musician) best friend used to torture me by tuning his bass or guitar excruciatingly slowly with me in the room, or worse yet, actually PLAYING out of tune on purpose. So many people love the sound of an orchestra tuning up, to me it's like nails on a chalkboard. I hate that I can hear if someone's singing a teeny tiny bit sharp or flat, and that it actually, no shit, means I can't happily listen to them. I used to play in my school band and orchestra, and I could hear right away if someone was even a smidge out of tune and it would drive me insane. People think folks like me are being precious, but it's actually almost viscerally unpleasant. Oddly enough, someone being a hair out is far worse to me than being way out.

Losing some of my hearing acuity thanks to too much live music has actually been a bit of a blessing in this regard.
posted by biscotti at 3:20 PM on August 10 [1 favorite]


fun test, meatbomb. thanks. 26/26 on first (yes, it all sounded bad); "click" (i didn't) "to enable flash player" on second. (on edit: also thanks tresbizarre for FPP).

no perfect pitch though surrounded by music lifelong w/ lessons beginning at 5yo. pretty good relative pitch. strong tolerance (perhaps even affinity) for dissonance: there'll be no desafinado when your heart belongs to me completely...
joao gilberto; ella fitzgerald
posted by 20 year lurk at 3:49 PM on August 10 [1 favorite]


I've moved into a home with a piano, and I feel I need to use it.

mumimor, don't even think about it, just go and music. You have a piano that kind of intrigues you? Take a handful of minutes every day and play it, see how that interest goes. It doesn't matter what you play, or how you play, only that you use the piano to make sound and shape it in some way, to connect with how it feels to use that tool to make musical, expressive sound. If your interest intensifies (real curiosity tends to grow as it's satisfied and fed, in my experience), there are many ways to find guidance and structure for learning to use the piano-tool more proficiently and effectively.

The real question for me is, do you have expressive, creative impulses that you want to reify in some way? Or maybe you have a bit of an urge to just music, to do the activity of creating musical sound yourself? Whatever the spark is, that tug you're feeling when you look at the piano, that is what music is, and everything past that is tools and technique. Music is a verb, a thing that we do, and it really doesn't matter if you use your voice or a trumpet or a synthesizer or a drum or a harp or whatever, because they're all megaphones for our imaginations, the ineffable feelings and impulses that we express while playing or listening or in any way engaging in the verb of music, experiencing the temporal phenomenon of it.

Just like life, there is no objective way to make music 'well' or 'correctly,' only ways that have value and meaning to you as you experience them. Music is an experience, and my heart actually hurts sometimes that our music technologies have made most of us only listeners, casting music as an aesthetic object rather than as a communal activity, an essential human one, and an important and unique way of thinking and knowing. Like, we don't really worry too much about whether or not we're objectively good at hugging or eating or sex, because they're essential activities--and, like music, can be very satisfying even if not done well.


strong tolerance (perhaps even affinity) for dissonance

Don Ellis beckons you hence. (While the tuning at the head of that tune is plenty unexpected, Ellis' entrance on his quarter-tone-capable trumpet really scrambles my brain.)
posted by LooseFilter at 4:19 PM on August 10 [7 favorites]


Regardless about any bragging he does about his son, if you're a musician or producer and you're not watching Rick Beato's videos you're missing out.
posted by ob1quixote at 6:02 PM on August 10


It doesn't come across as bragging to me. He's as fascinated and intrigued by his son's abilities as anyone else.
posted by rocket88 at 6:07 AM on August 11 [1 favorite]


The only person I've known with perfect pitch could not enjoy imperfect music

I've been thinking about this, because at first I thought that is rubbish. I can deal with imperfect music, and actually some of my most wonderful music experiences have included sequences that were out of tune because the artist was stretching their capacity to the limits.
That said, I remembered that my eldest daughter's friends have a standing joke that she hates music. She doesn't, but she hates background music. She goes to a concert to listen to music, or she puts on her childhood Coltrane albums when she needs to.
I am the same, but I don't have the pressure on me that her generation has. Back when music was only the radio or vinyl, you wouldn't have music everywhere all the time. A few days ago I went to a meeting with my new younger colleagues, and the host of the meeting had some ambient music running in the background. I really had to restrain myself. I can't not listen, and if I'm listening, how can I simultaneously work on something completely different? And if I don't enjoy the music, how can I relax? So many questions.
These days I struggle with listening to music radio because there is so much autotune, which is a crime on humanity. (if you are person who drives a lot for work, you need to listen to traffic radio to avoid delays. Traffic radio often involves pop music).
So IMO the problem is not so much *imperfect* music as indifferent music. Noise.
posted by mumimor at 3:11 PM on August 11 [1 favorite]


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