Perfect Pitch in Half the Time

It’s all Chinese to me.

This is a pretty common phrase in a college classroom. Whether the subject of study is advanced calculus or special relativity, the jargon and difficult concepts in higher education can be difficult to understand. But the phrase is especially appropriate if the student really is trying to learn Chinese.

Many languages use sounds that English-speaking natives aren’t used to hearing. And because some of these sounds are quite similar, they can be extremely difficult to differentiate to the novice would-be-linguist. In order to train the brain to pick apart the sounds, students often spend hours actively trying to recognize the difference.

I don’t know about you, but to me, spending hours on the same repetitive task sounds about as much fun as smashing my head against the wall over and over again. According to previous research, though, it’s the only way to learn.

At least until now.

New research shows that listening to 20 minutes of similar sounds in addition to actively studying the difference between them can be just as effective at teaching to differenciate them as a full 40-minute active study session.

Previous studies have shown that the mere presence of these different sounds is not enough for one to learn the difference. Simply putting them on in the background doesn’t work, one must actively engage in trying to distinguish the two. However, nobody ever tried combining the two methods.

In a recent study from Northwestern University’s School of Communication, Beverly Wright proved that the combination of active practice and passive exposure can be just as effective as if one were actively practicing the entire time, at least when it comes to training the ear.

Wright and a team of researchers split adults into four groups after making sure none of the participants had any experiences or physiological differences that would skew their results. Each group’s task was to get better at differentiating between a 1,000 Hertz tone and another, slightly lower tone. The difference was their training regimen.

One group simply practiced the task over and over again for 20 minutes per day for a week. The next did the same, but bashed their heads against the wall for 40 minutes per day. Another group listened to the tones while performing a different, unrelated task – like solving visual puzzles – for 40 minutes per day. The final group mixed the two by practicing the task for 20 minutes and then listening to the tone while solving puzzles for 20 minutes.

The results were surprising.

As expected, the 20-minute practice sessions were too short to show any marked improvement and the group not actively trying to learn the new skill didn’t get any better, either. What was surprising, though, was that two wrongs apparently made a right. The group that mixed active practice for 20 minutes – which doesn’t work – with passively listening to the same tones – which also doesn’t work – improved just as much as those banging their head against the wall for the full 40 minutes.

These results fly in the face of past research that showed improvements in these sorts of tasks can’t be improved by passively being exposed to them for any amount of time.

What’s more, further tests showed that it didn’t matter the order of the sessions. Whether the groups actively practiced before or after the passive exposure, they improved just as much. This could be the first demonstration of metaplasticity, which is the idea that experiences that on their own do not generate learning can influence how effective later experiences are at generating learning.

However, there were a few caveats.

If participants waited even just 15 minutes between active and passive “practice,” performance began to drop. And the affect disappeared completely if the second session came four hours later. Also, the background tones had to be the same as the ones with which they were actively being trained.

The experimenters believe these results came from two different mechanisms. While actively trying to differentiate tones, the participants activated “permissive signals” in their brains that allowed the task to begin to be imprinted. These pathways remained activated while they were exposed to further stimulation, allowing for increased learning. When flip-flopped, however, they believe the background stimulation primed the brain for the learning activity, making it more potent.

Whatever the actual mechanical reasons behind the effect, the lesson is clear: you can make the same improvements in auditory tasks such as these in half the time previously thought possible. So whether you’re an American trying to learn Chinese or a musician trying to catch up to those rare individuals blessed with perfect pitch, practice just got a little bit easier.

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About bigkingken

A science writer dedicated to proving that the Big Ten - or the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, if you will - is more than athletics.
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