Perfect pitch is a rare gift. About one out of every 10,000 people are able to instantly recognize and name a note played without any sort of frame of reference. Ask them to hum a C-sharp amidst a jack-hammer construction site, and they’ll have no problem nailing the note.
Perfect pitch has also been idealized. Because those born with the talent are often able to play a piece simply by listening to it, and because legends such as Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, and Handel have been assumed to possess it, perfect pitch has come to be seen as a sort of prerequisite to greatness in the music world.
But the talent might not be as absolute as everyone thinks.
In a recent study at the University of Chicago, Stephen Hedger, a graduate student in psychology, Shannon Heald, a postdoctoral scholar, and Howard Nusbaum, a professor in psychology, proved that perfect pitch it at least somewhat malleable. The group recruited 27 people who, according to objective tests, have been identified as having the gift of perfect pitch (it must be nice to have access to such a large population for these sorts of studies). They brought them in a room, played a note in-tune, and then started a recording of Johann Brahms’ Symphony No. 1.
During the 15-minute-long first movement, the tuning of the piece was slightly and gradually altered, so that by the end the music was being played one-third of a note flat. It’s not that big of a difference, but certainly big enough for people with perfect pitch to pick up on.
Except none of them did.
The researchers then played the next two movements with that same slightly flat tuning. At the end, they played a few notes that were also slightly flat, just like the music the participants had just listened to. Not one of the perfect-pitchers identified it as being flat. What’s more, when played the exact same in-tune notes as they heard at the beginning of the session, they identified those as being slightly sharp.
In a second, separate test, just five notes were played, called phase music, with the same results. After listening to the symphonic piece adjusted slightly flat, the phase music also played slightly flat sounded just fine to everyone.
But here’s where it gets really interesting.
In both of those tests I just described, the participants were played notes on instruments that were used in the symphony. When the researchers brought out a piano or a French horn – neither of which are found in the Brahm piece – their abilities were unaffected. They accurately picked up on the slightly flat notes being played.
The researchers are now experimenting with people who have more limited pitch identification ability and are finding that their pitch identification can be improved.
The paper, “Absolute Pitch May Not Be So Absolute,” was published in the journal Psychological Science.