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Perfect pitch within reach of some adults

"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 lead researcher Howard Nusbaum.

By Brooks Hays
Perfect pitch within reach of some adults
New research suggests adults can train their brains and ears to achieve absolute pitch. File photo by UPI Photo/Mohammad Kheirkhah | License Photo

CHICAGO, May 28 (UPI) -- Nobody's perfect. But some adults may able to train their auditory senses to achieve perfect pitch. Absolute pitch, or perfect pitch, is the ability to identify exact musical notes by ear.

The rare skill is revered among musicians. But fewer than one in 10,000 possess the talent, and it was long assumed the ability could only be acquired during a small window of adolescence -- likely the result of genetic luck and rigorous early musical training.

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But new research suggests that for adults aiming to achieve perfect pitch, all hope is not lost.

During a recent study conducted by researchers at the University of Chicago, 17 participants without absolute pitch and with varying amounts of prior musical experience were trained to recognize notes. Their lessons included three 60-note blocks, during which they were asked to identify the notes they heard. They received immediate feedback, learning 180 notes in total. When retested shortly after training, participants showed significant improvement in recognizing notes.

The participants were retested a few months later, and though some of their ability faded, most of their absolute pitch improvement remained intact.

Previous research out of Harvard suggested a drug commonly used to treat epilepsy could reopen neural pathways necessary for achieving perfect pitch. But the latest research suggests the talent may be within reach, even without drugs.

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A second experiment, during which 30 participants learned just 12 notes and received both visual and auditory feedback, showed similar results.

"We demonstrate three important findings in this paper," Howard Nusbaum, professor of psychology, said in a press release. "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."

The research was published in the journal Cognition.

"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 Nusbaum. "It's an ability that is teachable, and it appears to depend on a general cognitive ability of holding sounds in one's mind."

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