Hacking Perfect Pitch

Conventional wisdom holds you’re born with perfect pitch or you’re not. The conventional wisdom is wrong. Here’s how to train perfect pitch.

For my book Brain Trust, I interviewed Diana Deutsch, University of California San Diego professor and president of the Society for Music Perception and Cognition, and she said the trick is pairing pitch with meaning — early!

First, if you had perfect pitch, you’d know it, if for no other reason than people whistling in the airport would sound physically, painfully, out of tune. (This, according to my friend Ariel, who was an orchestral recorder prodigy before switching to heavy-metal guitar in college and environmental architecture after.)

And until recently, experts thought that that was it — at birth, you can hold a note in your mind’s ear or you can’t. If you’re born without the gift, the theory went, your only hope is the consolation prize of painstakingly training relative pitch. For example, learning that the “way up high” leap in “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” is the interval of a major sixth, as is the iconic leap in the Miles Davis tune “All Blues.” Likewise, the first interval in “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” is a perfect fifth.

And based on learning these leaps, you can learn to deduce any note on the keyboard given a starting point. In university music programs around the world, a teacher plunks a note, names it, then plunks another note, and students who have successfully trained their relative pitch can name the second note.

But what about naming the first note? What about perfect pitch? What about that shortcut that may allow your progeny to be prodigy?

Diana Deutsch thinks you may be able to train perfect pitch — but only if you start early. In part, she bases this opinion on an illusion. In music, a tritone describes the interval that splits an octave exactly in half. For example, C and F# form the interval of a tritone, and so do the notes D and G# (music majors will flame me for mislabeling these tones — if you get that reference, count yourself in the know). The interval was banned during the Inquisition as the diabolus in musica (the devil in music). Today it starts The Simpsons and makes Danny Elfman scores of Tim Burton movies immediately recognizable.

Now imagine alternating C and F#, like the siren on a British ambulance. Really, you wouldn’t know if the pattern is ascending (C-F#, repeat) or descending (F#-C, repeat). But here’s the thing: You do know.

Every note has a companion that’s exactly half an octave away, and depending on which tritone is played, you perceive the interval as either descending or ascending. And you don’t ever switch. It’s fixed. Deutsch discovered this tritone paradox and calls it “an implicit form of perfect pitch.” Somehow, some way, we all fix these notes and hold them in our minds. So why doesn’t this proven, universal ability to hold abstract pitches allow us all to know note names when we hear them? Why — dammit — can’t we all be prodigies!

Deutsch found that fixed pitch does, in fact, allow perfect pitch . . . but only in certain cultures.

Sure, an individual American’s perception of the tritone paradox is fixed — maybe you hear C-F#-C-F# as an ascending pattern — but as a culture, Americans may each hear tritones differently. Your friend Barb may hear C-F#-C-F# as a descending pattern. But here’s the interesting bit: In Vietnam, the vast majority of the population hears tritone paradoxes in the same way — they’re fixed not only on an individual, but on a cultural level.

Blame it on language, says Deutsch. In Vietnamese and other tonal languages, a high “ma” can mean something very different than a low “ma,” and so infants learn very early to pair fixed tones with fixed meanings. Later, it’s easy to use this same brain mechanism to pair tones with note names like A, B, and C. Deutsch explored data from the Singapore Conservatory and other Asian music schools, and found that — sure enough — the incidence of perfect pitch is much higher in speakers of tonal languages.

Deutsch thinks it might be possible to create a similar mechanism in English speakers. “If your son or daughter has a keyboard at home, use stickers to label the notes with whatever symbols they understand first,” she says.

If your child recognizes barnyard animals or pictures of family members or colors before he or she recognizes letters, label the keyboard with animal, family, or color stickers. (All Gs get a cow, all Fs get a pig, etc.) This encourages your budding Beethoven to pair tone with meaning — any meaning works! — which you can then switch to note names once you child knows his or her letters.

It’s too late for you — “It seems as if the window for creating this pairing is closed by about age four,” says Deutsch — but by forcing meaning on pitches, your child can learn to fix and hold these tones.

(You can hear examples of the tritone paradox and more cool auditory illusions at Diana Deutsch’s faculty homepage.)

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