Dad's Perfect Pitch and my beliefs about Learning PP

Thoughts and responses regarding the research at
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Joined: Fri Jul 29, 2005 9:11 am

Dad's Perfect Pitch and my beliefs about Learning PP

Post by JayBird » Fri Jul 29, 2005 9:16 am

I first want to say I'm glad to have discovered your site. This has been something I've been interested in for many years and have almost no one to discuss it with (I do have a few friends that will listen but have no idea what I am talking about). My knowledge of the existence of perfect pitch came when I was 12 years old and realized that my father (who is blind, but not since birth) always knew what key I was playing in on the guitar. I started testing him and found out that he had this strange ability. He didn't think much of it and actually assumed all musicians could do it. He told me I probably wouldn't be successful as a musician because I didn't have what he called a "natural" ear. I believed him and only dabbled with the guitar throughout my teens. Then I started watching him rehearse with his bands. I soon found out that no one else he was playing with had this ability. That gave me the confidence to try to become an accomplished musician despite the obvious natural flaw. I did make a living in bands for several years in my twenties before I decided to go to college and switched careers. I got good, but my Dad was right, I felt very limited. I had never heard of ear training until I read about the well-advertised perfect pitch tapes many years later. This got me thinking, "could this be learned as an adult." Well, those tapes did not help. And I basically put that goal on hold. But then I heard about some studies unrelated to music that got me thinking about it again. Here is the chain of events as I heard about them:

1) I saw on television this study of the ability of children to discern sounds of languages. The study they showed involved two sounds of an American Indian language that to all non-Indians sounded exactly the same (it sounded the same to me). Then they put several children in the following scenario: One of the sounds would play on a tape 5 to 10 times in a row then the other sound would play. After the second sound was played, a monkey appeared on the screen to the left. What they found was that children under a certain age (something like two) would eventually hear the second sound and instinctively look to their left in anticipation of the monkey. Children older than that would never notice the change in sound and would only turn their head after the monkey appeared. Their conclusion was that after the age of two, the brain is wired to recognize certain sounds and cannot be taught to distinguise these sounds after that. My conclusion: Perfect pitch must be learned by two or your doomed.

2) Then, I heard about this study with cats. It was long believed that cats were color blind. The study, if memory serves, involved two plates of different colors. If the cat touched a plate of a certain color, he was given a treat. If he touched one of a different color, he was given a little jolt. Again, I might not be accurate with the testing involved but that was the gist of it. After a week or so, the cat never seemed to do better than 50/50 and the conclusion was that cats are indeed color blind.

3) Then, I heard about a followup study to this. The same basic test as above, but the researcher kept it going for something like a year. Guess what, the cat finally got the idea.

So, from this, I started thinking, hey, maybe if they tested those 4 year olds for a week instead of a few hours (you can't get a kid to sit very long for an experiment like this), then they too probably would have eventually learned to distinguish the sounds. My conclusion: Adults can learn perfect pitch, but they have to be like the cat that was at it for a year. And there probably should be some kind of biological incentive for the brain to "want" to adapt.

Now, for my own experiences. I have always noticed a kind of personality of each key I played in. For years I just thought it was something related to certain keys being more conducive to open strings or the positions I put my fingers in. But then a few years back I started messing around with keyboards in order to lay down some midi backing tracks. Curiously, I noticed the same sort of "personalities" in those keys. I've decided to resume my perfect pitch studies and focus more on those personalities of key. It seems that when I hear a C out of the blue it sounds like every other note, but when I think to myself, "Imagine you are playing in the key of C and have just hit that note", I suddenly go, "of course, it's that C sound I'm so familiar with." I do know that my father also seemed to do better at naming keys than individual notes. I recently purchased the course by Graham English. Cheap enough and he boasts about his guarantees all over the web page. I figured why not. I'll keep you posted on my progress because you mentioned on your page that you had no knowledge of the effectiveness of his product.

I also keep hearing about people fearful of perfect pitch because then they'll go nuts if they play in a non-standard tuning. Well, my Dad's perception was so precise that he could tune a new set of strings on his guitar to standard pitch with no other source to check it with. I remember watching him one time take a guitar. Remove all the strings. Put on a new set and then tune it up to what he thought was standard. Later that day, I drove him to his gig. He asked the piano player to play an E note. He played an E note on his guitar, and smiled and muttered to himself, "now that's a good ear." And despite this ability, I never, ever heard him complain about something being in non-standard tuning. Now, he always complained about something being "out" of tune. But that's different. He meant the piano keys were not tuned in relation to each other. So that no matter how the rest of the band tuned up, the piano would hit sour notes. I often wonder if this is really what people are talking about when they say perfect pitchers suffer when something is out of tune. I don't have perfect pitch but I can't stand when something is truly out of tune. My father always seems to hear using relative pitch when he sang and played and only would use perfect pitch to establish key.

I also question something I read on your site and others, that some people actually possess perfect pitch and not relative pitch. I have only personally known of two people with perfect pitch and they both (including my father) had an unbelievable sense of relative pitch. I find it hard to believe someone would be able to achieve perfect pitch and not relative pitch. If they mean that some perfect pitchers can't tell you the name of the interval just played, then they are right. My father can't do that. Because he wasn't trained on what to call that sound. But ask him to sing the two notes played, or instantaenously play it back on his instrument, he will. And I don't think he is using perfect pitch to do this. He knows the sound, he can play the sound, and he probably has a word for it in his head, but he doesn't know that some college kid would call it a perfect 4th. For instance, he often slips up and calls an A minor chord the airplane chord. I finally asked him why he calls it that. He said when he was very young (about six he says), he heard three airplanes go overhead. He said their three engines sounded so good together that he couldn't wait to get back home to play those "notes" on his guitar. He found the notes and called it the "airplane chord." It wasn't until later in life someone told him there is another name for that sound, it's called A minor.

Anyway, hope at least some of this is of interest to you because otherwise you would have just wasted a lot of your time reading all this babble. Keep up the good work.

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Post by aruffo » Sat Jul 30, 2005 6:02 pm

I don't think I could add any more to the personal examples you've given-- they speak quite well for themselves-- but I'd like to comment a little about the other bits.

The experiment with the cat reminds me of that old joke about the scientist who cuts off a frog's legs and concludes "frog with no legs is deaf." As the second cat researcher discovered, and as you rightly abstracted, there's all the difference in the world between something we're physiologically incapable of and something we've never been trained to do.

It's highly probable that you're right, and that children would learn the difference between the language sounds through repeated exposure. My suspicion is that they would do so most effectively, and most permanently, if the exposure and reinforcement was accomplished not through repetition but through linguistic communication (i.e. actually learning the other language and its significant phonemic categories). I believe it's widely accepted now that second languages can be easily learned within the "crtiical period" that ends at about age 5.

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