Research finds adults could learn perfect pitch

If your karaoke performances tend to inspire heckling rather than standing ovations, you’ll be pleased to hear that a study has found that adults could be trained to be pitch perfect.

Previously studies had always found that if you weren’t born with perfect pitch your only hope of getting it was musical training during a critical period in your childhood. But new research from the University of Chicago suggests otherwise. Perfect pitch could be attainable well into adulthood.

More formally known as absolute pitch, perfect pitch occurs in around one in every 10,000 people. It enables people to easily identify the pitches, tones and key signatures played by musical instruments or sounded by everyday objects such as alarms or car horns. Many people with perfect pitch can also sing or hum at a desired note with no reference to mimic – some can even hear a song once and play it on their preferred instrument with all the correct notes.

In this new study, researchers tested how well people could remember sounds shortly after hearing them. Seventeen students with variable amounts of musical experience heard notes sampled from real musical instruments and were asked to recreate the note they heard. In a separate experiment they were asked to identify a single piano note by name.

The two experiments were conducted three times – the second after a training programme in which participants listened to and classified 180 piano notes, with corrections and reinforcement immediately after each classification. There was a significant improvement after this training, and those tested again a few months later retained most of their new-found ability to identify notes.

"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 study lead Howard 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."

So, if you have a good working or short-term memory then you’re more likely to be able to pitch notes, and thus you're likely to improve your own musical abilities.

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