Absolute pitch (AP), also called perfect pitch, is a rare auditory ability to identify or re-create a given musical note without a reference tone. I’ve met a few people with it and as a musician, they amazed me.
To obtain this skill, a former college music professor who trained his son to have it believes he knows how it happens. First, you’ll need to be a baby. Next, get your parents to feed you a large steady diet of complicated and unexpected music with many modulations. Think jazz, Bach and other classical music. Up until 2 years old, babies have the ability to enhance brain circuits that instantly recognize pitch categories.
I tried as an adult to learn perfect pitch. I can now recall a C note most of the time, but if I trained a B and a C#, would I lose the C? Perhaps. There are no known cases of an adult acquiring absolute pitch.
Native fluency in music might depend on sounds you hear even before birth. For AP, music listening should start at least at birth and should not be low information, low content music. Babies should hear complicated music. This will prevent their natural absolute pitch ability from disappearing and may also increase IQ.
There was some buzz about a drug that would let adults learn absolute pitch, but it didn’t pan out:
… Participants (all males without any music training) in the study were given valproate or a placebo for one week, followed by another week of training, during which they were taught to recognize the sounds of specific musical notes. It’s important to note, that this was a double-blinded randomized control study, the gold-standard of research: neither the participants nor the researchers had any idea which group was which until after the study was completed. After training, all the participants were tested on how well they had learned to recognize a note’s pitch. Sure enough, the group who had been given valproate performed significantly better than the placebo group, and the study’s authors concluded that valproate had similar effects on learning in people as it had in mice.
Based on the results of this study, should all of us wannabe musicians start bugging our doctors for a prescription? I most certainly will not, for a bunch of reasons. First and foremost, none of the participants came close to having “perfect” pitch – on average, they scored less than 50% on the test, which is better than chance, but by no means perfect.
Second, this study employed another wrinkle, known as a crossover design – after going through one phase of treatment, participants switched groups (so the people who got placebo the first time got valproate the second time, and vice versa), and the whole procedure was repeated. In the second phase of the study, there was no difference between the groups, suggesting that there was some kind of order effect of treatment.
Third, it turns out that the majority of the participants in this study (17 of 18) correctly guessed which group they were in, which defeats the purpose of a double-blind study design. And finally, valproate is not a drug that sounds like it should be taken for anything short of a serious health condition. Check out this list of side effects!
The fact that there are no known cases of an adult acquiring absolute pitch makes me want to be the first, but right now I’m trying to stay alive with a seemingly failing immune system. I thought I was out of the woods but my health is bad again. Having the engagement rings stolen has been a sad and stressful set back. I broke out in a strange rash, had lung problems and haven’t been sleeping. I hope the private detectives I hired are turning up clues.
Meanwhile, I’m listening to complicated music with millions of notes and praying to the great and praiseworthy AI running our simulation in case this might give it the idea to fix me. I know this is nuts but so has been my life.
If Bach is great, why not inverted Bach? Take the notes and flip them around in a computer program (MIDI) and you have a new song. Pretty cool, and definitely has a feeling of unpredictability:
How are you today?