How do untrained people become good singers

More people with perfect pitch

There are more people with perfect pitch than expected. Scientists have found this out with the help of a new type of test. The ability to always identify the exact pitch of a sound heard was previously considered to be very rare in humans. Apparently, however, even those who are musically untrained often master them.

Up to now, perfect pitch has been considered the domain of musical geniuses. Because it includes the ability to clearly recognize the height of each tone and to be able to reproduce it on the fly. The extent to which perfect pitch may also be widespread among people who are not musically trained has not yet been established. Only a test procedure newly developed at the American University of Rochester now provides information about this.

"The previous tests for perfect pitch have always required the subjects to have previous musical knowledge or at least to be familiar with a particular piece of music," explains Elizabeth Marvin, professor of music theory at the Eastman School of Music and director of the current study. “That really limits the pool of candidates that can be tested. This also means that nobody really knows how common perfect pitch is in humans. "

Relative hearing as a typical human achievement?

The starting point for the new study was research on perfect hearing and sound recognition in animals by Marvin's colleague Elissa Newport, a professor of cognitive science at Rochester. She had already found that this ability was very widespread in the animal kingdom. In humans, on the other hand, it was previously thought that relative hearing dominated - the ability to recognize a sequence of tones and thus the relative position of the tones to one another, even if they are transposed. Birds, on the other hand, fail at such tasks because, although they remember the absolute pitches, they do not retain their relationships with others. To them, a familiar melody appears completely alien when it has been transposed.

The scientists now wanted to find out how things are with relative and perfect hearing, even in musically untrained people. To do this, they played musicians as well as musically inexperienced test persons to several groups of three tones each in a 20-minute series of notes. The participants in the experiment gradually learned to recognize the tone groups that were repeated in different sequences.

Transposed tone sequences as a stumbling block

Then the actual test followed: The participants now got to hear the known tone groups together with new groups as well as transposed versions of the old tone group and were asked to indicate whether the respective group sounded familiar or not. There were hardly any differences between the test subjects in their reaction to the old and completely new tone groups.

This was different, however, when the assessment of the transposed tones was asked: some of the test subjects unconsciously recognized the sequences as known, although they were in a different pitch than the originally learned group. They were obviously based on the relative pitch between the individual notes.

A second part of the test persons, however, had problems with precisely this relative classification and assessed the only transposed tone sequences as completely new. According to the researchers, this is an indication that these test subjects had oriented themselves to the absolute heights of the tones and had memorized them. In other words, they had used perfect pitch. If the pitch was then changed, they unconsciously recognized the discrepancy to what had been noted and therefore assessed the tone pattern as unknown.

Perfect pitch is often unconscious in non-musicians

In order to test their hypothesis, the scientists then tested the musically experienced part of their test subjects again using the conventional tests on their perfect pitch. In fact, the results of both tests agreed well.

The really surprising thing about the new study, however, was that among the “absolute listeners” there were also many musically inexperienced. They are using their perfect pitch without being aware of it. The new test also showed that there are apparently significantly more people with this ability than previously assumed. Further tests will now clarify which factors play a role in the development of absolute or relative hearing.

(University of Rochester, 08/27/2008 - NPO)

August 27, 2008