Absolute Pitch research, ear training and more
Hello! I'm Chris Aruffo, your host here at Acoustic Learning. It's my goal to dispel the myth and the mystery that surrounds the phenomenon of perfect pitch (also known as absolute pitch), and to make it a skill accessible to anyone who wants to learn it.
To explore ways you can learn absolute pitch, click "Learn AP" or the research links above.
To discover the learning process, we must look to children. Although it has not yet been conclusively demonstrated that adults are incapable of learning absolute pitch, the available evidence consistently demonstrates that only children ever have. And they surely have learned it. Conceptualizing a certain swath of sound energies as twelve unrelated yet associated categories, wholly abstracted from their origin and cause, is not a natural interpretation of the world. Regardless of genetic predispositions or neural aberrations, the musical scale is a human imposition; if it is to be known at all, it must be learned. If children learn absolute pitch by a perceptual-learning mechanism, adults should be capable of learning it, as they possess the same mechanisms.
The principal trick is convincing an adult to use those mechanisms. Learning is driven by need-- people learn only when their goals require new knowledge. A child needs to know how to listen to music, which makes new learning necessary. An adult already knows how to listen to music, which makes new learning difficult. To reawaken an adult's need to learn, their existing knowledge must somehow be made to fail.
Any training must also teach the target knowledge. This would seem common sense, but it's distressingly easy to be fooled. Educational systems usually teach their students how to pass tests, which inevitably renders the supposed content generic, irrelevant, and meaningless. For example, I tried out "melody triggers" with this widget a while ago (here's a Mac version) and in a startlingly short period of time I could name notes flawlessly. Even now, I can still use this widget to name notes with perfect accuracy, at a speed rivaling or exceeding that of Miyazaki's absolute listeners (1988). But whenever the melody association falters, I can listen to a note repeatedly and be utterly unable to answer, my mind a blank. Without a melody, I haven't the slightest clue, because there are no other clues. All I learn from this process is how to associate tones with melodies; I didn't (and won't) learn to recognize the tones. All note-naming training methods to date have provided clever workarounds to help you successfully pass a naming test, but what you really learn is the workaround, not the notes' identities. An adult who wishes to learn genuine absolute pitch must dedicate themselves to a training task which cannot be accomplished except by using genuine absolute pitch skill. That task must be structured to teach absolute pitch the way it's actually learned, not through some clever pretense. To acquire full absolute pitch at any age, a musician must discover and practice a style of musicianship that not only uses perfect pitch, but will fail without it.
Again, here's what it boils down to: Like colors, the twelve tones are to be learned as separate and unrelated categorical concepts. Like phonemes, these tones are to be integrated with a linguistic comprehension of musical sound.
A category is learned by examining objects that belong to that category alone. Comparing between categories doesn't help. As this illustration showed, when you compare two "different" objects, your attention is drawn to the objects' individual characteristics, but when you compare two "same" objects, you look for common relationships. Ordinarily, we don't recognize objects by their individual characteristics, but by the invariant relationships among their shared characteristics. Therefore, to learn how to recognize an object, we need to make same comparisons. In other words, you don't learn the concept of cat by comparing cats to dogs, llamas, dump trucks, mailboxes, coffee mugs, or any of an infinite number of other objects, and making lists of characteristics that belong to each. You learn cat by synthesizing your various experiences of cats. The process of categorical learning remains the same when transferred to musical tones-- you don't learn the concept of A-flat by comparing A-flats to G's, B's, F-sharps, or any of an infinite variety of sounds, and figuring out which properties belong to each; you learn A-flat solely by synthesizing your various experiences of A-flats.
This, I'm pleased to say, is what Absolute Pitch Avenue (formerly Absolute Pitch Blaster) already does, at least to some extent. That is, Absolute Pitch Avenue focuses exclusively on within-category comparisons. I designed it with perceptual differentiation in mind, but because this is the proper first step, I'm relieved that I don't have to re-invent the process but build it further to induce categorical learning. The process should create meaningful identities for each pitch category, and allow chroma perception to arise as a matter of course. Absolute Pitch Avenue is an important first step, because it reveals the basic learning mechanism, but this mechanism needs to become the internal engine of the training's active process. If you undergo meaningful within-category training, the mechanism of perceptual differentiation should automatically make it possible to hear tone chroma; simultaneously, the nature of same comparisons should automatically create an understanding of how that chroma definitively relates to all the other characteristics of any particular sound.
This, I'm not so pleased to say. If training can automatically activate perceptual-learning mechanisms by providing meaningful experience, then the training materials need to deliver a meaningful experience. Absolute Pitch Blaster activates the perceptual-learning mechanisms, successfully, but doesn't provide the meaningful experience to complete the learning-- and this is the mind-boggling issue. How on earth are pitch categories made meaningful? It seems that answering this question may mean solving the problem.
I think of how colors are learned. Although colors are generally presented as a set, each individual color is learned by identifying objects that embody the concept. We don't say that objects look like green; they are green. Green is the grass. Green is a turtle. This basic categorical understanding is made more sophisticated by omnipresent color-codings. Children understand that objects with identical shapes may have different functions, and can recognize that the shelf for toys is green while the shelf for books is yellow.
I think of how phonemes are learned. Each individual letter is learned by identifying objects that embody the concept. Sesame Street exemplifies exactly this process, in which letters exist as various objects. C is for cookie, cupcake, car; M is for monster, meatball, monkey. A letter is not learned as a short sound broken off the front of a longer sound. Rather, a letter-category ("M") is populated with concepts, which concepts evoke their respective names ("monster", "monkey"). Once a child learns and knows that these concepts all belong to the M category, then comparing their word-names causes the common phoneme to be extracted. The word-sounds are utterly arbitrary; they could not be remembered except as evoked by their associated concepts. It is, therefore, the act of naming that creates letter-categories.
This may be how absolute pitch is learned. Each individual pitch may be learned by identifying objects that embody the concept. I took another look at Gebhardt's case study and particularly noticed the language reported by little "A.R." as his absolute skill developed. Talking about a car horn, A.R. said "it was a G", not "it produced a G." Told that a trio was playing Beethoven, he said "no, that is D-major," not "it is being played in D-major." This may be the mechanism that We Hear and Play exploits in its use of colored balls to represent each pitch. A ball is red, it is round, it is plastic; a child can learn that it is a C-pitch in the same way they learn that it is a "ball". Names are external, arbitrary associations; for each ball, a child has as much reason to learn a pitch-sound as any other name-sound, and the act of naming each ball helps create the pitch categories.
Does this describe how an adult can learn absolute pitch?
At first glance: it doesn't. The color model suggests that the best thing would be to rush out and start listening to fixed pitches in one's environment-- microwave beeps, elevator bells, ring tones, etc-- but that exact strategy has been thought of before, and if it were the solution, it would've worked by now. The phoneme model suggests that the best thing would be to associate melodies to tones, but the melody-association strategies that have been tried so far are ultimately flummoxed by adults' unconscious knowledge that pitches are "levels" of sound.
On second thought: it has to. If pitches are essentially and fundamentally like colors and phonemes, and this explanation of how colors and phonemes are learned is reasonable, then absolute pitch learned by the same processes and mechanisms would demand the same embodiments, namely, environmental objects and melody-words. Perhaps the reason these types of sounds have been considered is that they are indeed, obviously, the sounds you'd want to use-- but they've never worked to teach absolute pitch because training systems have used them inappropriately. If I'm going to develop a training system that works, I need to figure out how to use environmental pitches and melodies in a way that has never been thought of before.
In the meantime, fortunately, Absolute Pitch Avenue is still worth having out there. It does present the phoneme-word model, just with nonsense words, so while it can teach you to recognize chroma the conceptual anchors for each pitch category are weak. I mean, you could learn the sound for the D phoneme by hearing someone say D-laden babble like dobsy buddso difdum dodle tud-- this is an unconscious process called "statistical learning"-- but you would only learn how to recognize the D-sound. You wouldn't learn what D actually means. This is where Absolute Pitch Avenue is right now, which makes it more useful to skilled musicians than unskilled hobbyists, but it's the right base to start from, and Ear Training Companion upgrades will continue to be free while I figure out the rest.
The bottom line is that each pitch category needs to be populated with concepts. The principal difficulty in finding effective concepts is that adults' understanding of sound is not embodied and integral (a bell is F-sharp) but causal and dissociated (a bell produces F-sharp). This means that an adult will not naturally recognize a meaningful difference between two bells that produce different pitches, or between two identical melodies in different keys. Nonetheless, the task before me is to discover meaningful concepts and transform them into a pitch category. So rather than continue to speculate about what needs to be done, I mainly need to try to do this and get some results, one way or the other.