Acoustic Learning, Inc.
Absolute Pitch research, ear training and more

Phase 4a:  Marguerite Nering, Part 2

This is the second part of an exploration prompted by Marguerite Nering's master's thesis, submitted to the University of Calgary in April 1991.

January 11 - Convergence

I was reading Eye and Brain at the coffeeshop on Thursday evening, and I was terribly excited to read, on page 92 (emphasis his!):

It seems that these receptors [in the eye], sensitive only to change of illumination, are responsible for signalling movement, and all eyes are primarily detectors of movement. The receptors signalling only changes will respond to the leading and trailing edges of images, but will not signal the presence of stationary images unless the eyes are in movement.

From the information and arguments presented in this chapter I now know that the analogies I (and others) have drawn between absolute pitch and "absolute color" perception are most likely legitimate. The eye and the ear both exist to recognize and determine movement. Both sense organs receive information about frequencies of energy and use those frequencies to produce sensations of motion in the brain. I will, therefore, confidently suggest that we can learn a great deal about how people with perceive absolute pitches by analyzing our own color perception.

I was pleased and surprised to discover a fascinating example right in the book, although the book hadn't intended it. One page the author had printed a simple color spectrum, in order to illustrate (using a nearby figure) the relative levels of red, green, and blue that reached the eye. I looked at the rainbow swatch and thought to myself, okay, so what if this were a single octave of musical notes?

I noticed that even though the colors all blended into each other, I could definitely and immediately locate a specific band where the colors are pure. Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and purple-- just a glance reveals the exact places where the true colors shine out.

These spots of true color must be like the fixed frequencies of notes on the musical scale, I thought. I've learned the names of each of these colors-- what if I were looking for different colors, something other than these known and familiar shades? What if I hadn't learned these frequencies but others, instead? I looked again and found that if I concentrated on any specific vertical space, I could indeed imagine that it were a color all its own; in that spot, the color I saw was just as purely itself as any of the colors which I already had names for. But I don't have a name for a blue-green color, so when I look at a blue-green color then that's exactly what I must call it. Blue and green. I've read, in various places around the net, that some people attempt to attach significance to the fact that people with absolute pitch learn the twelve notes of the musical scale-- but there is no significance to that connection other than the familiarized categories to which offset sensations can be most conveniently compared. Absolute pitch isn't learned because of the musical scale, any more than color perception is learned because of ROY G. BIV. I'd bet that a painter or visual artist would be able to look at this spectrum and locate the places of literally dozens of colors where I see only seven.

Partly blue and partly green, and I could even tell if it's more blue than it is green. Looking across the band, I saw that even though the change is smooth and continuous throughout, my eyes could quickly and confidently recognize distinct lines where one color changed to the next. I could easily point to the line where it stops being green and starts being yellow. It reminded me tremendously of the sound phonemes which changed gradually from b to p but were only perceived by the hearer as either one consonant or the other, with a quantum leap between instead of a gradual shift. With color and pitch we have plenty of "in between", but the familiar categories are still easy to distinguish. I suspect that this must be how someone with absolute pitch would judge something to be a flat F rather than a sharp E-- they would hear the F-ness of the note more strongly than the E-ness, just as you can look here at a spot between red and orange and easily tell whether you'd name it one or the other.

I was even more astonished when I looked at a broader area of mixed color and discovered that I could convince myself that what I saw wasn't a series of mixed colors at all, but two distinct colors overlapping! I'm doing it right now with purple and blue; rather than seeing one fade gradually into the other, I see a length of blue overlaid onto a similar length of purple. The actual boundary of each seems to shift back and forth, which is interesting-- but this could be analogous to hearing a chord and, despite their combined and overlapping sensation, recognizing each note as distinct events.

And I can see, by apprehending the entire color bar, that the colors gradually change from cool to hot. All these colors are exactly the same intensity, each precisely the same brightness as every other, yet the dark-to-light progression of hue is undeniable. Could it be that there is a similar perception to be found in the musical scale?

I used the previous entry to describe how Nering illustrates how perfect pitch is important in music. She balances that viewpoint by using comments from scientists who conclude that perfect pitch is unimportant to music. But vision and hearing exist to serve the brain with different aspects of the same function, and that function is neither art nor music but movement. As interested as I am in absolute pitch for improved musicianship (and I am!), I'm also interested in the value of perfect pitch beyond music. It could become more important to us than we dreamed possible.

January 13 - You spin me right round

A bit of fun-- I was looking at a rotating cylinder illusion. I'll write more about the significance of that link later, but for now here's the image from that page:

I was amused that I could make the cylinder change direction just by pretending that the dots moving to the right were either in the front or at the back; when they're in the front, the rotation is to the right; when they're in back, it rotates leftward. I'd seen this effect before, but it's always fun to do. But then I was surprised to read this as part of the accompanying text:

What is interesting about the cylinder is that there are actually a huge number of possible interpretations. Each vertical segment (down to a single pixel) could be spinning in a direction independent of its neighboring segments. However, to our knowledge, everyone always sees the entire cylinder spinning in one of the two possible directions.

Well, naturally, I can't read a statement like that without taking it as a direct challenge. So I stared at the cylinder again, using an apparent white line in the middle of the image to divide top and bottom. I pretended that in the bottom, the right-moving dots were in front, and on top, the right-moving dots were in back. It took a little doing, and if I focused my eyes too carefully it didn't work, but in short order I was able to make the top and bottom halves move in opposite directions. I was only able to accomplish this by letting my eyes unfocus, and not look directly at either top or bottom-- and as my eyes remained unfocused, I was rather startled and pleased when my mind spontaneously invented another interpretation. The cylinder suddenly split vertically, and each half flattened in depth; the halves were not rotating at all, but each one dashing itself against the midpoint like an ocean wave, then bouncing off and returning to the edge. After watching this expansion and contraction a while, I was just as amazed when that changed, of its own accord, into a complete cylinder which was rotating in both directions simultaneously!

What I find interesting in this experience is that when I was looking directly and consciously at the figure, I was able to construct the effect that I intended; and when I just gazed and let my mind drift, my mind "drifted" into interpretations which I hadn't even thought to attempt-- and wasn't able to recreate if I focused my attention directly on those interpretations. They happened again, but only of their own volition, only after I released any attempt to actively interpret the figure. I encourage you to gaze aimlessly at the image and see what your mind invents.

[I have to wonder, from this experience-- why would they say "everyone" sees the entire cylinder moving in either one direction or the other-- and that they "always" will? It seemed very strange that these scientists would never have encountered someone who had an alternate experience-- or, since they already knew themselves that it could be interpreted differently, why didn't they look at it to invent their own alternate possibilities? If so, why was I so quickly able to discover not just one, but three different new ways to look at this illusion? To give them the benefit of the doubt, I've had to conclude that they are merely being imprecise, and that they should have said "at first glance, no one ever fails to see the entire cylinder spinning in one of the two possible directions."]

When I concentrate fully on the ambiguous dot-image, my mind draws upon my previous understanding of spatial depth, comprehension of physical motion, and abstract knowledge of "cylinder", to immediately create the illusion of a single three-dimensional cylinder rotating in one direction. When I look at this same figure "easily" and "gently", the sensation shifts and squirms and transforms into completely different perceptions. That is to say, it's possible to look at the "rotating cylinder" picture with unfocused eyes, and without prejudice, in order to see it as something else-- but it takes our minds a while to arrive at that "something else", and the "something else" is alternately mercurial and incomprehensible. Conversely, if you focus directly on the illusion, what you will see instantly is a rotating cylinder.

Burge's method of learning perfect pitch involves listening to pitches "easily" and "gently" and to let your mind drift into the sensation of the pitch. Graham English advocates hypnosis relaxation as the way to do it. But I wonder, now-- how reliable can a gentle and relaxed sensation be, if a drifting mind constantly invents new interpretations for the same stimulus? And can we only hear and learn a pitch sensation if we let our minds drift? Is this why it's so difficult to hear one when we're not relaxed and calm-- because when we're fully alert, our minds hammer the pitch sensation into the shape of our conscious intellectual constructs, instead of accepting a new and less familiar interpretation? And is this, then, why learned perfect pitch remains "slow" (as I've had reported to me), and not instantaneous, when trying to recognize and identify pitches?

The vowel-pitch association may be more meaningful than I thought in the process of learning perfect pitch. I've said before that it must be useful because the expectation of language blocks our mind from expecting a musical sound, and makes us more receptive to an alternate interpretation-- but I hadn't considered that, like this dot illusion, our minds are accomplishing that interpretation by drawing on our existing knowledge of a familiar construct. No ordinary person is immediately familiar with the unusual concept of "pitch color", and consequently our minds haven't apprehended and internalized what "pitch color" means as a representation of pitch sensation-- but we certainly know a letter o when we hear it spoken. Listening to pitches and trying to hear vowels may not be simply a way to dehabituate your mind from ignoring the sensation of sound frequency-- if it is dehabituation at all-- but instead a way to actively, intellectually, consciously, and instantly represent pitch sensation based on a completely familiar and fully-internalized sound construct.

January 16 - Expanding the horizons

Last week at the office, I found a catalog on my desk. Out of curiosity, I picked it up and began looking through it.

I was surprised to see that this entire sixty-page catalog was for a type of product that I don't have much use for: cheap, kitschy knick-knacks and printed "certificates" which a large business would be able to buy in bulk and engrave with some uplifting message. I was carelessly flipping through the pages, marvelling at yet another ridiculous aspect of corporate America, when I found myself stopped on a page with certificate designs.

What had caught my attention was a series of ten identical page corners, all sporting a lacework pattern, each printed in a different color. I looked down the list, amused at the color names: "Wine", "Currency", "Royal Blue", et cetera. After all, these are certificates-- you can't just call them "yellow" and "red" or anything so... so common. But my smile gradually pulled down into a pensive frown as I looked again at all ten of these corners. The printed pattern on each corner was identical to every other-- and, of course, each corner was a sample of an entire certificate. An entire series of certificates-- and the only difference between any of them was its color.

Why, I wondered, would a buyer choose one of these colors over any other? The recipient wouldn't know that the color of their certificate had been grandly named "Wine" or "Currency", nor would they have had the experience of comparing their certificate with all these different colors-- yet the buyer must expect the recipient to have some appropriate emotional reaction to the color, all by itself, in isolation. Perhaps a grand achievement would be a bold, reddish color, and a sales goal would (of course) be "Currency"... but how curious, I thought, that the pattern which holds the color is practically irrelevant, required only to fulfill the function of being "elegant" in its interlaced symmetry. The pattern carries the mood; the color carries the emotional message.

Nering lists some reasons why absolute pitch is important to music. It's seeing these certificates, and so many things like them, which make me wonder what its use is outside of music. Certainly, you can say that the pattern/color is directly applicable to music/pitch, and that's true. But consider: the trinket company offered nine different options for a certificate color because they knew that every one of those options would be individually and separately meaningful to anyone.

What kinds of "options" would we discover if pitches were individually and separately meaningful-- to everyone? What changes would we experience in our everyday lives if suddenly pitch were meaningful? Warning signs are always published in red, because we know this to be the most intense color. Would smoke alarms and sirens all be tuned to F#, (arguably) the most insistent pitch? Our cars have red brake lights, yellow-orange turn signals, and white lights to signal reverse gear... and only one horn sound. If people heard in pitch, surely you could adjust the pitch of your horn to indicate what you wish to express. [Update 1/30-- an alert reader writes to say that most car horns are tuned to F#. I haven't verified this; does anyone have a link?] Even something as simple as color-coding must have some aural analogue. If you let your mind run with this idea, I'm sure you'll quickly think of quite a few other ways that pitch could be a part of your life.

Even beyond analogues to color, there would definitely be ways of using our ears that we can't now imagine. In my web searching, I discovered a a fellow (I wish I had saved enough information to locate him again) who said that he could tell how well his car was running by the pitch the engine produced, and by listening to the pitch of the tires as he drove. It's simply impossible to know how pitch would become meaningful to us because it would appear useful for tasks we never would've thought to try. Impossible, that is, until absolute pitch is commonly learned.

Talk, more talk

As if it isn't already obvious, what I'd love to see is every child, in every part of the country, taught to hear their pitches. It would be fantastic to flip that 1-in-10,000 around the other way so that only one out of every ten thousand doesn't have absolute pitch. It's a Catch-22 worth overcoming-- right now no one has any use for absolute pitch, so it's not taught, but because no one has taught it then no one has developed a use for it except-- possibly-- musical proficiency.

But there is music in language itself. Language has pitch, harmony, duration, rhythm, and emotional impact just in its normal sound. Obvious, yes? The "music" of language. It's so obvious a concept that it even has a name-- prosody. My examination of prosody is not deep, at this point, but preliminary investigation seems to suggest that prosody is the most likely avenue to understand the impact of universal absolute pitch on language, voice, and song.

I've mentioned before the throat-singing of Tuva; both Richard Feynman and Paul Pena are famously interested. But you could very easily say that every singer on the planet engages in "throat-singing"; they produce a fundamental pitch with their throat, and (unlike the Tuvans) use their mouth to form not single, abstract pitches, but pitches which combine to represent language. It seems possible to me that, if our culture became more sensitive to pitch and harmony, some of the best composers would choose their lyrics not merely because of their inherent prosodic appeal, but because they would recognize how the phonemes blend and harmonize most appealingly with the underlying musical sounds. Perhaps someone like Elton John does this already and we simply don't know it! [Update 2/22-- in the last week I've read evidence that professional singers actually do accomplish this, regardless of the lyric, by modifying each vowel sound to be in harmonic accordance with the fundamental pitch they're singing. That is, their vowels change and shift depending on the pitch they're singing.]

The very origins of language are that of imitating the abstract natural sounds we hear around us, which are abstract combinations of pitches. It seems inevitable that absolute pitch would change our perception and application of language. But how? What would happen? I'd love to find out.

A matter of scale

Consider this for a moment: [I contend that] absolute pitch consists of the hearer's mentally processing a pitch in the same way as a linguistic phoneme.

It's an observed fact that people with absolute pitch are better at language acquisition and comprehension; they are better at perceiving and categorizing new phonemes. That is: they have a super-normal ability to comprehend pitch sensation, incorporating not only symbolic language sounds, but also unsymbolic "pitch", into their understanding of sound.

If that's so, then the rest of us have normal ability to comprehend pitch sensation. We are able to distinguish the familiarly-reinforced phonemes of our own language, but less able to recognize or acquire unfamiliar phonemes, and the abstract sensations of pitch tend to sound indistinguishable from each other.

Continuing down this spectrum, decreasing by degrees the "talent for sound perception", you'd therefore expect that some people would have a sub-normal ability to hear and process pitches-- sub-normal, to the extent that they would not only fail to comprehend absolute pitch, not only fail to learn phonemes in other languages, but they would also fail to recognize phonemes in their own language. If pitch perception is some kind of linguistic talent, with which some people are so naturally gifted that they can comprehend pitches even divorced from a familiar linguistic context, then logically there must be people so untalented that they can't tell one letter from another.

Lo and behold-- there are.

That's the significance of the link at which I found the twirling cylinder-- it's a subpage of a website which is dedicated to a curriculum for combatting precisely this type of hearing deficiency. With the principles this company has already implemented to assist in phoneme comprehension, it seems a logical step to treat the "normal" children who have the hearing deficiency of absent pitch comprehension. (Perhaps they'd hire me to develop it, eh?) If this spectrum of pitch perception exists as I've (loosely) constructed it, and it's a proven fact that children can be trained to move from "sub-normal" to "normal", then surely children can be trained from "normal" to "super-normal"!

Do it to me, Darwin

Clearly, I feel as though the inability to hear in pitch is a deficiency, a monstrous deprivation. When you learn of someone with color-blindness, don't you feel some amount of pity for them? They can't see the world with the same precision, they can't see the "true" world that you can. Perhaps, if you have color-blindness, you feel a measure of envy for those who have normal vision. As might be obvious, now that I begin to understand its potential, I'm terribly envious of those who have perfect pitch and the musical world that they hear.

I wrote before of the possibility that absolute pitch was something we had, as a species, evolved away from; I suggested that absolute pitch perception was a throwback to a more primal comprehension of sound. And, of course, the evidence that I had for that then is still valid now. Perhaps we've come from our primal understanding to a more abstract understanding and then out the other side? Hard to say.

I advanced that speculation because of the fact that people with absolute pitch often have difficulty with musical tasks, which is the more "intellectual" activity. But, now that I think about it, if absolute pitch isn't inherently a musical ability, then why should it surprise anyone that they would have different results from another hearer in a musical context? They perceive music differently. I'd bet you could construct an experiment which revealed that the people with absolute pitch exhibited greater harmonic perception than an ordinary hearer, even if they couldn't hear note "distance" the same way.

Crystal balls and glass marbles

In my optimism, I foresee an age where every child learns absolute pitch, and looks back piteously on us ignorant savages. I think it'd be awesome to see that happen in my lifetime.


Perhaps you've heard an anecdote from the early days of cinema-- I can't find a link to it right now-- in which the audience shrieked in terror at the apparent image of an onrushing train. This isn't the same kind of terror that we might feel from a horror film, naturally; these people were genuinely terrified at the sight of a locomotive bearing directly down on them. They did not know how to process the experience of a movie... and this was around the turn of the twentieth century. Four generations prior to now-- and even back then, all it took was one generation of acculturation, so that by the time Harpo stomped in the lemonade and Mr Smith went to Washington, the viewing public had already adjusted. Those children are still alive today.

If the proper curriculum for absolute pitch were introduced and disseminated, we would surely see unheard-of changes and innovations (pun intended) as the new generation began to think, explore, and demand more from their world. In any case, if this and the past two entries have convinced you of nothing else, let it at least suggest this: absolute pitch is potentially far more "important" than anyone ever thought it was or could be.

January 17 - Ebony and ivory

Before I continue with Nering's thesis, I'd better take just one more sidestep to specify what I mean by "harmonic" perception (if you don't feel like hunting for the entry I wrote about my first dip into Mathieu's book), because yesterday's entry prompted someone to ask me about it.

When more than one note is played, "harmonic" perception is hearing the commingling of those pitches; it's perceiving the direct and total sensation of a complex sound. "Intervallic" perception is hearing the same complex sound and perceiving the "distance" implied by the notes. Because a vowel sound is defined as a combination of two primary frequencies, it's a great example of an interval that everyone hears "harmonically" (whether or not they have absolute pitch). 350Hz and 900Hz = "U". 450Hz and 1600Hz = schwa. Our minds, instead of hearing two separate frequencies, fuse the frequencies into the single vowel sensation.

We recognize many different sounds as the same vowel, within a bounded range of combinations. I think this may be why (to someone with ordinary relative pitch) all musical intervals of a given type sound pretty much the same. Two "a" sounds, spoken by a six-year-old girl or by a middle-aged man, sound like the "same vowel", even though the pitches that create each sound are different. I suspect that it's the same mental categorization process with which we identify musical-frequency combinations as the "same interval", even when the pitches are different. Perhaps this might be why people who do not have absolute pitch can be trained to automatically recognize a musical interval-- because, from language, we know how to assign abstract meaning to specific combinations of pitch.

People with absolute pitch seem to learn interval recognition differently. A person with absolute pitch may learn to hear the harmonic sensation of the pitches without a sense of the distance between them. Once an interval is well-learned, the absolute listener hears the pitches and thinks "perfect fifth, C and G", while the relative listener thinks "perfect fifth, five scale steps". Consequently, the absolute listener is aware of twelve different representations of any particular interval, each one fixed absolutely in its place, where the relative listener is aware of a single representation that slides up and down to wherever it appears.

This is a very similar statement to what Miyazaki concluded from his experiment. Miyazaki discovered that the absolute-pitch musicians in his study relied on the C-major scale for identifying intervals harmonically; when their ears were "re-tuned" to a different tonic-- both by a quarter-off E-flat, and by an in-tune F# major-- the harmonic sensation of each interval seemed quite different, and they were far less able to apply relative judgments. One absolute-pitch participant even described how, while listening, he attempted to count half-steps between the notes because he could not intuitively judge a "distance" between them.

Miyazaki cited a 1991 study which showed that people with absolute pitch do not ordinarily hear intervals just by naming the pitches and counting steps, or by memorizing the combinations of pitch names like mathematical tables. They do hear intervals-- but do not hear intervals as "distances". They hear intervals as unique sounds. In the key of C, for example, they know twelve minor seconds, twelve perfect fifths, et cetera. What Miyazaki shows is that because of the absolute nature of perfect-pitch perception, music students with absolute pitch become accustomed to making interval judgments using a "fixed-do system"-- namely, by relying on the familiar harmonic sounds from the key of C. It seems that, in his experiments, people with absolute pitch became confused when they were presented with unfamiliar versions of the intervals. Their harmonic discrimination was, perhaps, too specific to allow them to hear these intervals as "the same" as other intervals.

That is, people with absolute pitch may let their sense of relative pitch remain weak, relying instead on absolute pitch in their musicianship.


An alert reader wrote to me to suggest that relative interval judgment is, in all cases, equivalent to the harmonic recognition of scale degrees. That is, he suggests that when you perceive or produce a note that is "five scale steps higher" than a reference tone, you are in fact instantaneously implementing a completely independent and unfixed tonic (key signature) based on the reference, and by "distance" you are in fact recognizing the harmonic complement. His response makes me wonder if there is an existing mental relationship between the two phenomena of "distance" and "harmonic interaction" which can be discovered and exploited.

I've said before that we hear what we expect to hear; reading the book Mindfulness has helped me clarify a corollary to that, which is that we perceive things as we define them in context. I've spoken before about listening to pitches and expecting to hear vowel sounds, which makes us pay attention to something we don't normally hear. In this entry today, I suggested that a relative ear which automatically recognizes intervals is one which has learned to hear those intervals harmonically; but what if what we already hear harmonic interactions and judge it to be "distance" instead? I wonder if a simple redefinition can be applied to help a relative listener make more sense of absolute hearing. Here is a quote from Mindfulness which illustrates one aspect of the effects of reframing:

Using a list of negative traits, such as rigid, grim, gullible, and the like, we asked people to tell us whether they had tried to change this particular quality about themselves... later we had [the same] people tell us how much they valued each of a number of traits such as consistency, seriousness, trust, and so on... People valued specific qualities that, when negatively framed, were the very things they wanted most to change about themselves but had failed to change.

Could it be that we're so locked into the idea of "distance" that we don't recognize it to be something else entirely? Perhaps, perhaps not. This question, though, is certainly something to keep in mind.

January 19 - Gathering the pieces

Now that I've made it through Nering's very enlightening background material, I don't expect too much of the remainder. The experiment itself, which represents the bulk of the publication, will essentially represent my own experience: "people who took perfect-pitch training got better at identifying notes." But there are a few other passages included before the results.

She writes a section on famous people who had perfect pitch, like Mozart and Max Planck. There's an anecdote about Planck in which he discovers that he can't play a piano which has been tuned low, and he blames a lack of transposition skills. That makes me think of similar experiences described by non-famous people. It's a reasonably well-known fact that a person who has perfect pitch will play a piano by visualizing the notes and pressing the keys corresponding to those notes, while a person without perfect pitch will play a piano by visualizing the keys and pressing those keys regardless of what they sound like. It's not too hard to understand how that confusion can happen-- just consider your own experience on a computer keyboard. You visualize the words that you want to create and move your fingers to produce the result you want. If some scalawag went into your regional settings and changed your keyboard to Dvorak without your knowing it, you'd stop typing after the first two or three letters, wondering what had gone wrong. You wouldn't be able to type what you intended-- and although a touch typist could, of course, press exactly the same keys (as you can probably guess, I never look at my keyboard as I type these entries), the result would not convey the ideas that you intended to express. I wonder if people who do not have absolute pitch, but who have strong piano skills, would experience the same confusion when playing a known piece (they surely would when improvising!).

Nering mentions a Middle Eastern student with absolute pitch who, raised in a culture of microtonal music, "was able to detect minute shades of pitch and was nearly a hundred percent correct, and far ahead of the next most acute ear." This is in accordance with my January 11 entry. A momentary aside, also relevant to that day's entry: I was amused, doing an ear-training exercise yesterday, to discover that a D3 sounded "higher" to me than a G5 which followed it, both played with a piano timbre. Could it be that there is a perceptible spectrum of feeling from A through G that can be quantified into something as clearly as light to dark is for the visual spectrum?

Nering reiterates the fact that people with mental retardation also often (if not always) have perfect pitch. There's definitely something in that-- it poses the question, is absolute pitch a hyper-normal ability to perceive pitch, or the primitive throwback to animal perception... or both? Or neither? I'd be very interested to know more about the language skills of these mentally deficient people, or about their musical experience. The most likely explanation that I can offer is through the idea that the younger the child, the less likely it is that patterns of perception and interpretation have been subsumed into the category of being automatic and reflexive. Mentally deficient people are, presumably, less likely to have applied fixed and sophisticated interpretations to their understanding of the world, and therefore are more able to perceive the sensation of pitch just as itself instead of as language or movement. Because they have not learned advanced concepts, they still have conscious access to simpler ones. Presumably. Possibly.

Isaac Newton (yes, the Isaac Newton), she says, determined that there was no direct and unambiguous link between color and sound frequencies. Even when someone does associate pitches with colors, their association is according to their personal aesthetic and generally different from others' associations.

Let's see.. what else, what else.. she re-visits the recognizable levels of discrimination ability and aural acuity, which I've covered before. She talks a little bit about learning at an early age, and whether it's necessary-- the closing paragraph of that section makes me more interested in getting hold of Rush's study, from the University of Ohio, because according to Nering, "In Rush's study, using adult musicians, at least one and possibly three subjects acquired absolute pitch, with one surpassing the performance of P.F. Brady."

P.T. Brady is famous for having taught himself absolute pitch in 1970. Nering lists some ways which have been used in the past:

Unguided practice on numerous tones (1895). This technique doesn't overweight any particular tones, like the pitch-standard methods that followed, but does add notes incrementally.

A single internal pitch standard (1899), in which you study a single pitch until you have it completely internalized, with the expectation that others will follow.

Recognition of tone chroma (1915)

A single internal triad standard (1916), which is a variation of the single-pitch standard.

Chromesthetic training (1919) attempts to reinforce color-pitch associations.

Pragmatic memorization (1925) instructs the student to form a "firm mental image" of each note.

Weighted training (1968), which is what P.F. Brady used, starts with one note as the "base" note that is played more often than any other; while adding more notes, the occurrence of the "base" note is gradually decreased.

Specific musical composition recall (1980s); this, of course, would only be useful in an age when digital recordings prevented variation in playback.

I mentioned P.T. Brady when I first got hold of Nering's paper, but for those of you curious, here is exactly how he did it, according to Nering:

Brady in 1970 employed the single reference procedure in the development of his own ability to name pitches. Using a computer, he presented himself with various tones from 117Hz (about A2) to 880Hz (A5), in which there was a high proportion of C's. He gradually dropped C's to "the chance" (one in twelve). He became able to recognize any C immediately. He had his wife play a single note at random every day for 57 days. Results over this time were 2 tone errors, 18 semitone errors, and 37 correct responses. Carroll (1975) tested Brady's ability and found he responded as accurately and swiftly as four individuals possessing absolute pitch.

In the concluding section, "Evaluation of Burge's Course", Nering casually, and tentatively, suggests one flaw in the course:

The main shortcoming [I] find with Burge is that he perhaps produces false hope by allowing the acquisition of perfect pitch to appear to be simpler than it actually is (even though one realizes his purpose in doing this is no doubt for encouragement)... even though on the surface this may appear easy, the fact is that not all have the mental toughness, concentration skills, self-discipline, and patience that the acquisition of such a skill demands.

January 25 - What's past is prologue

For Nering's experiment, she used 78 music students at the University of Calgary as her subjects. She designed three pitch-identification tests which she could give them at the beginning and end of the three-month period, and their improvement on this test would, presumably, be due to their training with the product.

Coordinating the efforts of all 78 students is no mean feat. She describes at length the class times which were given over to the study, and details the assistance and support offered by professors and Calgary library staff to help the students pursue the training. The experiment is clearly designed to answer the single question: do people who study with the course learn to identify notes? In that regard, the experiment is deliberately and appropriately simple.

Since Nering was using music students as her subjects-- music students, who have relative ear-training as an ordinary component of their studies-- she created multiple experimental and control groups. Since the University of Calgary's undergraduate program is four years of study, she used this convenient measure as her divisor. There were 19 control and 21 experimental students from Year One, while Year Two provided 14 experimental and 12 control subjects. By making this distinction, she felt she could be reasonably certain that if the university's common curriculum were to affect the students' results, it would affect them equally and be reflected in their group's results. Of the students, though, only 8 were from years three and four (in a four-year program); all eight of these students were a single experimental group, with no balancing control group. She recognizes this deficiency, and I suspect that their results will, accordingly, be more a matter of curiosity than suggested proof. (You might notice that these do not add up to 78; a few students dropped out.)

She claims that her subjects are "appropriate" because, as musicians, they are motivated to perform well on the absolute-pitch tests, and that they "have the necessary musical background to be well-versed in the 12 pitch tones." In order to succeed, you have to exercise daily, and non-musicians would find the exercise unusually tedious-- and pointless. Since Nering had no means with which to compel the students to train (although one instructor specifically took class time each day to implement the exercises), their motivation as musicians makes possible the critical assumption that most students will have cooperated and adequately drilled the exercises. Nering has an additional advantage in using music students because, being "well-versed", they would more quickly acculturate to a new style of hearing and show more vivid short-term results. I'd like to see the same experiment conducted on non-musicians, over a longer period of time; since they would have fewer formal musical influences on their sense of hearing, I'd expect their results to be more definitive. Still, Nering's goal here is not to see if anyone can learn perfect pitch, or whether some people can't learn it, but to explore the question of whether it can be learned at all.

January 26 - Sloppy joes

Nering created three tests for each supposed level of perfect pitch ability-- recognizing tones on your "primary instrument", recognizing tones on any instrument, and being able to sing tones on demand. Each of the listening tests presented all 12 tones from the chromatic scale, twice each, varied by octave, duration, and loudness. The singing test used only six different tones, requested once each, with no octave requirements; since not all the subjects were singers, Nering says she didn't want to introduce the possibility that the students' voices simply couldn't produce the tones which were being asked of them.

The first test, for the primary instrument, was actually two tests: one for the piano and one for the other instrument. All students were tested on the piano, and non-piano students were also tested on their other instrument. Although she then used in her results the second set of scores, for those students who were not pianists, the situation for each test was significantly different. For the piano tests, the first- and second-year students sat in a room and were tested all together; then, immediately following, they continued with the second listening test, which was 24 additional tones played with various timbres. For the non-piano tests, the students signed up for separate times to test on their familiar instrument.

Nering doesn't mention the possibility that the piano test might have influenced the results of the multiple-timbre test; although no feedback was offered during the test to inform the students that they were listening properly, it's possible that the first test may have "centered" them and allowed them to hear the synthesized tones more easily. Miyazaki's experiments strongly suggested that people with absolute pitch tend to identify intervals as being fixed in the key of C; Bruce Arnold claims that each scale degree has a certain unique relative sound, regardless of key signature, which you can identify as long as your mind is "tuned" to the key. If so, then a test of piano tones directly preceding the multiple-timbre test might allow the students to latch on to one or two notes which they knew very well and, recognizing those, adjust their minds to those tones in the key of C (or whichever key they might prefer). They could then feel the relative position of each new tone regardless of timbre. This would, naturally, bias the data towards a greater success rate. She says that she took some precautions:

Test items [the notes to identify] were selected on the basis of widespread and usually less consonant intervals, for example the tritone separated by a distance of over an octave, in order to deter the use of relative pitch judgments. It was decided not to use random procedures in selecting test items since this procedure lends itself more readily to a subject's employment of relative pitch... Neighboring pitches such as major or minor seconds or easily-judged intervals such as perfect fourths, for example, can often appear side by side.

She says this almost offhandedly, in a footnote, and even mentions that Rush in his Ohio State study did use random test notes, and was subject to this potential error.

But even if she eliminated this particular avenue of relative pitch judgment, she offers no proof or even explanation of how her method is supposed to prevent relative judgments. Do dissonant intervals and octave leaps prevent a person from using relative pitch? I know from my own experience that once you release your commitment to the musical scale, a G4 can actually sound "lower" than a D2, and consequently a relative pitch judgment could be made simply by pretending that the notes are in the same octave. And, even though a dissonant interval may be more difficult to identify than an obvious one like a second, third, or fourth... or fifth... a dissonant interval still can be identified. And, if the listener's mind has fixed its key signature, then a note can be identified relatively irrespective of its relationship to the one which preceded it.

Mind you, I'm not keen to dismiss Nering's results. It's even possible that, by structuring the tests as she did, she made the results more accurate by instilling a fixed-do into the subject's minds with her piano test, enabling them to give responses in the second test that were more like those of an absolute listener. But it seems to me that enough question marks are raised by these problems that the question Nering is answering must be explicitly clarified. She is not testing her subjects to see if they learned absolute pitch. She is testing them to see if they got better at naming notes.

January 30 - This just handed to me

I figured out how to listen to the vowel sounds.

The list of vowels which appear in Section 3 of the archived comments are not actually my vowels. Peter, the Dutchman, gave them to me; my contribution to the creation of that list was mainly figuring out how to assign written American letters to the spoken vowel sounds that Peter heard-- that is, the sound that's written "bit" to a European is "beet" to an American. So we sent recorded sounds back and forth until we confirmed that I understood, in my American way, which vowels he was talking about. But afterwards, even though I made those whisper-files to show the relative accuracy of the vowels, and even though I reported my success confirming the "a" sound of the F-pitch, I had still found the vowel sounds to be highly elusive. This was especially frustrating because, since the list of vowels was what Peter heard, I wanted to find out if they were the same for me, or if differences in language and dialect could affect which vowels we thought we heard.

As I listened to the pitches, I attempted to recognize whatever vowel it might be giving me, to thereby match it to Peter's list and know the pitch. I'd play a note, and my mind would warp and bend and interpret the note into something that seemed like a vowel sound. Sometimes I'd hear the correct vowel sound, according to the list, and that was encouraging; but just as frequently I heard it wrong, or not at all-- or I'd initially hear it correctly but let my mind twist it into another interpretation as I "figured it out". With the occasional exception of the F-pitch, the vowel sounds stubbornly refused to be heard clearly. So I shelved my vowel-pitch attempts, and returned to my trigger-word listening, with the expectation that eventually I'd get back to vowels.

A few days ago, I heard from a reader about his experience doing perfect pitch exercises: "the vowel sounds were the easiest to latch on to," he said. I was surprised-- for me they were not easy-- but asked him, did he hear the same vowel sounds that were in the list? He was only using C, D, and E, but he said that he was definitely hearing the same sounds that were in the list. At my computer, I pulled up the list of vowels to test them. For some reason, my purpose made me instinctively try a different approach: instead of trying to hear the vowel sound and then trying to match whatever I heard to the vowel list, I imagined the vowel sound first and then played the note.

And it worked. For all twelve notes.

Try it yourself. Take this list:

C = o as in board
C# = o as in boat
D = u as in but
Eb = o as in boot
E = a as in balk
F = a as in father
F# = a as in bake
G = i as in bit
Ab = u as in burn
A = i as in time
Bb = e as in beet
B = e as in bet

and imagine the vowel sound before you play a note. I expect that you will not be certain that the pitch matches the vowel in your head, but here's what cinches it. Keep the same vowel sound in your head and play a different note, and you will very clearly hear that this other note is not the vowel you're imagining. Then play the first (matching) note again, and you will hear the correct vowel sound much more distinctly than before. I think that this must be something like the principle that WA Mathieu uses throughout his book-- in order to demonstrate harmonic experience, he instructs you to sing along with single-pitched computer tones. He shows, in this manner, how you can simply feel when something is consonant or dissonant. Likewise, when you imagine the vowel sounds in your head, you will be able to feel that it's right or wrong when you attempt to fuse it to the pitch that's being played.

After I drilled myself for a few minutes by imagining vowels first, then playing the corresponding notes, it began to work. I actually found myself slipping into a mode of listening where the pitches began to sound like vowel sounds all by themselves, without my having to imagine the vowel sounds first. I found that when I made a mistake, and heard the wrong vowel sound from the pitch, all I had to do is play the note which corresponded to the vowel I thought I heard, and then when I re-played the test note its actual vowel sound rang through loud and clear. And in those mistakes, something truly exciting happened. I heard an E and thought it was a D-- four different times. Four times I played an E, four times I named it D, four times I was wrong. That had never happened before, and this is exciting because of why it had never happened before.

I remembered that Mathieu's book had pointed out that, harmonically, the notes that are "next to" a C aren't actually B and C#, but F and G. F is a perfect fifth "below", and G is a perfect fifth "above", making them the most consonant notes to C. I'd certainly experienced this myself-- in my own ear-training drills, I often confused F or G with C.  But I wasn't sure whether or not a person with absolute pitch would actually perceive C and G as "adjacent". So I posted a question in the Yahoo discussion group. Which notes seem more similar to each other: C and C#, or C and G? The participants with absolute pitch immediately and unanimously responded-- C and C#, without a doubt. "It's like red and reddish-orange", one said. They would never ever mistake a C for a G (or vice versa), "not in a million years."

I was disappointed, since I'd been hoping to have my idea confirmed-- but then two other people chimed in to support the possibility that C and G sounded similar. First a trumpet player and then a piano teacher. And both of them said-- whether or not they explicitly intended to-- that the C and G sounded more similar in a relative context. The piano students had trouble with "fifths and octaves", not with "C and G pitches". The trumpet player essentially said that C and G sounded similar because of his relative-pitch training. So even though I hadn't gotten the answer I was fishing for, I learned that C and G sound similar because, as relative listeners, we are more typically listening to the consonance and dissonance of notes rather than their absolute pitches.

That's why I had never ever confused D and E before this week. The ear training exercises are deliberately skewed towards the key of C, so when I'd mis-identify D and E I would never mistake them for each other. Even if I didn't know the name of the note, I could instinctively tell that what I was hearing was either dissonant or consonant to the key signature. The consonant note was never D; the dissonant note was never E. But when I was listening to the vowel sounds, I made that mistake FOUR TIMES. The vowel sounds shook me out of relative listening. The vowel sounds helped me to hear that D and E are actually "next to" each other-- D and E actually sound alike enough to be confused. Not D and F, nor C and G-- D and E.

But here's the tricky part:  the pitches are not vowel sounds.

I had speculated on this before, but now I have experienced it: the pitches evoke the vowels but they are not actually vowels. When I was listening to the notes in "vowel mode", I discovered that sometimes, even before I heard the vowel sound, I recognized the pitch itself-- and the pitch sound had nothing to do with the vowel. It was the trigger-word listening, not the vowel sounds, which brought me to that instant recognition. The conclusion seems obvious: trigger-word ("emotional") listening and vowel-sound listening should both be used. Vowel-sound listening helps you achieve an "absolute mode"-- the dehabituation I've talked about, perhaps-- and trigger-word listening helps you recognize the pitch apart from the vowel sound.

Now I just need to put it together.

February 1 - Where the sidewalk ends

I find myself wondering what a typical master's thesis from the University of Calgary Music Department actually consists of. It seems possible that they are not normally scientific experiments. Nering introduced her Methodology section with a very basic description of how scientific research is supposed to work, and repeats herself in the conclusion.  I have to imagine that the people she was presenting this to were not experimental scientists, but academic musicians, who would be more likely to expect a thesis about musical history, or perhaps a critical (subjective) analysis of some particular style of composition-- not a scientific experiment. It makes me wonder if Nering had scientists available to her to evaluate the structure of her experiment.

It's somewhat ironic that this data presentation is supposed to be the heart of her publication, and it takes as many pages as all the rest combined-- yet it strikes me as the least interesting section of the piece. I'm perfectly happy to summarize all 178 pages by presenting you with these two of her graphs:

Control results

Experimental results

She talks about gains being "significant", and she takes some time to represent some particular students' results (in the experimental group) which are remarkable for their unusually high success. The use of the word "significant" is based on statistical fact, and these two graphs pretty much tell the essential story, which is then repeated in the other data sets. Even if you left out the actual statistical and mathematical charts, figures, and calculations, it's entirely clear that over this three-month period, students who studied absolute pitch showed improvement across nearly the entire musical scale (interesting that A# and A, adjacent as they are, are the best and worst recognized here, respectively) and students who did not study absolute pitch didn't.

So, to wrap it all up, let me share with you a couple of Nering's observations.

Results strongly support that perfect pitch is an innate natural talent that is acquired... one cannot acquire an ability for which one does not have an innate or hereditary capacity. While some may have a greater predisposition and may learn more quickly than others... perfect pitch is a skill or perception requiring time and training. For some, a great deal of application is necessary, while others develop it almost upon contact. It is similar to learning a skill such as swimming... It seems that a combination of one's natural ability, self-discipline, ability for focused concentration, and imagery skills... all play a part.

Of course, by "innate natural talent" I'm not kowtowing to those who would think there's some have-it-or-don't perfect pitch gene, but returning to my very first entries which suggested that absolute pitch is a "talent" we all have at one level or another.

...It seems a re-evaluation of theory course content and of methods of teaching ear training in schools, universities, and musical institutions is in order. [Currently] ear training is based almost entirely on relative pitch. [I] believe perfect pitch training should become an integral part of ear-training courses as well... not until perfect pitch courses are more conveniently available and offered on a more widespread basis will we ever know the true value of the ability and the degree of its contribution to musicality.

Amen to that! Still, I'd like to take it further-- as you know I'd finish that sentence not with the "musicality" but with "everyday perception." I also have to tell you that a very useful word disappeared in one of those ellipses: auralization. This is the hearing-sense equivalent of the word visualization, and I may use it again in the future when I mention the notion of "imagining" pitches in your head. Although it's a more obscure word, it's much more precise to say that you should auralize a sound-- in my previous entry, I would have suggested that you auralize the vowel sounds before you play the notes.

I'm grateful to Nering for the effort she made to compile such worthwhile and important background information. Even if I speak somewhat dismissively of her results, or suggest that her experiment may have had design flaws, there's very little doubt in my mind that her results could be very easily reproduced (provided that you found an adequate number of subjects).  Regardless of the method, she has clearly demonstrated that "perfect pitch" ear training results in improved pitch identification skills.

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