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Graduate Research Fair 2008
Eastern Michigan University

Presentation By

Joshua M. Jobst, M.M.

Absolute Pitch Development in Children and Adults
Through the Use of Learned Melodies: A Method

ABSTRACT: Absolute pitch can be developed in both children and adults through the use of learned melodies, that is, aurally associating the first note of a melody with the respective pitch one desires to learn.

Recent scientific evidence demonstrates that learned melodies encode both relative and absolute pitch information in the brain, thus corroborating aural association as an effective technique for developing absolute pitch in children and adults. Absolute pitch, commonly known as “perfect pitch,” is the musical ability to perceive auditory stimuli so as to produce and/or label sound(s) without the aid of an external source. Common manifestations of this ability include naming or singing pitches without a reference, identifying the key of a musical composition, or playing a song or piece after only hearing it. A further distinction can also be made between “active” and “passive” absolute pitch. The former is the ability to sing a pitch without a reference tone, and the latter is the ability to name a pitch without a reference.

Research into the subject of absolute pitch has grown considerably in the last century. Until the latter part of the 20th Century, the general assumption was that absolute pitch was innate and a rare ability, with as few as one in ten thousand of the general population possessing it. Most researchers to date, however, hold to the “critical age” theory. This theory holds that absolute pitch can, indeed, be developed in children within a “window of opportunity” or “maturational stage” up until about age nine or ten. At this age cognitive skills increase, thus curtailing absolute pitch development. This theory garners support by the fact that people with autism have acquired absolute pitch after the critical age window.

Russian musicologist S. Grebelnik was the first, in 1984, to scientifically test the use of melodies in developing absolute pitch. He selected twelve Russian folksongs to use with nine preschool aged children. To help the children, Grebelnik used up to fifteen musical prompts for each song to serve as reminders. Hence, if the children could not name the pitch, these prompts would be given until they could. After sixty-four sessions, the children were given a posttest. The results are compelling. Five children scored well above chance, from sixty to one hundred percent correct; the other four scored below chance, from twenty to fifty percent correct. Grebelnik’s work, seminal in the field, illustrates that when children are repeatedly exposed to melodies, absolute pitch information is encoded in the brain. It would be worthwhile to expand this study with an added controlled group, an increased number of children, and a longer, more elaborate testing phase. Unfortunately, this study sheds no light on the subject of training absolute pitch in adults.

New scientific evidence has emerged, however, that suggests adults too may possess a capacity for absolute pitch development. In 1994, Daniel Levitin conducted a study to determine if familiar songs encode absolute pitch information in the adult brain. Forty-six Stanford University undergraduate and graduate non-music students ranging in age from sixteen to thirty-five participated in the experiment. They were given a questionnaire to ascertain their age, gender, and musical background. Each subject then sat in a sound attenuation booth with the experimenter and was instructed to select a compact disc (CD) that contained a song they knew very well. The subjects were instructed to hold the CD in hand, close their eyes, and imagine the song playing in their heads. They were then instructed to sing, hum, or whistle the tones of that song, starting anywhere in the song they liked. After singing, the subjects were then asked to select another CD and repeat the procedure. The subjects’ responses were recorded onto digital audiotape, and then compared to the actual tones sung by the artists on the CDs. The results are striking: twelve percent of the subjects performed without error on both trials; forty percent performed accurately on at least one trial; and forty-four percent came within a whole step of the correct pitch on both trials. The ramifications of Levitin’s study are enormous and raise the following questions: What if the subjects were given the opportunity to practice such tasks? What if the situation was reversed and a single tone was first played - would it “trigger” a familiar melody?

Based on the aforementioned scientific evidence, the following working hypothesis was formed: If learned melodies encode absolute pitch information in the brain, then the reciprocal must also be true: melodies may be used as an effective means to develop absolute pitch by aurally associating the first tone of a melody with its corresponding target pitch. Subjects used to test this hypothesis included the author, age twenty-eight, and thirty piano students ranging in age from five to eighteen.

The following procedures were used to prove or disprove the efficacy of aural association in absolute pitch development: Twelve familiar classical melodies were selected, one for each of the twelve diatonic pitches, for the purpose of aurally associating each melody with its corresponding target pitch. The melodies and pitches were recorded onto CD and listened to between five and thirty minutes daily over a span of six months. Thirty progressive passive absolute pitch tests were also created by randomly playing pitches in five-second intervals, and recorded onto CD. A second test was developed for active absolute pitch by asking subjects to imagine the first tone of any of the twelve melodies, sing the imagined tone, and then play the tone on a piano to test accuracy. Tests were taken and administered by the author weekly over the span of six months. Subjects scoring above the sixty-third percentile (the level of chance) were determined to have developed absolute pitch ability.

The results are astonishing. The author and two other students (age seven and eight) successfully developed both active and passive absolute pitch for all twelve pitches. Eleven students developed passive absolute pitch alone. Nine students developed passive absolute pitch for white and black keys separately. The remaining eight students did not test above chance, which may be due in part to failure to complete the training regiment. All subjects, however, experienced aural association, or the “trigger tune” technique, and gained heightened levels of pitch acuity and cognition, most notably the ability to better sing and match pitches.

Active absolute pitch development (singing) was surprisingly low in comparison with passive absolute pitch development (hearing). The cause of this is most likely due to a flaw in the test design. The subjects were expected to sing and test themselves daily; thus lack of self-motivation and practice may have contributed to the deficiency. Had a recording been made asking the subject to sing a pitch and check it against the recording, a higher percentage may have resulted. In addition, the use of fixed-do solfege labels (do, re, mi…), which naturally encourage singing, instead of letter labels may be a critical factor in future experiments to correct this deficiency.

The fact that absolute pitch can be developed in children and adults will change the entire way music is perceived, taught, and valued – in short, our entire musical ethos.