Science Daily sticks it to the people with an innate ear for what’s a C and what isn’t. Apparently, “perfect pitch” can be fooled:
Absolute pitch has been “idealized in popular culture as a rare and desirable musical endowment, partly because several well-known composers, such as Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin and Handel, have been assumed to posses absolute pitch,” the researchers write in “Absolute Pitch May Not Be So Absolute,” in the current issue of Psychological Science.
One of the researchers, Stephen Hedger, a graduate student in psychology at UChicago, has absolute pitch, as determined by objective tests. Joining him in the study were postdoctoral scholar Shannon Heald and Howard Nusbaum, professor in psychology at UChicago.
Hedger and Heald decided to pursue the study after a session in which Heald tricked Hedger by covertly adjusting pitch on an electronic keyboard.
“Steve and I have talked about absolute pitch, and I thought it might be more malleable than people have thought,” Heald said. While in the lab, Hedger began to play a tune, and Heald secretly changed the pitch with a wheel at the side of the keyboard.
Heald changed the tuning to make the music a third of a note flatter than it was at the beginning of the song. Hedger never noticed the change, which was gradual, and was later surprised to discover the music he was playing was actually out of tune at the end.
As the people listened to the symphony, the music was detuned during the first movement (about 15 minutes) to become flatter at the rate of two cents a minute. (The tonal distance between two notes, such as an A and G sharp, is measured as 100 cents).
By the end of the movement, the pitch had been detuned by 33 cents, a change none of the listeners detected, much like Hedger. The symphony was then played out of tune for the next three movements.
The listeners were then tested after listening to the detuned music, as they had been at the beginning of the session. They identified out-of-tune notes from the newly detuned music as being in tune, while reporting notes they heard in the pre-test were slightly out of tune.