Biology News Net had a study not so long ago into how our brains recognize music. Researchers at University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music and Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences found that perfect pitch isn’t so unusual, even in non-musicians:
“Tests for perfect pitch have always demanded that subjects already have some musical training or at least familiarity with a particular piece of music, which really limits the pool of candidates you can test,” says Elizabeth Marvin, professor of music theory at the world-renowned Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester. “That means nobody really knew how prevalent perfect pitch is in humans in general.”
The findings are part of a larger investigation into perfect pitch at Rochester.
While Marvin has been studying musicians with perfect pitch for many years, her research with Elissa Newport, professor of brain and cognitive sciences, began when Newport looked into research on pitch perception in animals and found that absolute pitch, the scientific name for perfect pitch, is widespread in the animal kingdom even though it’s very rare in humans. Humans are unique in that we possess the ability to identify pitches based on their relation to other pitches, an ability called relative pitch.
Both musicians and non-musicians listened to groups of three notes, with the groups played in a continuous stream in random order for 20 minutes. Just as the human mind quickly begins to identify new sound sequences (words) in a foreign language, the students learned to identify the groups of notes embedded in the stream. Crucially, however, the test made it very difficult for a student to identify and remember the names of particular notes because the notes were constantly coming in the 20-minute stream.
Marvin and Newport then tested the students. They replayed the note groups, plus new groups the students hadn’t heard before, and asked the students if each group of notes was familiar or unfamiliar.
The critical feature of the test was that the team transposed some of the original note groups to a different key without the knowledge of the students.
Students who unconsciously used perfect pitch to identify notes stumbled over the transpositions. They heard them as a new group of notes they’d never heard before.