According to a recent report from the University of Chicago’s Department of Psychology, researchers have been able to train some adults to develop an ear for perfect pitch. Also known as “absolute pitch,” perfect pitch is the ability to accurately identify a note upon hearing it, and it is considered to be remarkably rare. It was previously assumed that perfect pitch was a special talent that had to be nurtured with musical training during childhood, but according to the recent study from UChicago, adults can acquire this skill.

As previously mentioned in a January 14, 2015 article in The Hearing Review, a few famous composers through history have had perfect pitch, notably Mozart and Beethoven, and the ability has always been highly desired among musicians. Until now, the assumption has been that this special skill is established in childhood and that it is impossible for adults to acquire it.

Howard Nusbaum, PhD

Howard Nusbaum, PhD, University of Chicago

As described in a June 11, 2015 article in Psychological Science, and also in an article published in a July 2015 edition of the journal Cognition, the UChicago research team tested how much an individual’s general auditory working memory capacity can predict the success of acquiring absolute pitch. This study builds on previous work by the same research team, and shows that people with absolute pitch can be “retuned” in about 45 minutes of listening, demonstrating that absolute pitch is not so absolute.

“This is the first significant demonstration that the ability to identify notes by hearing them may well be something that individuals can be trained to do,” said Howard Nusbaum, PhD, professor of psychology, UChicago. “It’s an ability that is teachable, and it appears to depend on a general cognitive ability of holding sounds in one’s mind.”

According to Nusbaum, the new study shows that people without absolute pitch have the ability to learn notes quickly as well. The study was reportedly conducted in two experiments, and did not involve any drugs, as other studies on absolute pitch have done. The first experiment at UChicago, in which 17 students participated, involved both listening and training. None of the participants had absolute pitch, and all had variable amounts of music experience.

The student participants first listened to notes sampled from real musical instruments through studio headphones, the researchers report. They were then asked to try to recreate the originally heard target note. Another part of the experiment involved testing participants after they heard an isolated piano note, and then they were asked to identify it by its musical note name or label (eg, C or F-sharp). Another part of the experiment involved training, whereby participants listened to and classified 180 piano notes and then received immediate feedback on whether they had selected the correct label for the note. They then heard the note again. According to the researchers, participants showed significant improvements in note identification after training.

When the researchers retested some of the study participants a few months after training, they found that the participants had retained most of their ability to identify notes with absolute pitch.

The second UChicago experiment involved 30 participants, and was similar to the first one in that it required the participants to identify notes heard through headphones. Participants were trained on 12 piano notes repetitively and received both visual and auditory feedback on their responses. Testing determined that the training had made a difference in helping them advance towards acquiring absolute pitch.

“We demonstrate three important findings in this paper,” said Nusbaum. “First, in contrast to previous studies, we are able to establish significant absolute pitch training in adults without drugs. Second, we show that this ability is predicted by auditory working memory. Third, we show that this training lasts for months.”

According to Nusbaum, the findings suggest that adults can acquire absolute pitch even without early exposure to pitches and musical labels. However, the current set of studies cannot directly address whether this adult-acquired absolute pitch ability is comparable to the performance of “true” perfect pitch.

Source: University of Chicago, Jann Ingmire

Photo credits: University of Chicago; © Wai Chung Tang |