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I always thought perfect pitch was a lot like language - it's significantly easier to learn/retain if it was learned as a child, but it's still possible to learn as an adult.

However, there are some musicians who believe either is has to be learned as a child, or you have to be born with it.

Are there any cases of adults learning to have perfect pitch, or any studies which suggest that they can't?

  • I'm the youngest of 7 and have near-perfect pitch. We all play instruments and there was always lots of music in the house as I was growing up. Most of my family has pretty accurate pitch, but they aren't as confident as I in the pitches. It seems to me like it has more to do with early environment than anything else. – mellamokb May 16 '11 at 18:46
  • Good question. But doesn’t the incredibly well-sourced Wikipedia article (in particular the sections dealing with genetics and culture) answer it? – Konrad Rudolph May 16 '11 at 19:19
  • @Konrad: The wiki article says "This presents the likelihood that the difference is explained by cultural experience rather than genetic heritage." That is hardly conclusive, and also doesn't address at all the question of whether it's possible for an adult to learn to have perfect pitch. – BlueRaja - Danny Pflughoeft May 16 '11 at 19:33
  • @BlueRaja True. But did you also notice the next paragraph? I believe that the uncertainty expressed in the text accurately reflects the current state of the art. Let’s see if somebody here can come up with a recent review. – Konrad Rudolph May 16 '11 at 19:43
  • I prefer to call this "absolute pitch". My pitch was never perfect in the sense of being dead on, but I can recognize notes from how they sound with no comparison. – David Thornley May 17 '11 at 12:28
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Sakakibara, A. (1999). A longitudinal study of a process for acquiring absolute pitch. Japanese Journal of Educational Psychology 47.

lists that everyone is born with the ability to learn absolute pitch and

Saffran, J. R. & Griepentrog, G. J. (2001). Absolute pitch in infant auditory learning: Evidence for developmental reorganization. Developmental Psychology 37: 74–85. Abstract

lists that people can learn absolute pitch just like they learn color names, but they are, however, a lot behind. Imagine yourself learning color names at your current age: it's hard, but it's not impossible.

Blue-shaded square http://www.color-hex.com/colorimg.php?color=abcdef

That's not just blue, it could be one of the many shades of blue. Is it baby blue, maya blue, sky blue, light blue, or powder blue?

  • Hm. It's a kind of grey/green, isn't it? Yes, I'm colorblind, but you think everybody could learn color names? – user unknown May 17 '11 at 0:18
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    @user: We're not talking about disabilities here. – Tamara Wijsman May 17 '11 at 0:34
  • Disability and impossible to learn if you happen to don't have some genes would be the same - wouldn't it? You made the analogy to colors. – user unknown May 17 '11 at 0:45
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    Impossible to see and impossible to learn are different, the analogy to colors is irrelevant. – Tamara Wijsman May 17 '11 at 0:50
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    @user unknown - I was only commenting on your retort that being unable to learn something as an adult means it's a disability. Which is not the case of native intuition in language (I'm not sure if the same applies to identifying colors), so I didn't think your argument held. Colorblindness is an outlier and not the average case. Are you reading the question as having having an implied learn at the end: "Are there any cases of adults learning to have perfect pitch, or any studies which suggest that they can't [learn]?"? – Kit Sunde May 17 '11 at 2:38
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You raise several interesting questions. The questions will undergo a modest redirection, but I hope that I will not lose the intent of the OP.

Does absolute pitch have a heritable component? Yes, according to this University of California Genetics of Absolute Pitch Study. Both European families and East Asian families had a “linkage peak” at 7q22.3. In an important sense, Yes, perfect pitch is something you are literally born with.

Is tone deafness something you are born with? Yes, according to http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn497-tone-deaf.html, which compared identical twins (who share 100% of their genes) and fraternal twins (who share 50% of their genes). The study suggested that “your genetic make-up largely determines your ability to perceive pitch. Spector's team concludes that this skill is roughly 80 per cent hereditary.”

This study would suggest that if you (or your identical twin) were tone deaf, then there would be very little chance that you could learn AP, no matter how hard you tried. Life has dealt you a weak hand; stay away from the musical arts. This would be similar to a comment made by a color-blind person. This sex-linked genetic trait will prevent him from a career in interior design. (While I am guessing that user unknown is male, the odds are in my favor.)

What if you’re not tone deaf but desperately want to impress that dazzling violinist? Can you learn how to fake AP as well as a Chinese concert pianist who started at the age of four? Maybe, according to Absolute memory for musical pitch: Evidence from the production of learned melodies by Daniel Levitin. You could work on your pitch memory, which is more common. Maybe you could conceal a hit tuning fork, hit it in the bathroom and hum the issuing note sub rosa before you come to the piano. Maybe you could have a mirror or confederate help you figure out what note is being played. Or, barring that, maybe you could memorize the answers for this AP test.

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Oliver Sacks (psychologist) wrote a book called "Musicophelia" which addresses how our brains process and are affected by music:

http://www.amazon.com/Musicophilia-Tales-Music-Revised-Expanded/dp/1400033535/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1305586514&sr=8-1

He also talks about things that go wrong...

He mentions the incidence of "perfect pitch" or more properly "absolute pitch" as a rather small percentage of the population. Most can accurately sing a melody they've heard only one time or so... But the ability to accurately name pitches is considerably rarer.

That is... "That's a B-flat above middle C"

This ability can degrade; he lists cases of individuals with the ability who will loose part of the listening range at various points in life.

He does think that this is an ability that a percentage of the population is simply born with.

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    An anecdotal account from Oliver Sacks does not qualify as good evidence when there are other much more robust findings out there (especially since they contradict his hunch that this is an inborn ability). – Rex Kerr May 17 '11 at 13:40
  • Well it's nice that he thinks that, but does he have any actual evidence? – BlueRaja - Danny Pflughoeft Jul 22 '11 at 18:08
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There is good evidence that, in practice, one should not expect to learn perfect pitch as an adult. One relevant study shows a very clear decline in the rates of having perfect pitch as a function of when musical training began--but that downward trend is swamped by the huge influence of being a native tonal language speaker. Thus, it is quite clear that perfect pitch is not rare given appropriate experience as an infant, but there's a strong suggestion that it gets increasingly hard to learn as one gets older.

If you look hard enough, you can probably find an instance of someone learning perfect pitch as an adult, but that would be extraordinary; normally, by the time you're an adult, your opportunity to develop perfect pitch has passed.

  • "One relevant study shows a very clear decline in the rates of having perfect pitch as a function of when musical training began" - this is actually a very strong argument that perfect pitch is learned, not inherent. The same trend can be seen with language - the older you are when you start learning a second language, the significantly more difficult is it to actually become fluent in it. However, it is still possible to learn a new language as an adult - it just takes a lot more effort. Fortunately, effort is something I have, as long as I can believe it will pay off :) – BlueRaja - Danny Pflughoeft Jul 22 '11 at 18:03

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