Researchers at the University of Rochester's Eastman School of Music and Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences have developed a unique test for perfect pitch, and have found surprising results.
Their research shows that perfect pitchthe ability to recognize and remember a tone without a referenceis apparently much more common in non-musicians than scientists had expected. Previous tests have overlooked these people because without extensive musical training it's very difficult for someone to identify a pitch by name, the method traditionally used for identifying those with perfect pitch. The new test can be used on non-musicians, and is based on a technique to discern how infants recognize words in a language they're learning.
The findings will be presented at the International Conference on Music Perception and Cognition in Sapporo, Japan on Aug. 25.
"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. Previous studies had shown that animals such as birds, for instance,
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University of Rochester