There are numerous tests that test how well we can recognize colors. The test tells us if we are color blind or an average person that can determine colors normally. Similarly, sound also travels as waves just like colors do. Perceiving the sound or vision, we can categorize them. While people can easily name most colors in different groups distinguishing the specific frequencies and wavelengths of light. Likewise, only a few can do the same for musical notes. Recognizing sounds with distinct, unchanging pitches. Hearing a musical note and exactly naming it is something only a pitch expert can do.
Mostly Musicians use the principle of “relative pitch”. It is the ability to name musical notes in relation to one another on a scale. Moreover, the interesting question is, what makes musicians so exceptional in identifying musical sound notes having a perfect pitch? Is it because their brain processes music differently? Or their musical training? Hence to quench this curiosity a study was carried out at the University of Chicago.
Doctoral student Katherine Reis and Prof. Howard Nusbaum worked with other UChicago researchers to pursue the study. They first decided to compare people with perfect pitch and people without a perfect pitch on a series of tasks.
The task included an activity where participants had to recognize piano notes and name “pure” sine tones. Sine tones are generated by a computer. These represent exact frequencies without an instrument’s timbre. Thirty-one people participated in the study. Among them, 16 people had perfect pitch, and 15 were successful musicians but without perfect pitch. In each trial, the scientists used electrodes attached non-invasively to people’s heads to monitor. They observed the way their brains and nervous systems reacted to sounds. They used the measure called the “frequency following response” (FFR). Eventually, researchers also kept notes of their accuracy. Further, they also had concise knowledge about the participants’ backgrounds in music and prior training.
The FFR provides a snapshot of the integrity of a person’s ability to process sounds. Likewise in the research, it predicted people’s performance on pitch identification accurately than any metric previously used in studies of perfect pitch. Hence the result’s accuracy is commendable.
In addition to that, participants were better at naming notes played on a piano as compared to the computer-generated sine tones. Participants with perfect pitch had an average of 98% accuracy on piano and 77% for sine tones. Whereas participants without perfect pitch had an average of 29% accuracy on piano and 25% for sine tones.
According to UChicago doctoral student John Veillette. John is also a co-author on the paper concludes that timbres are conferred by upper harmonics in sound frequencies. That gives instruments their unique, familiar rings which play an important role in pitch recognition. Furthermore, Katherine Reis said that it implies that experience is probably involved in pitch recognition since even people with self-reported perfect pitch weren’t “perfect” when the notes were produced in an unfamiliar way.
Reis further added by saying “As a result of our study, we now know that features of the FFR predict absolute pitch ability even better than the developmental factors that people usually associate with absolute pitch, like the age you first learned an instrument”. “This suggests there’s a really low-level difference (in terms of the nervous system’s response) in how absolute pitch possessors encode sounds in the brain.”
However, regardless of being pitch-perfect or not. According to scientists, people may be able to improve their FFR, and their potency to name notes, over time.