Yes! Acquiring 'Perfect' Pitch Is Possible For Some Adults, Scientists Say

LAS VEGAS, NV - MAY 17:  Singer/songwriter Mariah Carey performs onstage during the 2015 Billboard Music Awards at MGM Grand
LAS VEGAS, NV - MAY 17: Singer/songwriter Mariah Carey performs onstage during the 2015 Billboard Music Awards at MGM Grand Garden Arena on May 17, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

It turns out that some people can be trained to be the next Mariah Carey.

A team of psychologists recently revealed that they were able to successfully teach adults the prized musical skill of so-called absolute pitch, widely known as "perfect" pitch. The ability helps you to identify a note without using a reference pitch.

An elusive skill. Scientists previously thought that perfect pitch was either something you were born with, or something that could only be learned during childhood. The ability is considered remarkably rare -- only around one in 10,000 individuals has perfect pitch.

“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,” Dr. Howard Nusbaum, professor of psychology at the University of Chicago and part of the research team, said in a written statement. “It’s an ability that is teachable, and it appears to depend on a general cognitive ability of holding sounds in one’s mind.”

Practice makes perfect? For the research, 47 men and women at the university -- with varying musical experience -- listened to musical notes through headphones and were asked to recreate the note that they heard. They also were asked to identify notes by name, such as middle-C or F-sharp.

After the tests, the men and women participated in a training program, during which they listened to and identified piano notes, receiving feedback on whether they named the correct notes or not. The researchers retested the men and women after the training and found that the participants retained most of what they learned, showing improvements in identifying notes.

"We demonstrate three important findings in this paper," Nusbaum said in the statement. "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."

Vetting the pitches. The researchers noted that more experiments are needed to determine whether this adult-acquired perfect pitch is comparable to the abilities of someone who has had perfect pitch for most of their life.

Indeed, this isn't the first time that scientists have taken a close look at adults' abilities to acquire absolute pitch. In 2014, researchers posed that a drug known as valproate, or valproic acid, could help adults learn how to produce perfect pitch since it enhances the brain's "neuroplasticity." And a 2012 study suggests that your genes play a large role in your ability to obtain perfect pitch.

The new research was published online in the journal Cognition on April 20, 2015.



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