Is There A Critical Period For the Development Of Absolute Pitch?

14 Oct

Out of the various music-related phenomena, absolute pitch (AP) has constantly been placed underneath scientific scrutiny.  Absolute pitch is the ability to correctly identify a tone without the use of another “reference” tone. It occurs unconsciously, almost instinctively, and has been the target of many “enhancement products” that guarantee acquiring the listening ability.  One of the main inquisitions surrounding AP is whether it can be acquired with intensive training.  While some studies have shown an improvement in the recognition and identification of tones, research has yet to show that participants can “learn” pitch-naming abilities equivalent to AP.  This “learning”  of pitch-tones has been closely associated with musical training, even with the lack of empirical studies that have yet to show a correlation music training and AP abilities.

Ken’ichi Miyazaki and Yoko Ogawa wanted to determine whether or not there might be a critical period for the development and acquisition of AP (a similar study was done with rhythmic perception) and investigate whether music training influences AP abilities.

For this study, 104 children ranging from ages 4-7, were selected from a music school in Japan.  For the task, test tones were presented in two different timbres (yamaha grand piano tone and yamaha electronic organ tone) that ranged from C3 (131 hz) to B5 (988 hz) (using the standard tuning of A 440 hz).  The tones consisted of 36 chromatic pitches that spanned over three octaves.  During the trials, the tones were presented in random order with at least a relative interval of a fifth between subsequent tones, making it difficult to use reference notes.  The student participants were instructed to name the pitch class of the tones as quickly as possible using solfege names (do, do-sharp, re, etc.).  Octave positions were not asked for, and no correct or incorrect feedback was given to the participants.

The results showed an improvement in pitch identification between the ages 4 to 7. Interestedly, the children seemed to “learn” the pitches that related to their music training: white-key notes on the piano are often the first notes children learn during music training, and in this study, it was the white-key notes that the participants learned more quickly.

Is there a period in which one can acquire absolute pitch? Possibly, but this probably occurs at a young age. The results suggest that early music training might have an impact especially between the ages of 4 and 7. The researchers note that this data might not be applicable to the general population due to sampling bias (selecting students from a music school).  Still, the results remain consistent with early-learning theories of AP, and may account why there was a greater accuracy for white-key notes over black-key notes in this study.  Additionally, the aged 7 participants in this study, did not show an improvement in the identification of the black-key notes, suggesting a limit of when AP acquisition can occur.  However, as the researchers note, additional research is needed to evaluate AP abilities beyond participants of 7 years.

Miyazaki, K., & Ogawa, Y. (2006). Learning absolute pitch by children: a cross-sectional study. Music Perception, 24(1), 63-78.

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