What we mean by “born with” and “learned”
For our purpose, we will take the following scientific approach that differentiates between innate behavior and learned behavior (from
• innate behavior = behavior determined by the "hard-wiring" of the nervous system. It is usually inflexible, a given stimulus triggering a given response. A salamander raised away from water until long after its siblings begin swimming successfully will swim every bit as well as they the very first time it is placed in the water. Clearly this rather elaborate response is "built in" in the species and not something that must be acquired by practice.
• learned behavior = behavior that is more or less permanently altered as a result of the experience of the individual organism (e.g., learning to play baseball well).
• However, careful analysis often reveals that any particular behavior is a combination of innate and learned components.
Consequences by this terminology
Since learned behavior is not "hard-wired" before the learning process, it must be stored somewhere for later retrieval. This store we usually call memory. Therefore the term memorization means learning something. In the case of absolute pitch the learning process consists of assigning frequency ranges to note names.
For pitch the external stimuli are the sound-waves. If the sound waves consist of a repeated pattern, then we can assign the length of the pattern a time in seconds: called the period T. The reciprocal of the period gives the frequency f (f=1/T).
A well known learned association
To make it clear that this association, - a frequency to a note name -, is a learned pattern let's take colors. In this way we can avoid, the discussion about a "special“ ability, since everybody (with a few exceptions) is able to recognize/identify colors by their name. Thus everybody could claim to have perfect color recognition. Colors are electromagnetic frequency ranges assigned to color names. See table from Wikipedia “Spectral color”:
A traditional, broad color term, which includes some nearby non-spectral hues. The short-wave boundary can extend to 620 or even about 610 nanometres
• Extreme spectral red = red (CIE RGB)
Exact spectrum has more influence on luminance than on chromaticity in this band; chromaticities are almost the same for these two variants
• red (Wide-gamut RGBprimary)
• Some carmine dyes
• red (sRGB primary)
The short-wave (yellowish) part corresponds to amber, the long-wave (reddish) side nears (or includes) RGB red above.
A traditional color term
• yellow (NCS)
Gold has almost identical chromaticity at h = 51°
• Munsell 5Y for V = 10, C = 22
• process (canary) yellow
• yellow (sRGB secondary)
• Chartreuse yellow
May be classified as either green or yellow
A traditional, broad color term
• Chartreuse green
• Bright green
• green (sRGB primary)
• green (Wide-gamut RGBprimary)
• Spring green (sRGB definition)
May lie rather far from the spectrum
• green (NCS)
• Munsell 5G for V = 4, C = 29
Sometimes included (or overlaps) with blue, terminological distinction between the two is inconsistent
• Turquoise Blue[sic]
Most of "turquoise" lies far away of the spectrum
• cyan (sRGB secondary)
Lie rather far from the spectrum
• process cyan
A traditional, broad color term, which used to include cyan
• blue (NCS)
Lies rather far from the spectrum
• Azure (sRGB definition)
May lie rather far from the spectrum
• Munsell 5B for V = 5, C = 20
• blue (RGB primary)
May be classified as indigo or (if indigo is omitted) as violet
Definition is controversial, this wavelength least disputably belongs to "indigo"
up to 277°
Far spectral violet is very dim and rarely seen. The term also extends to purples
Perfect color recognition?
Now the word perfect suggest perfection. However, if I present the color "Lime" in the above table to randomly chosen people and ask them to decide whether the color is either yellow or green, then I will get different answers. Some will call it yellow and others will call it green. This depends on what they have learned during their childhood and lives: their experiences let them associate the physical color stimulus to a name. Now, perfect would mean if you gave the exact frequency in THz for a color. However this is limitless, and not reasonable for everyday discussions. Therefore the usual color name usage is limited to a few color names: e. g. red, green, blue, etc. Of course we can get a more precise description of colors if we add additional color names like "lime" or „indigo“ to our repertoire. Artists, photographers and other people that work a lot with colors will use much more names to specify colors. And if color differentiation would be relevant for our survival, we would have introduced additional names to other frequency ranges in our daily usage.
Tolerance of descriptive words
As we can see in the above example, professionals tend to enlarge the vocabulary for their field. This is because it is important for their communication. However, the communication is still based on personal experience and the involved learning process. In other words: if in one part of the world the word Zürich-blue (the emblem of the city of Zürich is white and blue) is used to describe a special blue, then it will not be understood on other parts of the world. Even if two citizens of Zürich speak of Zürich-blue, they base their imagination on personal experience with that color. In case of a dispute about the usage of a color name, the world would have to agree on a specific frequency range for the definition oft hat color (Zürich-blue). However, since no two persons share all experiences together, there is always an accepted tolerance associated with words.
In the Western world we have divided the octave into 12 equally distinct frequency ranges and assigned them note names. To have an absolute fixation point, for the octave ranges we have assigned the concert pitch (the note A4) to the frequency of 440 Hz. However, before the equal tempered scale was invented other scales with either less or more notes in an octave were used. The use of less or more notes has a direct influence on the note naming system. In other words, systems with more than 12 half steps let you describe the pitches more precise in words than our 12 tone equal tempered system allows. So, the relation frequency range, - external physical stimulus -, to a note name is a learned pattern. The system chosen directly influences the precision a note name has. For example in the 24 tone equal tempered scale you have double as many notes in an octave and therefore double the precision in describing the pitch of a note. Yet, the human ear is capable of discerning pitches to even more than 24 notes in an octave. Since we can physically discern the pitches, we can also learn the 24 notes-system. Of course usually you learn the 24 tone equal tempered system later and use the 12 tone equal tempered system as a reference. Even so you start now from another starting point (12 tone system), the new names and their corresponding frequency ranges have to be learned. If you have absolute pitch (that is you can name the note if you hear pitched sound) and you now learn to differentiate quarter notes, you may think it is easy and natural. But it is a learning process: you must differentiate the stimulus more precise and associate it with a new description. And this learning process includes the memorization of the new to make differentiation of the frequency ranges to a descriptive name.
While it is true that naming pitches correctly is a learned ability, there are other factors that may influence the learning process heavily.
The first is on the physical side. Some people may have a better ear in the first place. For example they may hear very soft sounds, or are able to physically recognize very high or low frequencies. Also the hair cells in the inner ear may produce stronger signals relative to other stimuli, so that the signals get processed with higher priority.
The second factor is on the storage side. For some people the storage of sound may be more precise or easier to accomplish than for others.
These are genetically given advantages (or disadvantages). Indeed, some researchers think that absolute pitch depends on a genetic locus. However, the finding [Deutsch Diana, “The Enigma of Absolute Pitch“, 2006] that when people spent their early childhood in an East Asian area,- with pitch accented languages -, are more likely to develop absolute pitch supports the idea that the acquisition of absolute pitch is more based on the learning process than on genetics.
With or without genetic advantages, the association of frequency ranges to note-names has to be learned. Observations show that this learning process has to be done early in childhood: in the so-called critical period.
Critical Learning Period
From Wikipedia we get the following information: A critical period is an important stage in the life span of an organism as it acquires a particular developmental skill that is indispensable in their life span which can influence later development [Robson, Ann L. "Critical/Sensitive Periods., 2002"]. The Critical Period Hypothesis (CPH) states that the first few years of life constitute the time during which language develops readily and after which (sometime between age 5 and puberty) language acquisition is much more difficult and ultimately less successful [Siegler, Robert. „How Children Develop“, 2006].
Since language and pitch detection are both aural skills, they have naturally a lot in common. For example, it is much harder to learn a foreign language after this critical period. The same is true for acquiring absolute pitch. However, the human being is the only known species that is known to be able to learn until to his death.
Differentiation of early and late learners
As with languages it makes sense to differentiate early and late learners. Since language and pitch share a lot, we must assume that for acquiring pitch as a late learner similar laws will apply as for learning a second language. From the fact that absolute pitch is rare, we can assume that the critical period is even more important than for learning a second language.
So the easiness to learn surely can be attributed to age. However that does not change the fact that pitch detection is a learned behavior. The introduction of separate terms for early and late learners still makes sense, since the prerequisites are different, and therefore the learning effects are completely different. We always introduce new terms if it makes sense to introduce a new term for a particular, differentiate enough group. For example the SI unit for distances is meter. But for large distances, e. g. between cities, it makes sense to use km (or miles). Introducing new terms does not change physical laws. In this way absolute pitch stays a learned behavior, independent of the term used. Unfortunately, the term "born with" is often used in conjunction with early learners of absolute pitch. However this term is misleading in the way that the term suggests a trait that can be epigenetically inherited.
I think the discussion would be much easier, if that "mystical" part of absolute pitch that portrays the "you are born with" would be replaced by "in early childhood there is a critical period where you can acquire absolute pitch very easily. If you miss that time-frame it is very hard to learn, comparable or exceeding the effort to learning a foreign language."
If we compare the acquisition of absolute pitch to the acquisition of a foreign language, we see: that learning a foreign language gets more difficult as older we get, and there is for sure a point, where we are no more able to get as fluent as a native speaker. But this limit is very individual and also depends on the motivation to learn. So if the parents move to another language speaking country, before you start school, it is very likely that you get as fluent as a native speaker. If you move at the age of twenty years, you may still get very close to native speakers. And after living 60 years in the new country, then with the age of 80 years, you may no more speak your mother tongue as good as the acquired new language.
The acquisition of a second language or absolute pitch is influenced by three mechanisms: learning blockers, learning accelerators, and motivation.
Learning means to memorize a relationship between stimuli and an abstract word or phrase. This learning process can be blocked, when the stimulus already is assigned to a certain word. For example if we see a house (abstract stimulus), then the word for house in our native language comes to mind. Since there are many stimuli related with the word house, it is difficult to reprogram all the stimuli to a new foreign word. Therefore, the old assigned word blocks the new to learn word from coming to our mind.
Because relative pitch plays a much more important role than absolute pitch, our brain will give us a hard time to relearn absolute pitch. (See youtube video: Absolute and Relative Pitch – Inside our Methods).
The following findings support the supposition that the critical learning period is indeed more important than the genetically differences in people and that the main reason why adults often struggle to learn a new language, or are unable to acquire absolute pitch is because of a reduced degree of neuroplasticity after we have mastered using a skill actively.
Abstract from research article „Valproate reopens critical-period learning of absolute pitch“:
Absolute pitch, the ability to identify or produce the pitch of a sound without a reference point, has a critical period, i.e., it can only be acquired early in life. However, research has shown that histone-deacetylase inhibitors (HDAC inhibitors) enable adult mice to establish perceptual preferences that are otherwise impossible to acquire after youth. In humans, we found that adult men who took valproate (VPA) (a HDAC inhibitor) learned to identify pitch significantly better than those taking placebo—evidence that VPA facilitated critical-period learning in the adult human brain. Importantly, this result was not due to a general change in cognitive function, but rather a specific effect on a sensory task associated with a critical-period. [Gervain, Vines, Chen, Seo, Hensch, Werker and Young, „Valproate reopens critical-period learning of absolute pitch“, 2013]
Two things that tremendously help in learning are:
With active exercises you do physically a task. That means you can directly feel the relationship between the element to learn and your activity. For pitch, without doubt, singing correctly is the best activity you can do. As with all physical activities they get automated after multiple repetitions. Thus complex things can be accomplished without long thinking. That is, if you are tired, you can just let your brain start the execution from memory. That is you activate the procedure that was stored in muscle memory during your repetitive training. For absolute pitch this means, if you have trained to sing a note correctly, you will be able to sing the note correctly without a big effort from your side: muscle memory will do the job for you. To be able to correctly sing a pitch without reference enables you to produce such a reference sound yourself.
To improve a skill you need feedback. Without feedback, or wrong feedback, you may learn incorrect relationships between a stimulus and its associated description. Unfortunately, before computers were a commodity item, it was difficult to find a person, - since there were only a few people that had acquired perfect pitch during childhood -, that could give feedback on the precision of your pitch.
With the introduction of the Singing Funnel Method, which gives precise pitch feedback to your active singing, we give you a handle to improve your pitch production and therefore also pitch recognition.
Another important factor is motivation. For example Lennenberg found that even following many years of experience, a second language that is learned in adulthood is generally spoken with a ‘foreign accent’ [Lennenberg, „Biological Foundations of Language“, 1967]. Now, that doesn’t proof that you cannot get rid of the accent. For a single word or a special phrase, it is relative simple to proof that you can indeed eliminate the accent for that word or phrase. Unfortunately, the life span is limited, and the merits to get rid of an accent are negligible. Since the task to get rid of the accent is self-conscious and labor intensive, and it is difficult to get (permanently) the necessary feedback, it is no wonder that the negligible factor accent is never learned to the outmost.
In music this is even truer, since all the instruments have to harmonize relative to each other. Thus leaving no room for absolute pitch. The missing benefits of absolute pitch are probably the main reason why absolute pitch after childhood is seldom acquired.
Counter productive forced learning
If from the above writings you think that you should start doing pitch exercises with your young child, so that it belongs to the “born with” group, think twice.
First, forcing a child to do something, may lead to a hate for that activity. Let your child explore the music with his own pace and interests. Remember, there is little to no room for absolute pitch in music. The musical experience is relative. Harmony is always relative to other pitches. Absolute pitch helps you only in the orientation, where you stand. For example the concert pitch had several frequencies assigned to it, before the Western music settled for a frequency of 440 Hz. Still, independent of the settlement, the music was always about harmony. And harmony is a relative concept.
Second, if the child gets used to look for absolute pitch, it may well accept it. But it may develop intolerance for deviations. Since for the learning process perfectly tuned instruments should be used, the child gets accustomed to these perfectly tuned pitches. If the child later hears music that is differently tuned, it may object to such deviations.
However, a melody played on one string will always produce the correct relative pitches if the string gets divided properly.
That is, if the string gets divided in the middle, a pitch an octave higher is produced. Other division points will produce other pitches relative to the open string. In this way it doesn’t matter if the guitar is mistuned. The produced sounds for the melody will still be perfectly correct in regard to pitch changes relative to the open string. E. g. in the above picture the mistuned guitar still produces correct intervals relative to the open string.
To avoid intolerance for pitches, the child should have access to instruments or voice recordings where the pitches get bent or make use of the just intonation. This allowance of deviations from the perfect pitch makes of course the learning process of identifying pitches more complicated or even impossible for a child. The child may not be able to understand the concept of assigning a range of frequencies around a center frequency to a single term.
After the critical period, you may not acquire absolute pitch, or it is very hard to do so, since the rewards of possessing absolute pitch are not worth the effort to do so. But the point is you can improve your ability to recognize pitches, since the identification of a pitch is a learned behavior.
Our Singing Funnel and Octave Anchor Pitches methods make use of these facts: they show you how big your range to identify a pitch is. And more important, how good you can remember a pitch. In the beginning you may find yourself more than two whole steps off, but with a little training you will realize that you can improve your pitch memory: Simply by using your muscle memory.
That is you remember how to position the muscles of your vocal cords to produce a specific pitch. As you progress through the active singing exercises, your control over the muscle movement will increase. You will find that the deviation from the perfect pitch, - with the increased precision of your muscle movements -, will be less and less, until you can produce and therefore remember pitches to a precision better than 50 cents.
For more information visit: http://www.listening-ear-trainer.com
Please, let us know your meaning about “born with” absolute pitch versus “learned behavior”. Thank you.