Thursday, November 29, 2018

Why adults don't develop perfect pitch

Rick Beato explains why adults cannot develop perfect pitch.

The first thousand days of a child’s life (starting with conception) are critical for the developing brain’s ability to identify objects in a swarm of random occurrences.  Recognizing a pitch is similar to recognizing a color.  It is also comparable to recognizing a phoneme.

English uses only 44 out of about 2000 possible phonemes.  Tonal languages, common in the Orient, use more.  A child learning a tonal language is more likely to retain perfect pitch.  It is also well known that it is easier for children to become fluent in multiple languages simultaneously than it is for adults.  As children become teens, the brain starts "pruning" into what it will be good at. Beato's comments also invoke the advice that young children should not exposed to too much screen time with fast moving images. 
After about age three, musical training (ear training) will result in the development of relative pitch, but not perfect pitch.

Beato says that exposure of children to unpredictable music (jazz, because it is improvised, or Bach fugues, because of their chromaticism, or maybe some complex post-romantic and early modern music – not sure about Schoenberg or something like the Bruckner 5 finale – helps train a plastic brain to recognize pitches.

There has been some speculation as to whether the drug Valproate could assist adults in developing perfect pitch.

There is the idea that key signatures in classical music have “personalities”.  It is compromised by the fact that Baroque music was often pitched a half-step lower.  But Beethoven’s Fifth definitely belongs in C Minor, and the Ninth in D Minor.  Likewise, the Brahms symphonies have personalities very closely related to their keys (F Major is “pastoral”).

I felt that I had partial perfect pitch as a child, as I could usually identify the key signature of a previously unheard work (say a Haydn symphony because there are so many of them) on the radio.  

As an older adult, that seems lost.  Now, my brain sill sometimes perceive a piece as a whole step higher than it is, unless I “cheat” and am told the key.

I just tried the beginning and end of the Franz Lizst “ad nos” organ Fugue on YouTube.  The beginning sounds like C Minor to my ear, and the end is tricky:  The fugue is all over the place with modulations.  I fakes an ending in E Major before crashing back to C Major.  Is this the complexity Beato is looking for?  Or maybe the spooky B Minor Sonata, where all modern music starts?  (The modulations at the beginning are really un predicable.)

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