Adults Can Pick Up Perfect Pitch, Study Shows

With training, people may be able to identify notes they hear

From the WebMD Archives

By Robert Preidt

HealthDay Reporter

FRIDAY, June 12, 2015 (HealthDay News) -- Adults can be trained to achieve perfect pitch and maintain the ability for months, a new study reports.

Perfect pitch -- the ability to identify a note by hearing it -- occurs in less than one in 10,000 people, the researchers said. It was believed early musical training in childhood was crucial to this ability and that adults could not acquire the skill.

However, this study challenges that belief. It included 47 university students, staff and community members with various levels of musical experience. None had perfect pitch.

The participants were trained to develop perfect pitch by learning to identify notes played on various musical instruments. When tested months later, their ability was only slightly diminished.

The University of Chicago study was published in the July issue of the journal Cognition.

"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," Howard Nusbaum, a professor of psychology, said in a university news release.

"It's an ability that is teachable, and it appears to depend on a general cognitive ability of holding sounds in one's mind," he added.

A 2013 Harvard University study found that an epilepsy drug could help people learn perfect pitch. But no drugs were used in the current study.

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