Raise Your Hand For Perfect Pitch

Training the novice ear to identify musical notes with motion.
Marsha Lewis, Contributing Producer

(Inside Science TV) – For most of us, music just sounds like music. But for people with perfect pitch, every note is distinct and recognizable.

“The ability to hear and identify a pitch or to produce it on command, you either just have it or you don’t," said Jennifer Burg, a computer science professor at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

Jamie Floyd, a graduate student in mathematics at Wake Forest, plays several instruments and sings.

“It’s the one thing that moves with me wherever I am, and I can immediately plug in wherever I go," said Floyd.

Floyd doesn't have perfect pitch, but he does have good "relative pitch," the ability to identify a note (such as C) after hearing another reference pitch (such as F). He also has good pitch memory, meaning he is able to recall pitches for a long time and identify them with better accuracy than the average listener.

Many experts believe perfect pitch cannot be taught. People with this special ability can hear a note all by itself, and identify it as a C, for example.

Now computer scientists have come up with a unique system to train ears to find specific notes on command.

To train the ear to hear and identify pitches, the system plays a pitch, and the participants then raise their hands to a certain level. Each pitch is associated with a different level. Over time, they learn to associate different pitches with different hand positions.

“I control one of the notes that you can see on the screen moving with my right hand," said Floyd.

As they drill the notes, sensors track body movements. Then computer software links this motion to musical notes. The hope is that users will identify notes in connection to places on their bodies.

The program targets users who have either very limited relative pitch or no pitch recognition at all.

Get Inside The Science:

A New Way To Train Your Ears

Jennifer Burg, Wake Forest University

Author Bio & Story Archive

Marsha Lewis is a freelance producer based in California.  She has won 11 National Telly Awards and nine Regional Emmy Awards for her work in local and national syndicated news.

I’ve dedicated my time to reporting and producing stories focused on medical, science and technology. I created a nationally award winning series dedicated to promoting women and their great accomplishments.  Now I’ve taken that expertise outside the traditional TV news format and broadened the viewership to people around the world.