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Pitch Perception Skewed By Modern Tuning 253

Posted by kdawson
from the pretty-good-pitch dept.
The feed deliverers us news of research suggesting that the use of A as the universal tuning frequency has made our ears less discerning of the notes immediately around it. Here's the abstract from PNAS describing research with people possessing the rare quality of "absolute pitch."
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Pitch Perception Skewed By Modern Tuning

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  • Frist Psot? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by mcrbids (148650) on Tuesday September 04, 2007 @02:36AM (#20460785) Journal
    It's interesting that pitches can be amalgamated by experience. Which is a basic part of human nature - the mind adapts to fit circumstances, and if the key of A is what we tune in to, why wouldn't our minds adapt to fit this reality?

    It's all how it works. The article is weak on details, but this post is probably bigger. If every time you heard a sound like a jet engine, you got smacked upside the back of your head, wouldn't you get jumpy when you heard anything that sounded like a jet engine, even if it wasn't *exactly* the same?

    Sometimes it's funny how Science has to prove the stuff that "Everybody Knows". (TM)
    • Re:Frist Psot? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Incoherent07 (695470) on Tuesday September 04, 2007 @03:11AM (#20460989)
      Adding to the shrug factor, the twelve-tone pitch system as a whole is a human invention. This makes perfect pitch that much stranger, because it means people have an innate ability to attune themselves to an artificial note naming scheme.

      So since that scheme can vary somewhat, it would make sense that depending on "which" A your perfect pitch is tuned to, you may have trouble distinguishing G# or A# in a different tuning.
      • Re:Frist Psot? (Score:5, Interesting)

        by hazem (472289) on Tuesday September 04, 2007 @04:00AM (#20461233) Journal
        This makes perfect pitch that much stranger, because it means people have an innate ability to attune themselves to an artificial note naming scheme.

        I don't believe perfect/absolute pitch is being born with the ability to simply hear a note and know that it's C#. Rather, you have to be trained at least once that a certain sound is Bb, but later, any time you hear it, you know it's Bb. And I doubt that they'd be limited to a 12-tone pitch system unless that was all you ever exposed them to.

        I think the same thing can happen with color. Some people (tetrachromats, I think) have a very sensitive ability to discern and remember colors, such that they could see paint swab at the store and know if it matches the paint on the wall at home.

        I know I don't have perfect pitch myself, but I play piano. Now suppose I sit down at the piano at the beginning of the day, having not listened to any music, I can almost always tell what the note I'm about to hit first will sound like. In fact, sometimes I'll play a game and try to hum the sound before playing the first note. Sometimes, though, I'm off by up to a whole step. Someone with perfect pitch would probably never make that mistake.
        • I don't believe perfect/absolute pitch is being born with the ability to simply hear a note and know that it's C#. Rather, you have to be trained at least once that a certain sound is Bb, but later, any time you hear it, you know it's Bb. And I doubt that they'd be limited to a 12-tone pitch system unless that was all you ever exposed them to.

          I'm sorry that I don't have a reference, but I believe I heard (pardon the pun) that we may all be born with perfect pitch but the vast majority of us soon lose this a

          • ... we may all be born with perfect pitch but the vast majority of us soon lose this ...

            I think the point the GP is making is that no-one can be born with it as the 12-tone system is a man-made invention. Very experienced musicians are aware of what A is because over time they have learned what A is through the constant use when tuning instruments.

            • by locofungus (179280) on Tuesday September 04, 2007 @09:53AM (#20463579)
              12-tone system is a man-made invention

              Not really.

              The (perfect) octave, fourth and fifth are natural harmonics. So natural, infact, that if you silently hold down a G and then strike the C an octave and a half below the G will start to audibly resonate (even though on the piano the G is slightly out of tune compared to the C)

              Twelve consecutive fifths (and I'm using consecutive here to mean going up a fifth, then another fifth etc rather than it's musical meaning) will (almost) bring you back to the original note but 7 octaves higher.
              Twelve consecutive fourths will (almost) bring you back to the original note but 5 octaves higher.

              Other intervals also have rational ratios.

              Major third = 5/4

              And if you look at the harmonics of the fundamental:

              1 - Fundamental
              2 - Octave
              3 - Fifth (3/2)
              4 - Octave
              5 - Major third (5/4)

              And as an aside, the clarinet only has odd harmonics, therefore the upper register is an octave and a fifth above for the same fingering.

              A bell has a resonance a minor third (6/5) below the fundamental.

              (The minor third is the interval between the major third and the dominant: 3/2 / 5/4 = 6/5)

              Tim.
              • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

                by Mr. Slippery (47854)

                The (perfect) octave, fourth and fifth are natural harmonics.

                Except that the perfect fourth and fifth are not what are used in the modern well-tempered 12 note scale.

                Our scale is based on the twelth root of two. (Thus the octave, a factor of two, is broken up into twelve steps.) It's a convenience to let us have instruments that can play in many different keys without needing to be re-tuned.

              • by Incoherent07 (695470) on Tuesday September 04, 2007 @11:36AM (#20464781)
                Since about six people have all responded to this in the same way, I'll point out that while there is a mathematical basis for a twelve tone system, there's nothing intrinsic about the idea of only twelve tones. If you extend the idea of harmonics beyond the 12 tones most people stop at, you end up with different numbers of tones, like 19 or 31. See also: microtonal music [wikipedia.org], which a music composition friend of mine in college was really into.
        • Tetrachromats (OT) (Score:2, Informative)

          by jhdevos (56359)
          I think the same thing can happen with color. Some people (tetrachromats, I think) have a very sensitive ability to discern and remember colors, such that they could see paint swab at the store and know if it matches the paint on the wall at home.

          This is completely off-topic, but tetrachromacy is something else: it is when the eye has not three but four different types of color-discerning cells. That means the number of 'dimensions' in the visible color-space goes up by one -- the result is that tetrachro

          • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

            by TeknoHog (164938)

            That means the number of 'dimensions' in the visible color-space goes up by one -- the result is that tetrachromats can see some color-pairs as being completely different, while we normal people see them as completely the same.

            I think the grandparent makes a sensible point about tetrachromats having an enhanced sensory response to different colors, which probably translates to better cognitive abilities related to color.

            In terms of spectroscopy, normal human vision divides the whole spectrum of visible light into three bands, while tetrachromats have four bands. So I wouldn't call it an extra dimension (though it's true in a way), but rather simply increased resolution. Compare this to spectrometers, which usually have hun

            • by Megane (129182)

              From what I've read, tetrachromats have the extra band in addition to the usual three of RGB, so the four are not equally spaced.

              Here is an example. [negativland.com]

      • Re:Frist Psot? (Score:5, Informative)

        by iangoldby (552781) on Tuesday September 04, 2007 @04:28AM (#20461369) Homepage
        The twelve tone pitch system may well be a human invention, but it is based very closely (but not exactly) on the natural harmonics of a string (or open pipe).

        If you take a string whose fundamental frequency is 440 Hz (an A) then harmonics are produced at twice, three times, four times, etc. that frequency. The notes corresponding to these are:

        A (fundamental)
        A one octave above (first harmonic)
        E one octave and a fifth above (second harmonic)
        A two octaves above
        C# two octaves and a third above
        E two octaves and a fifth above
        G two octaves and a seventh above - slightly flat
        A three octaves above

        Beyond that the notes you get approximate less closely to the even-tempered western scale.

        The pitch ratios for the even-tempered scale are given by a power-relationship:

        p'/p = 2^(n/12)

        where n is the number of semitones above p.

        So for example, the closest even-tempered note to the second harmonic of A 440, E which is 19 semitones above, would have a pitch of

        p' = 2.9966 * 440 Hz

        which is slightly flatter than the natural harmonic 3 * 440 Hz.

        What is interesting (to me at least) is that this means that if you follow a cycle of fifths from a starting note using natural pitches rather than even-tempered pitches, you never exactly get back to the note you started on. (Apparently Pythagoras was one of the first to record this observation.)

        This caused no end of problems for early musicians. Instruments used to be tuned with systems based on natural pitches. This meant that instruments with fixed tunings (that the musicians could not easily alter as they played) would sound more in-tune in some keys than in others.

        J S Bach was one of those who worked on a solution to this, and he came up with the modern even-tempered scale, which averages out the intervals so that all keys are equally in-tune (or out-of-tune).

        If you have a well-trained ear then you can hear the slight beating that indicates this slight out-of-tuneness when you strike an open fifth on an even-tempered instrument (such as a piano). String and wind players are of course able to make the slight adjustments to overcome this tuning compromise, and if you listen to a really good string quartet you can sometimes hear the difference.
        • It wasn't J.S. Bach (Score:4, Informative)

          by jenik (1030872) on Tuesday September 04, 2007 @05:07AM (#20461555)
          Modern equal tempering was not even developed until about 70 years after J.S. Bach's death. In his Well-tempered Clavier he made use of 'well tempering', which was an older technology. He didn't develop that one either though. http://www.jimloy.com/physics/scale.htm [jimloy.com] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Well_temperament [wikipedia.org]
        • That is all well and good, until you start with a string whose natural harmonic frequency is say, 445.6 Hz, 448 Hz, or any other random number.

          It's not like in nature there is some "ideal guitar string tree" that grows strings of exactly 440 Hz. **We create strings** for our instruments that have harmonics that fit our **artificially created** scale.

          Humans love to take natural elements and put them in pretend boxes.
          • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

            by iangoldby (552781)
            I'm not sure what your point is, but I don't think we're really in major disagreement. Of course A 440 Hz is an arbitrary standard. Come to that, 440 Hz as a number is dependent on an arbitrary definition of the length of a second, the use of the base ten number system, etc.

            What isn't arbitrary is the relative pitches of notes in the Western scale - that is the ratio between pitches - which as I was trying to explain above, is related to real physics and is not at all arbitrary.
          • by bidule (173941)
            You totally missed the point. The base natural harmonic frequency has no impact on the GP.

            p' = 2.9966 * 440 Hz

            which is slightly flatter than the natural harmonic 3 * 440 Hz.

            So, as you say it isn't 440 Hz but some random 445.6 Hz, well then:

            p' = 2.9966 * 445.6 Hz

            which is slightly flatter than the natural harmonic 3 * 445.6 Hz.

            Oh what a surprise!

            BTW, our time unit the second doesn't have any magic property that makes it behave differently than the Magrathean's or the Golgafrincham's time unit. Nor does measu

        • JS Bach was one of those who worked on a solution to this, and he came up with the modern even-tempered scale, which averages out the intervals so that all keys are equally in-tune (or out-of-tune).

          Actually Bach came up with the well-tempered scale. The equally tempered scale is just a special case of the well-tempered scale (and I'm pretty sure Bach wouldn't have written his 48 if he'd really intended an equally tempered scale. He'd have written one major and one minor piece transposed into 12 keys each)

          If
        • by FlyingGuy (989135)

          As an amateur musician of some experience, I can only ass the following:

          She is a brilliant musician and is one hell of a hottie!

          Lara St. John [larastjohn.com] penned a minor little bit that will help explain this.

        • by MartinB (51897)

          J S Bach was one of those who worked on a solution to this, and he came up with the modern even-tempered scale, which averages out the intervals so that all keys are equally in-tune (or out-of-tune).

          Close, but no cigar.

          You're thinking of Well Temperament [wikipedia.org], which Bach showcased, but didn't invent.

          Equal Temperament [wikipedia.org] is a C20th invention.

      • Re:Frist Psot? (Score:5, Informative)

        by cybereal (621599) on Tuesday September 04, 2007 @05:36AM (#20461691) Homepage
        I think you misunderstand what perfect pitch is. It's not the ability to associate a note name with a pitch. Though, that may be a side effect given proper practice. Perfect pitch is the ability to recognize a given tone/pitch without relationship to a previous tone. Most people don't know if they hear an A or an E without something before it that is identified.

        More practically, most people could listen to a song's melody played in a specific key, then hear the same melody in another key the next day, and never know there was a difference. Those with perfect pitch would know there was a difference even if they weren't musicians and didn't know the letters assigned to those pitches. The fact that most of these people don't care plays into the perceived rarity of the ability. I, however, having perfect pitch, have made it a point to discover this quality in people I know. I find many people can do this and it's not as rare as often stated.
        • by log0n (18224)
          This is exactly right. I also have perfect pitch. I've been a musician for 20 years (currently making my living as a performer) and I don't know now if this ability was something I was born with or if it was something I developed overtime (though interestingly, my father and my uncle [biological - his brother] who are also professional musicians also have perfect pitch) - probably a bit of both.

          I do know that my training has enabled me to identify the invented aspect of PP.. knowing the note name without
          • by log0n (18224)
            Wanted to add on.. my first instrument was trombone and I've played that nearly as long as string bass. This could be why I have no problem discerning G/G#/A/A#(Bb). First possession on trombone is Bb (essentially it's 'open' note), bass with an open A.. by working in both I've most likely trained my brain to be more aware of the difference than most other musicians whose instruments are only in concert tuning, or only guitar tuning, etc.
      • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

        by El Jynx (548908)
        not entirely. The doubling of pitch is the difference in an octave; the complementary pitches in the octave (in other words, the sounds that sound happy, so no minors or sharps) are directly related (e.g. half of the doubling, 1/4, etc).

        And on the side, I think anybody who has a mom with a voice as loud as my mom's learns absolute pitch as a natural defense mechanism.
      • Re:Frist Psot? (Score:5, Insightful)

        by plams (744927) on Tuesday September 04, 2007 @05:57AM (#20461807) Homepage

        No, no, no! Twelve-tone pitch is derrived from perfect intervals, such as perfect thirds [wikipedia.org], fourths [wikipedia.org] and fifths [wikipedia.org]. These can be defined very cleanly as the integer ratio between two frequencies (look up just intonation [wikipedia.org]). The ratios are mathematically beautiful and simple, and also sound particularly good. The temperated (12 note) scale used by nearly all instruments today is an attempt to fit these intervals into a common scale. You may say that this approximation is a human invention (even though it's cleanly defined as freq = 440hz * 2^(n / 12), where n is the semi-note distance from A4), but as a whole? No.

        In other words, it proabbly wouldn't make any sense to use a 16 note scale or something like that. The 12 note scale has roots in something very mathematical, not something random or "human".

        • by Koiu Lpoi (632570)
          The very article you link to says that the 3rd is imperfect. And it is.
        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by bidule (173941)
          Exactly! Try with any K note scale and see how well 3:2, 4:3 and 5:4 fit in that scale. My father has been rambling about this for more than 30 years, at least twice a year. I have this thing etched in my brain so deep that I'll prolly remember this after my death.

          So try it:
          - 3 * 2^(a/K) ~= 2 * 2^(b/K)
          - 4 * 2^(c/K) ~= 3 * 2^(d/K)
          - 5 * 2^(e/K) ~= 4 * 2^(f/K)

          And you won't find any other K with less error.
          - 3:2 -> 19 vs 12 = 1.498 -> 0.113%
          - 4:3 -> 24 vs 19 = 1.335 -> 0.113%
          - 5:4 -> 28 vs 24 = 1
      • It's worth noting that the Indian classical music system, while also focusing on the same 12 intervals, further divides the scale into 22 smaller intervals or "shrutis". As others have pointed out, there is a logic and physical basis for the 12 notes, but also cultural factors have clearly played into this as well.
      • by MartinB (51897)

        Adding to the shrug factor, the twelve-semitone pitch system as a whole is a human invention.

        And if you want it in spades: the equally spaced twelve-semitone system is a pretty late, Western European-specific invention. Because the deep joy of the acoustics is that to be perfectly in tune by the frequency multipliers, each key has each note (eg A above middle C) at a slightly different pitch. So the question of whether A=440 is more correctly answered with the question "In which key?".

        This is fine and dandy

      • Adding to the shrug factor, the twelve-tone pitch system as a whole is a human invention. This makes perfect pitch that much stranger, because it means people have an innate ability to attune themselves to an artificial note naming scheme.

        Not so much, if you consider that pitch is just varying wavelengths on a vibrating column of air. Different colors are just different wavelengths for EM waves. You can look at something that is red and you know it's red, even though you weren't given a reference color. Most people don't say that colors are a human invention.

        In addition to this, the western twelve-tone chromatic scale is not really a human invention. All of the frequencies represented in the scale have mathematical relationships that are

    • Re:Frist Psot? (Score:5, Interesting)

      by semiotec (948062) on Tuesday September 04, 2007 @03:11AM (#20460995)
      I am not sure whether you really understood much here.

      First, the "article" is not "weak on details". It's the abstract, if you want details, read the full article (link on the right-hand side, "Full Text (PDF)".

      Second, "absolute pitch" or "perfect pitch" is sort of a innate ability. You can either have it or you don't, as the article shows that pitch accuracy is best in younger people. But there's different levels of the ability. If I hear a relatively clean note, I can pretty much identify what the pitch to within a semitone. However, I have problem just singing/humming a specific note as correctly without help. but I know a few people that can sing any note accurately without help and they can tell you whether your instrument is out of tune simply by their innate ability, without having to check with another instrument or tuning fork or some other gadget.

      I've heard stories that it is possible to train to have the "perfect pitch" temporarily. Someone I know sang in the Stravinsky Mass, and they practiced so much that for a few months he was able to sing a B note correctly without assistance. But this is not permanent, they lose this if they stop "training" for it.

      Now, what the article is reporting is that, people with perfect pitch, are starting to have this ability blurred due to the way orchestras inaccurately tune to a wide range of A. I assume this means they would have had exposure to such "tuning sessions" at the beginning of concerts and so on.

      So this sort of the reverse of what you have written. AP is not trained, not acquired from accumulated experience, but it can be degraded gradually if you keep blurring their idea of what A should be.

      The interesting part is, as per the abstract, they systematically get notes around A wrong, and more frequently than other notes:

      "given as a pure tone, G# is as perceived sharp far more than any other tone, whereas errors in D occur infrequently"
      "Interestingly, pure A# is most often perceived as flat, not in keeping with the other pitches,"
      "A statistical analysis shows that G# is uniquely error-prone."

      • Thereminists discuss perfect pitch frequently, because a number of noted Thereminists have had it, and it's (falsely) rumored that perfect absolute pitch is required to play the instrument. (Actually, you just need very good relative pitch.)

        People who have perfect absolute pitch tend to have always had it: it's a natural talent, or curse as the case may be. They find it painful to listen to tones that are "off key" - indeed, the family of the great Clara Rockmore tells us that she even hated touch tone tele
        • by semiotec (948062)
          I am not sure what you disagree with.

          I said absolute/perfect pitch is an innate ability and that acquired AP skills is only temporary.

          The finding of the article is that people with AP are having their senses of G#-A-A# blurred due to the way orchestras tune to a wide range of "A" sound.

          So, what exactly are you disagreeing with?

      • by Gordonjcp (186804)
        The interesting part is, as per the abstract, they systematically get notes around A wrong, and more frequently than other notes

        Equal tempered scales aren't perfect. If you look at early keyboard instruments, some had distinct E-flat (slashdot won't let me use unicode symbols - slashdot janitors, please note that most of the world doesn't use straight ASCII any more) and D-sharp keys (again, lack of unicode prevents me from writing this properly). On fretless stringed instruments, you don't play the "exa
        • Re:Frist Psot? (Score:5, Informative)

          by dreddnott (555950) <dreddnott@yahoo.com> on Tuesday September 04, 2007 @04:09AM (#20461291) Homepage
          The big villain in equal temperament is the sharp major thirds, perfect fifths and fourths are very close to the arbitrary ones, at 702 and 498 cents respectively. We're used to it enough to tolerate it but it's not the whole story of modern music.

          We hear just-temperament tuning all the time. Consider that the overtones of resonant instruments are tuned perfectly (C-octave, G-fifth, C-fourth, E-major third, G-minor third, then that weird flat-seven Bb interval that still manages to be in tune, then C-major second) and you'll see that it really does get beaten into us all the time. Barbershop and even high school or college choirs end up with perfectly-tuned chords, often by accident, but it's natural. Really only modern keyboard instruments (organ, piano, glockenspiel, whatever) and electronic music (although some of the experimental stuff is just-toned) are based on equal temperament. Most other instruments are flexible enough (lipping, slides, fretless, half-holed, embouchure, whatever) to play tuned chords in whatever key.

          Setting up a Yamaha electronic piano to play in one of the various unequal temperaments was quite an eye-opening experience for me, and it confirmed everything my music teacher had already been telling me. How good the pure chords sounded was almost as striking as how bad chords out of the key center sounded (Ab in Pure C, blech). I've become curious about studio pitch-correctors that seem to be so common in modern, over-produced 'music' - I know they are set up for analysing and correcting pitches to fit in certain keys, but are they equal- or just-tempered?
          • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

            by Stooshie (993666)

            Good post (don't have mod points just now).

            Natural/Just temperements have some interesting side effects. Bach (and some other composers) always claimed that if you played the same piece in a higher or lower key (even a semi-tone) that the whole mood changed. This would make sense as the beats between A and C# (key of A) and the beats between C and E (key of C) would be different in Natural Temperement.

          • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

            by Anonymous Coward
            The most common studio (and live, these days, they're rack mountable) pitch corrector is the Antares Auto-Tune...it can be tuned to a wide variety of scales (all your regular scales, plus a few chromatic variants) but as far as I know all the Automatic mode ones are equal tempered. However, it can be set up with manual pitch correction, and so it is possible for a skilled producer with an unskilled vocalist to produce vaguely authentic music in unusual keys.
          • by Gordonjcp (186804)
            Setting up a Yamaha electronic piano to play in one of the various unequal temperaments was quite an eye-opening experience for me

            It's something I'm quite interested in trying, actually. It would be pretty easy to modify a soft synth to use any arbitrary scale you like. If you have a look here [nekosynth.co.uk] around line 46 (code originally from Sean Bolton's Xsynth-DSSI), you'll see that the pitch table is constructed from the 12th root of 2 as per normal equal-tempered tuning. If you wanted to use a different scale y
          • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

            by Jay L (74152)
            I've used Antares AutoTune and Celemony Melodyne, two of the popular pitch-correctors, and both default to equal-tempered. I never looked to see if they'd support alternate tunings, since it wasn't relevant to the music I was working on.
          • by Twinbee (767046)
            I'll take issue with the fact that equal tempered is necessarily a compromise, and how vocalists and violinists etc. will naturally strive for the 'pure' ratios.

            In fact various studies [skytopia.com] have shown the reverse (equal temperament being the preferred intervals), and many more studies have shown ambiguous results.

            The numbers of equal temperament might look arbitrary (1.25992 instead of 1.25 for the major third, and 1.3348 instead of 1.3333 for the major fourth), but on a logarithmic scale, they are perfect
            • just just (Score:3, Interesting)

              by dickens (31040)
              There is arguably no one alive today in the west that is culturally conditioned to prefer just intonation. Just intonations is "just", meaning it's mathematically correct - intervals are the ratios of small integers. Other intonations are not. I'm sure peoples' ears can be conditioned to expect anything.

              I'm a barbershop singer, and we have to deal with oddities such as having to sing an ascending third sharper than we think it should be when the melody is moving up by that interval, yet when singing the
        • by semiotec (948062)
          thank you for pointing that out, and yes I am perfectly aware that it was around Bach's time that "well-tempered" scales came in the wide-usage and that early virginal/harpsichords/cimbalo have split keys for the black keys.

          However, I'd advise you to just read the paper and you will see what their point is. It's quite straight-forward, and despite publication in a high-profile journal, it's quite easy to read.

          G# and A#/B-flat are frequently wrong, and tend to be wrong in the same direction. They haven't pro
          • G# and A#/B-flat are frequently wrong, and tend to be wrong in the same direction. They haven't proven orchestra-tuning is the case, it's just their hypothesis that the blurring around A is likely due to that factor.

            Just as likely that these are the ones that are the most out of tune.

            In a good orchestra, A# and B-flat and G# and A-flat won't even have the same pitch in the same piece even if the orchestra is tuned to A-440. (Obviously if they are playing a piano concerto then the orchestra will tend to play
      • I don't agree with the article. In my experience, Perfect Pitch hearing is a learned ability. I had it while I studied and practiced music and I don't have it anymore. I've also found the same with friends who played for a while and then stopped. If it is a genetic trait, then you would neither need to learn it, nor would one ever unlearn it.
        • by jonbryce (703250)
          Someone with perfect pitch still needs to learn their reference notes to be able to make use of their abilities. Of course, if you haven't played any music for a long time, you will forget these.

          The point is that someone who doesn't have perfect pitch wouldn't be able to learn it.
  • I have pretty good pitch (not sure if you'd qualify it as "perfect"). Tuning to A (440 Hz) didn't really distort this ability though while I've been a musician. I do have a set of "reference pitches" that I can internalize and I can determine pitches relative to them. A440 is one of those pitches, but not the first one I use for reference, even though it is the "universal" tuning note. Could have something to do with it not being one of the notes I tuned my instrument to,and that I had a transposing instrum
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by u38cg (607297)
      Most people with a bit of training can produce and recognise various reference pitches - it's often made easier in that most instruments' tone varies with pitch, so people can learn to recognise the in-tune tone of their instrument. If you have that ability, naming other pitches by recognising the interval is not that far behind.

      What is rare is true perfect pitch, and if you have real perfect pitch you will have no problem distinguishing a G# from an A. Not only that, you would most likely be able to na

      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        by ihuntrocks (870257)
        I don't have a problem differentiating chromatic pitches either. It's just a half step interval after all. Tuning I'm fairly good on by ear, though I tend to be a few cents flat by ear, but nothing bad. I find this to be true on all of the instruments I play also, as well as when I try to sing pitches (I may have a terrible singing voice, but I can sing the correct pitches).
    • by arth1 (260657) on Tuesday September 04, 2007 @02:57AM (#20460919) Homepage Journal
      A440 is important because an orchestra is supposed to follow the first violin, and the main string on a violin is the A string, tuned at 440. The fine tuning cacophony you hear before a concert starts quite often has a plain A repeated at intervals throughout it -- this being the first violin letting others know what to tune against, if it isn't a standard 440. Sometimes it isn't, due to other instruments that might be hard to tune, like a concert piano (which can be 440, 442 or 452 Hz depending on where you are) or an old pipe organ (in which case all bets are off). Luckily, a violin is relatively easy to tune, and it's (in theory) the job of the first violinist to ensure he has a working A, which others then can tune their instruments to.

      Regards,
      --
      *Art
      • Oboe (Score:5, Informative)

        by nyet (19118) on Tuesday September 04, 2007 @03:06AM (#20460955) Homepage
        The oboe, not the worthless violinist. Violins a dime a dozen. You only get two oboists (generally).
        • You know how to get two oboes to play in tune, don't you?
          • by FlopEJoe (784551)
            "You know how to get two oboes to play in tune, don't you?"

            "Kill one of 'em?" is the only thing that comes to mind. (not that I'm advocating Oboest-icide)

      • by The -e**(i*pi) (1150927) on Tuesday September 04, 2007 @03:28AM (#20461061)
        The oboe is the instrument that stays in tune the best, and is the one a Symphony Orchestra tunes too. Most, if not all professional orchestras are Symphony's. So most professionals tune to the Oboe, not the first violin. Tuning starts where all the woodwinds and brass tune, then the oboe plays another A and the strings tune, and the percussion tune somewhere . Of course the woodwinds have to keep using their instruments or they will get cold and be out of tune so they keep playing until the start, while strings only need to warm up their fingers.
  • by piojo (995934) on Tuesday September 04, 2007 @02:54AM (#20460901)
    The article summary leaves out the important part. The summary:

    the use of A as the universal tuning frequency has made our ears less discerning of the notes immediately around it.
    It's not the use of A that distorts perfect pitch, it's the use of "alternate A's". A is accepted to be 440Hz. Some orchestras use other pitches, sometimes for a more Baroque feel--the pitch of the accepted A has changed over time (don't ask me how we know that), and on some instruments, it may sound more authentic to use the pitch a piece was originally composed for. So when people use different pitches for A (specifically, when the orchestra tunes), it messes up the perfect pitch that some people have just a little bit.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by GomezAdams (679726)
      It's not the use of different A's that make it authentic but rather the use of alternate scales. The modern tempered scale allows us to play music in any key. Older scales having different relationships among the 4ths, 5ths, 3rds, 6ths, minor 3rds, etc within the octave, was what many composers used to make the music have certain charateristics they wanted to bring out in the music. Mozart's "Requiem in D Minor" is a much different creature using the scales of Mozart's time vs the modern tempered scales. J.
    • by Bo'Bob'O (95398)
      The "standard" is different in other countries too. It's 440 here in the US, but 444 in Germany for instance. Also, there is not a universal "right" frequency for a note. "In Tune" depends on the particular cord. Pianos and the like are tuned to a set of notes that works pretty well, but wind and string players will often adjust pitches to be in tune properly. I can't tell you much more of the technical specifics myself, but as usual, Wikipeida provides: Musical temperament [wikipedia.org]
    • by dreddnott (555950)
      Helmoltz [wikipedia.org]'s book "On the Sensations of Tone" written in the mid-19th century has an entire section devoted to pitch wandering over time (and region).

      Apparently tuning forks are very accurate and do not degrade more than a few cents over hundreds of years. Typically every major hall would have its own tuning fork, owned by the master conductor or organist. Occasionally, in some traditions, the choir would have a much lower lower "A" pitch (400-415Hz was typical, even less was possible) than the orchestral or
    • I don't follow this argument. If this is so, why is perfect pitch particularly messed up regarding A, and not other notes? Surely if you move A up by a few Hertz, you move everything else accordingly?
    • It might be worth throwing into the debate the use of 441Hz that I've seen in quite a few computer-based synthesisers. With the CD standard of 16bit 44.1kHz sampling (or more recently multiples thereof), having an A at 441 makes tuning tables a bit easier to work out.
  • by mateomiguel (614660) <matt_the_grad@yah o o . com> on Tuesday September 04, 2007 @03:07AM (#20460963)
    There is no mention of modern tuning methods in the first article. The article simply says that different orchestras use different frequencies roughly around the same pitch for A. This is not a new thing.

    You would expect modern tuning methods to make the official definition of A more exact, thus eliminating the problem spoken about in the article. That's what I thought, and I'm a musician. In fact the standard A4 frequency has been defined as 440 Hz. That means that if you hear the London Philharmonic Orchestra they should be tuned to A4=440 Hz, and the Timbuktu Traditional Blowpipe Ensemble should also be tuned to A4=440Hz, because its easy to carry around a pocket piece of electronics to make a perfect 440 Hz sound.

    BUT

    This article does not say that. In fact it says that different orchestras all over the world still are not in sync, which has been the case for ALL OF RECORDED HISTORY [uk-piano.org]. The article says that because of this phenomenon, even those who can hear absolute pitch are confused as to what name they should give the frequencies immediately around 440Hz because of the variations. This is not new, or news, or related to technology in any way. Its just a fact of life.
    • by uglyduckling (103926) on Tuesday September 04, 2007 @05:19AM (#20461597) Homepage
      Thank-you, well said. I've heard a few musicians say that 'perfect' pitch is actually a curse - due to equal temperament and the fact that concert pitch is a variable concept, those with that gift are likely to hear most of the music they listen to as out of tune.


      Some studios change the speed of recordings without correcting pitch because it sounds better (apparently) - I'm a musician (rock, not classical) and I often have to retune my guitar to play along with recordings even though I have a decent electronic tuner set to A4=440. I've often wondered (maybe because I don't have that gift) who gets to say what 'perfect pitch' is: is it just people who happen to have an inbuilt sense of A4=440; should be people with an inbuilt sense of A4=415 be called 'perfect dystonics' or something ?!

      Far more useful is a very good relative pitch - being able to instantly recognise all the intervals and sing/play harmonies without thinking about it will make a far better musician than someone who happens to be able to tune their instrument to concert pitch without a reference note.

      • by Megane (129182)

        I'm a musician (rock, not classical) and I often have to retune my guitar to play along with recordings even though I have a decent electronic tuner set to A4=440.

        Are these recordings on magnetic tape? The speed of magnetic tape can vary due to stretching and other such issues, which is noticeable enough when you try to put subtitles over a videotape source that a ramp factor is standard in any decent video subtitling package. So surely the speed variations of magnetic tape (and vinyl records) could be enough to affect tuning.

        • I've found that a lot of studio recording of pop/rock music are not recorded at concert pitch, A4=440, regardless of whether it's CD/Vinyl/MP3. I'd be interested to see what others think: why not pick your top 10 pop/rock songs of all time, tune your instrument of choice to A4=440 and try to play along with each one. I'd be surprised if you made it through your top 10 without having to change your reference pitch - and since it's pop/rock it's unlikely due to a difficult-to-tune pipe organ or an old piano
      • by Miraba (846588)
        "Far more useful is a very good relative pitch - being able to instantly recognise all the intervals and sing/play harmonies without thinking about it will make a far better musician than someone who happens to be able to tune their instrument to concert pitch without a reference note."

        That may be true, but it's still very annoying to subconsciously transpose a piece and realize it only when you find that you're missing a string.
    • by Aladrin (926209)
      What -is- new, relatively speaking, is the ability to hear music from all over the world. Throughout most of recorded history, you had very limited exposure to music in other countries. Now, we have Radio, TV, CDs, Internet... We're flooded with it. Instead of a person with Perfect Pitch only being exposed to local music, they actually experience much more non-local music than local.
  • by rivaldufus (634820) on Tuesday September 04, 2007 @03:50AM (#20461153)
    especially string players (with no frets.) It's very difficult, if not impossible, for them to play continually in equal temperament (unless playing with an equal temperament instrument such as piano.) The usual definition of Equal temperament is that octave is (usually) divided into 12 evenly spaced pitches. Modern day keyboard instruments are all tuned like this. It's fairly effective compromise, as all the keys (C Major, F minor, Eb minor, etc.) all sound the same. Unfortunately, a fifth or even a third for a given key is slightly out of tune (the half step and the octave are the only perfectly in tune intervals on a modern day piano.) In the other systems, there may be a perfectly tuned fifth and third for a given key, but other keys may sound horribly out of tune. Certainly, equal temperament is a more practical solution than constantly retuning a piano to a different pitch each time you drastically change keys.

    Unrelated - My wife has perfect pitch - and I sometime "detune" my clavinova to D mean tone or some other system and play something in Eb minor. I certainly notice the difference, but it drives her crazy. She also has great difficulty when required to tune her violin for Baroque music (A 415.)

    • She also has great difficulty when required to tune her violin for Baroque music (A 415.)
      A at 415.0 Hz is pretty much the same as concert G# at 415.3 Hz. Does your wife also have difficulty with a Bb trumpet, whose A is at concert G (392.0 Hz) or other such transposing instruments [wikipedia.org]?
      • You dont play the instrument's "A", but rather you compensate for your transposition and play up or down. Us Bb clarinets and trumpets play C. My A Clarinet plays B for concert pitch.

        My C Saxophone (circa 1914 Conn), you just play A. They quit making them just after the war.
  • This may just be me, but if you use A to tune all the time wouldn't you become more accustomed to its pitch and therefore notice more often if it was sharp or flat?

    Also, as someone who has been told they have perfect pitch (I haven't done any official tests so I'm not 100% sure), when I'm listening to music that may not be precisely on-key it doesn't bother me or sound "wrong", it just sounds different. That is, as long as the instruments are all tuned together; if it's just one instrument that's out of
  • The article is complete junk.

    440Hz is used as a reference for the tuning of instruments, it has no relationship whatsoever to the notes actually played by those instruments.

  • Our Ears? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by DynaSoar (714234) on Tuesday September 04, 2007 @11:44AM (#20464905) Journal
    I don't see anything in TwholeFA that says anything about "modern" tuning as opposed to non-modern. The choice of A is arbitrary. Until this is replicated using different notes as the target, they've got too much confluence of musical memory and their theoretical genetics to do more than use the conclusions as the basis for more work. (And what good grant-using researcher doesn't; a PNAS publication makes that very easy for them).

    The use of "none were musically naive" is a poor operational definition because it's too vague. Better to use "professionally trained performers with X years performance experience". Those with a lot of listening exposure and only enough performance experience (even if just by themselves) makes it likely that those with true AP and those with relative pitch (RP; being able to tell a pitch compared to another) are mixed together. The latter can have an extensive musical memory and be able to compare a presented tone with a song in memory that they know is in a certain key. They may well have done so, because they included at least one subject with skewed scores that were very consistent in their skewing (always one sharp off) as an AP subject.

    The memory problem will probably also come out if they replicate this (as they suggest) with people from other cultures. Those who come from cultures with tonal based languages are going to have a very good tonal memory and discrimination from any given starting note and so good RP.

    I'm highly suspect of a 44% sample of AP. I used the more rigorous definition of musical experience in brain imaging experiments and had about 15% true AP among them. Many of those claiming AP had good RP, and their EEG showed more memory than auditory activation, just as those claiming and having only RP. I'm also suspect of getting the same results from sinusoidal tones vs. piano tones. The latter has multiple overtones, providing multiple cues for the pitch. I used only sinusoidal for that reason.

    Having the tones presented via web transmission gives no control over the actual output. Despite having as little as 0.01% total harmonic distortion in the amplifiers, output devices such as speakers and headphone or ear buds have around 1% to 3% THD, all of the different kinds having different harmonic distortion profiles.

    Their description of aging causing "sharping" due to hair cell stiffening with age is very good. But the possibility remains that the documented time distortion due to perceptual slowing with age can be involved. That needs prying apart with other perceptual testing for time distortion per subject. A longitudinal study with the same "true" AP subjects decades later would be wonderful for the aging/sharpening problem, but figure the odds.

    All that aside, good AP and RP probably have the same genetic source for auditory perception (minus auditory memory). I think they're on to something.
  • Frequency shifting (Score:3, Interesting)

    by compwizrd (166184) on Tuesday September 04, 2007 @12:38PM (#20465689) Homepage
    My hearing aids frequency shift everything down to around 1000hz, the range I can actually somewhat hear in.

    The brain gradually learns what high pitch and low pitch is. With hearing aids, I can hear the 8khz band being tweaked on an equalizer, whereas without the hearing aids I can't tell the difference when the 1khz or higher is adjusted.

    With a cochlear implant, with time the brain learns to adjust and distinguish frequencies, but never has the same degree of sensitivity.

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