Perfect Pitch

The following is an excerpt from the book “Peak” by Anders Ericsson and Robert Poole. It illustrates the musical phenomenon known as “perfect pitch,” and explains the “critical developmental window” aspect of the childhood development of perfect pitch. By understanding the time-criticality of the learning of such skills, parents and coaches of Dangerous Children will have a much better idea of how to proceed from the beginning.

The term is “absolute pitch,” although it is better known as “perfect pitch.”

… Beethoven is thought to have had it; Brahms did not. Vladimir Horowitz had it; Igor Stravinsky did not. Frank Sinatra had it; Miles Davis did not.

It would seem, in short, to be an example of an innate talent that a few lucky people are born with and most are not. Indeed, this is what was widely believed for at least two hundred years. But over the past few decades a very different understanding of perfect pitch has emerged, one that points to an equally different vision of the sorts of gifts that life has to offer.

a good deal of research has shown that nearly everyone with perfect pitch began musical training at a very young age — generally around three to five years old. But if perfect pitch is an innate ability, something you are either born with or not, it shouldn’t make any difference whether you receive musical training as a child…

… perfect pitch is much more common among people who speak a tonal language such as Mandarin, Vietnamese, and several other Asian tongues in which the meaning of words is dependent on their pitch… people of Asian heritage who don’t grow up speaking a tonal language are no more likely than people of other ethnicities to have perfect pitch.

… The true character of perfect pitch was revealed in 2014, thanks to a beautiful experiment carried out at the Ichionkai Music School in Tokyo and reported in the scientific journal Psychology of Music. The Japanese psychologist Ayako Sakakibara recruited twenty four children between the ages of two and six and put them through a months-long training course designed to teach them to identify, simply by their sound, various chords played on the piano… The children were given four or five training sessions per day, each lasting just a few minutes, until he or she could identify all fourteen of the target chords that Sakakibara had selected. Some of the children completed the training in less than a year, while others took as long as a year and a half.

Then, once a child had learned to identify the fourteen chords, Sakakibara tested that child to see if he or she could identify individual notes. After completing training, every one of the children of the children had developed perfect pitch, and could identify individual notes played on the piano.

From “Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise” by Anders Ericsson and Robert Poole.

Mozart is famous for his “perfect pitch,” which doubtless assisted him in his lifelong work as composer and musician. By the time young Mozart reached the age of four, his father was already working with him intensively on the violin, keyboard, and other instruments. Wolfgang came from a family of musicians, so his genetic complement probably made him more receptive to this training than, say, the son of a chimney sweep would have been. But if started at an early age — and given the right kind of training for a long enough time — even the progeny of chimney sweeps now are thought to have had an excellent chance to develop perfect pitch.

The Book Goes On to Describe Other Unlikely Skills That Can Be Developed or Enhanced by Training

Humans are believed to be limited to about seven consecutive digits of recall, when remembering long numbers. But Anders Ericsson developed a method to extend that ability in college students up to 82 digits — eighty two! There is a big difference between memorising seven digits, and memorising eighty-two digits. The key was in the training that Ericsson had developed.

Proper and Deliberate Practise Transcends Plateaus

Research has shown that, generally speaking, once a person reaches that level of “acceptable” performance and automaticity, the additional years of “practice” don’t lead to improvement. If anything, the doctor or the teacher or the driver who’s been at it for twenty years is likely to be a bit worse than the one who’s been doing it for only fife, and the reason is that these automated abilities gradually deteriorate in the absence of deliberate efforts to improve. __ Anders Ericsson, Robert Poole in “Peak”

Ericsson packs a lot of meaning into the word “deliberate.” Deliberate efforts to improve, or “deliberate practise,” is designed in a particular way to help you break through the barriers, and transcend the plateaus of learning on which you have been stuck. By learning deliberately you combat the natural degeneration of memory and expertise which tends to occur naturally with time.

Consider “Purposeful Practise”

Purposeful practice is all about putting a bunch of baby steps together to reach a longer-term goal…

Purposeful practice is focused . . .

Purposeful practice involves feedback…

Purposeful practice involves getting out of one’s comfort zone …

__ Ericsson and Poole in “Peak

Getting Started Early Makes a Difference

Children who began musical training early in life, had different patterns of brain development as adults than those who did not begin training so early. The age of development when purposeful and deliberate training is initiated and maintained, shapes later development of the brain for life. If the person later neglects his special skill, his brain will regress to an extent, but the traces of the earliest training will remain and will provide scaffolding for building skills if purposeful training is re-instituted.

What is true for music is also true for chess, mathematics, scientific reasoning, and many other skills — many of which are critical assets for success in a modern high-tech world.

Different skills are better learned at different ages, but for most basic skills such as music, foreign language, strategy & tactics, three-dimensional dynamic movement and visualisation, creativity and invention etc., sometime before the age of six, eight, or ten, is best, depending …

And we have known for a long time that the development of pre-frontal executive functions and character should be developed before the age of eight, and as early as the age of four. Executive functions are probably more important than IQ to a child’s ultimate life success.

Do Not Neglect This Time in A Child’s Life

If the development of the child’s mind is left to institutions and society in general, parents will get what they deserve — another groupthinking member of the herd. But if parents want something very special for their child, they will mind the brain calendar and begin playful but purposeful practise at very early ages, according to the skill being developed.

Always remember that each skill requires a foundation, and most early skills foundations are quite easy and fun to teach and learn. But if they are neglected, later training is more difficult and is likely to leave cracks and holes of weakness and vulnerability.

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