[Smt-talk] Perfect pitch and aging (not so much aging as water)

Brad Osborn webpine brad06 at u.washington.edu
Fri Feb 10 10:22:02 PST 2012

Dear colleagues,

First off, a disclaimer: while my post concerns distortion of AP, it
differs from the previous posts in that: it has nothing to do with aging,
and I would not consider myself to have anywhere near the degree of
absolute pitch others posting in this thread have reported. Furthermore, I
fully appreciate the sensitivity involved in comparing the following
situation to people who cannot simply reverse the effects of AP drift by
avoiding getting water in their ears. I am posing this question because I
wonder, given the physical explanations people have been providing, if
there could be a connection.

I swim laps most days, and about seven years ago I had a bizarre experience
of getting out of the pool, getting directly into my car, and putting on a
song I know extremely well. It was immediately apparent to me that the song
was approximately a half-step "flat" to my ears. It was cold that day, and
so I thought it might be due to some sort of slowing effect on my stereo,
and thought nothing of it. But, the next day I got out of the pool and went
directly home and picked up a dial-tone phone to make a call, and
experienced approximately the same amount of downward drift in pitch. I
then began noticing it everywhere.

As my sense of pitch got better over the years, I noticed this effect
nearly every time I got out of the pool and heard a sound with which I was
even vaguely familiar. It was not a major concern, since it wore off as
soon as I flushed the water out of my ears, or after I merely let it run
its course for a couple hours. However, since I started graduate school—and
thus had to begin teaching ear training—I started wearing earplugs when I
swam and this correction has stopped the drift completely. I now wear them
every time I swim laps and have never noticed the drift, but in random
summertime dips in the lake or ocean or such, when I do not have my
earplugs, I notice it consistently, so I am quite sure of the correlation.

Has anyone else experienced this, or know how it might be related to the
physiological effects of aging?


Brad Osborn, Ph.D.
Visiting Assistant Professor, Music Theory
Rhodes College
BradThomasOsborn at gmail.com

On Fri, Feb 10, 2012 at 11:31 AM, reinifrosch at bluewin.ch <
reinifrosch at bluewin.ch> wrote:

> Dear colleagues,
> In the paper "Dichotomy and perceptual distortions in absolute pitch
> ability", by E. Alexandra Athos et al., PNAS 104 (2007) 14795-14800, the
> authors have written: "[...] Indeed, we reason that an increase (not a
> decrease, as suggested by Vernon) in the elasticity [i.e., in the
> compliance] of the basilar membrane [BM] would be predicted to cause a
> displacement in the cochlear frequency map in the sharp direction. In this
> model, hair cells that formerly resonated for a given tone (e.g., E) and
> relayed that stimulus to the auditory cortex now respond at a lower
> frequency (e.g., D#). Because the hair cells that are triggered by this
> lower frequency remain hard-wired to relay a signal to a higher frequency
> recognition site in the auditory cortex, one perceives the tone at a higher
> frequency."
> In other words: The BM stiffness is conjectured to decrease with age. I
> doubt, however, that the change of BM stiffness with age really explains
> the mentioned frequency-map shift. At frequencies above 1 kHz, the place of
> maximal excitation shifts apically by about 0.5 octave-distance (i.e., by
> about 2 mm) if the sound-pressure level is reduced from 100 dB to 30 dB.
> According, e.g., to Chapter 6 of the fifth edition of "An Introduction to
> the Psychology of Hearing" by B.C.J. Moore, the analysis of nerve-spike
> time intervals plays an important part in pitch perception.
> Reinhart Frosch,
> CH-5200 Brugg.
> reinifrosch at bluewin.ch .
> ----Ursprüngliche Nachricht----
> Von: bmarvin at esm.rochester.edu
> Datum: 08.02.2012 21:24
> An: "smt-talk at lists.societymusictheory.org"<
> smt-talk at lists.societymusictheory.org>
> Betreff: [Smt-talk] Perfect pitch and aging
> Dear all,
> My understanding is that the creeping sharp of absolute pitch is, as Fred
> intuits below, a physical change in the ear with age (thus it has nothing
> to do with listening to early music, etc.).  I am not sure now where I
> learned this, but I was told that the basilar membrane (in the auditory
> system’s cochlea) stiffens with age.   In normal hearing the basilar
> membrane is activated tonotopically, with high frequencies activated at the
> base of the membrane and low frequencies at the apex; this leads to our
> perception of pitch.  Somehow the stiffening of the membrane must lead to
> different activations, here or further up the auditory system.  Does David,
> or anyone else, know whether this explanation has been studied?
> Betsy Marvin
> Eastman School of Music.
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