[Smt-talk] Perfect pitch and aging

JONATHAN W BERNARD jbernard at u.washington.edu
Tue Feb 7 15:00:48 PST 2012

I'm happy to share my personal experience with pitch and aging.  First of all, I've never really thought of myself as gifted (or afflicted) with perfect pitch -- I've never been able to sing a specific pitch by picking it out of thin air, for instance -- but from early adulthood on I could always reliably tell what key solo piano music or chamber music for strings (with or without piano) was in without any known reference pitch.  Same for a lot of orchestral music -- but there it would get tricky: I grew up playing the clarinet, and there would always be some ambiguity about pitch if a clarinet were part of the ensemble.  And the fact that the soprano clarinet comes in two varieties only multiplied the potential confusions.  (I have to concentrate very hard to hear Mozart K.622 or K.581 in A, or K.498 in E-flat -- I'm sure muscle memory has a lot to do with this too.)  BTW, I understand from secondhand accounts that Milton Babbitt endured similar confusion all his life owing!
  to his early clarinet exposure.

Anyway, to the limited degree that I "have perfect pitch," I have noticed the effect that David Huron refers to, going sharp as I age.  Usually I'm a semitone off, sometimes as much as a whole tone.  (I'm 60 years old now.)  Being a whole tone too high, in a way, comes naturally to me -- but now it's hard to know just what factors are causing the interference!

A couple of other questions occur to me.  First, does tinnitus play a role in this sharpening effect?  Or is it simply a phenomenon that stems from the same source?  Second, aside from considering the effect of transposing instruments, one might ask whether prolonged listening to older music played at lowered pitch (e.g. A 415) would also disorient one's sense of absolute pitch.  (I remember hearing something unfamiliar on the radio some years ago that turned out to be in C minor, which while it was being played "sounded like" B minor.)

Jonathan Bernard
University of Washington

On Tue, 7 Feb 2012, Huron, David wrote:

> It's well-known that people with perfect pitch experience an upward pitch-shift with age.
>  Typically, by around 55 years of age
> a C sounds like a C#, and by 65 a C tends to sound like a D.
> I wonder if this is a universal experience or whether there are
> people with perfect pitch -- older than 60 -- who have NOT experienced
> an upward pitch shift.
> I'd appreciate people writing to me to convey their experiences regarding
> age and AP.  I'll post a summary if I receive enough responses.
> Thanks,
> David Huron
> huron.1 at osu.edu
> David Huron
> Arts and Humanities Distinguished Professor
> School of Music & Center for Cognitive Science
> Ohio State University

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