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

Graham Hunt gghunt at uta.edu
Fri Feb 10 14:13:57 PST 2012

Brad – I was about to post about nearly the same experience I had back when I was 13 or 14... I knew I had AP but hadn’t really learned the ins and out of A=440 vs A=415. I too swam every day one summer for the neighborhood swim team, and noticed that every time I was coming home from practice in the car, that everything on the radio was a half step lower – Beethoven’s 5th was in B minor... Mozart’s Figaro Prelude was in D-flat major (I had nightmares of playing that bassoon lick in Db.... yikes), and U2’s “With or without you” was also in D-flat major. 
Now I realize a) how and why water in the ears causes this pitch sliding and b) that I was hearing Mozart, Beethoven, and U2 at Baroque pitch. Wow!
Anyway, thank you for posting this Brad, and know that I had the same experience!  And clearly it wasn’t related to aging.

Graham Hunt
Associate Professor, Musicology/Music Theory
University of Texas at Arlington

From: Brad Osborn webpine 
Sent: Friday, February 10, 2012 12:22 PM
To: smt-talk at societymusictheory.org 
Subject: Re: [Smt-talk] Perfect pitch and aging (not so much aging as water)

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.

  Smt-talk mailing list
  Smt-talk at lists.societymusictheory.org

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