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Some people can identify a pitch without even looking at sheet music. Is it something they're born with or can it be learned?

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If you heard some random music notes, would you be able to figure out what they were?

Like, could you just tell that this... is a D, and this—absolutely an A-flat? Maybe you’re just great at guessing, or you could have a rare ability called perfect pitch, which puts you in the same club as Mozart.

Perfect pitch, also called absolute pitch, allows you to identify musical notes without context, which is especially helpful if you are a musician. Most research seems to say you have to learn it as a kid. But with lots of practice, it might be possible to develop sort-of perfect pitch as an adult.

Many studies suggest that to have perfect pitch, you need to start musical training around six years old, during a critical period of development. During this time, your brain is figuring out which neural pathways will be useful, and which ones it should just get rid of. The key is giving sound meaning, like that this sound... is a C.

Just like learning that the fluffy, slobbery thing that cuddles up next to you is called a dog. Also, if you speak a tonal language where pitch affects the meaning of words, like Mandarin, you could be more likely to develop perfect pitch, since your brain has been associating different pitches with meaning from the start. But if you’re not actively learning musical notes, your brain will get rid of those extra sound-identifying connections so it can become more efficient.

Most of this research is only correlational, meaning scientists didn’t manipulate any variables and, like, teach babies certain combinations of language and musical notes. But it still makes sense with what we know about how the brain develops. If you missed that critical period of development, researchers aren’t sure if you would ever be able to develop true perfect pitch.

But some studies have found that adults can be trained to better identify notes, which can last for months. In a 2015 paper from the journal Cognition, researchers tested 17 university students with various musical backgrounds, but no perfect pitch, and got a baseline for how well they could name different notes and recreate notes that they just heard. Then, the participants went through training where they listened to 180 piano notes, were asked to name them, and got corrected when they were wrong.

After all that, the participants did the baseline tests again and scored at least 8% better, and their scores were still higher for 6 of them when they were retested around half a year later. This study and others like it are pretty small, and the participants aren’t all that close to the accurate, lifelong perfect pitch you might develop as a kid. But as long as you’re willing to put in the work to learn, it’s at least a half-step in the right direction!

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