Mini Essay Assignment
Training pitch perception in children
From the time a tone is created in space to the time the brain perceives it for what it is, the tone has gone on a whirlwind journey through the auditory pathways of the human neural system. At first, the tone travels through the ear. The tone, which is a pressure wave, is funneled by the pinna into the ear canal, strikes the ear drum, which in turn sets off three bones of the inner ear into a mechanical chain reaction. The final bone of the middle ear, the stapes, now sends the pressure wave into the inner ear, where the wave is sensed by neurons called hair cells, which correspond to different tonal frequencies. From here, high-speed nerve fibers send the signals to the brainstem.
The tone enters the brain and is processed in the auditory cortex of the temporal lobe. At first it enters the primary auditory cortex, which filters out tones which are not important. The relevant ones proceed to the secondary auditory cortex, where the tones are reassembled to make sense. It is in the right secondary auditory cortex, where operations specifically related to processing relationships between pitches as they happen through time occur (Peretz, Zatorre, 92).
The auditory neural system is evidently quite complex and fascinating. For me it became even more so, with the realization that pitch identification is not embedded in the brain at birth, but needs to be developed. This first became apparent in chapter three of Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy by Robert Jourdain. Jourdain writes of a kindergarten class where children cannot sing an easy melody in tune. The children can sing the contour of the melody, yet achieving the correct intervals between intervals is truly difficult at this young age (Jourdain, 61-63).
I have taught young children vocal music in the past and have seen this characteristic in their singing- correct contour, yet incorrect intervals. Just as the parents in Jourdain’s book, I also thought this was cute. Yet I never considered why this was so. It never struck me that children’s sense of pitch perception and tonal memory would need to be developed! This topic is quite relevant for me right now and in the future, as I have just taken on my first private vocal student under the age of ten. In fact, I have noted a tendency for her to sing out of tune, and not necessarily to realize it.
Upon further thought, I also started to wonder whether the perception of pitch can be categorized on a linear scale of ability. Would one extreme of the scale then be possession of absolute pitch, the other extreme tone deafness, and anything in between- differing levels of relative pitch perception? If this were so, if one would train to have absolute pitch, would this training also be a pathway to improving relative pitch perception? If yes, this would be a good way to train the children who could not sing the melody in tune. If this were not the case, and one could not improve relative pitch through absolute pitch training, how could one train relative pitch?
Absolute pitch is the ability to identify or produce a musical pitch without the use of an external reference pitch. It occurs very rarely in the population, as most people process pitch relatively (by processing the melodic and harmonic relations among the pitches themselves), as opposed to the absolute pitches themselves. There have been indications that absolute pitch possessors have differences in the brain. For one thing, neurologists from the Dusseldorf Heine University have confirmed that absolute pitch possessors have a larger planum temporale on their left side of the brain compared to those who do not (Nowak). [It now appears that the left side is not larger, but that the right is smaller in absolute pitch possessors (Peretz, Zatorre, 104)]. Besides structural differences, it also seems that functionally, in identifying pitches, absolute pitch possessors do not need to access their working memory as relative pitch processors do. This has been shown by experiments which indicate a greater electrophysiological response to a pitch in the right frontal cortex (believed to be important in monitoring pitch information in working memory) in those not possessing absolute pitch (Peretz, Zatorre, 104).
Some researchers will argue that absolute pitch is genetic. Others will say that acquiring it depends on a predisposition, plus a certain environmental input at a young age. Takeuchi and Hulse argue that it is most likely a learned ability (Takeuchi, Hulse, 355). They say it is acquired as long as musical training is started in the critical period of 3-5 years. The many efforts to teach adults absolute pitch which have been frustratingly unsuccessful adds proof to this argument. According to Takeuchi and Hulse however, it is not only the age of initiating music instruction is important, but the nature of the instruction. Absolute pitch develops only if the nature of the musical training includes the association of specific pitch names with particular absolute pitches. Training cannot focus on relational aspects of pitches (Takeuchi, Hulse, 355). For example, if teaching solfegge, the "doh" would always have to be on the same pitch.
Thus the answer to my earlier question - "if one trains to have absolute pitch, is this training also a pathway to attaining at least relative pitch?"- apparently becomes "no". The two skills are not related, in the sense that while learning one, the other is not also acquired. Ironically, there actually appears to be a trade-off between the abilities of acquiring absolute pitches and relative pitches (Takeuchi, Hulse, 356). As a child matures, there is a shift in cognitive focus from individual notes to the whole melody. “Getting the big picture” of the melody, gains precedence in the brain over the attention given to singular notes. This is why a critical period exists if one is to gain absolute pitch, since at around age five the brain naturally shifts focus to the whole melody and there is not enough attention given to the frequencies themselves.
Thus the question of how to train young children in acquiring relative pitch perception remains. In his book Teaching Kids to Sing, Kenneth Philips gives a few suggestions on how to train young children correct pitch perception. He encourages proper feedback to improve the connection between audiation (inner hearing) and kinesthetic sensations (how it feels to sing). Proper feedback includes playing back the tone so they can hear it after they have sung it, visual feedback- for example, arm gestures pointing higher or lower when the tone is out of tune, and microcomputer feedback. Microcomputers show the desired pitch line, and then the kids have to match the line with their produced pitches. However, a concern with microcomputers is that the kids would “push” the sound with their laryngeal and pharyngeal muscles, causing tension (Phillips, 26). Furthermore, he suggests echoic singing of tonal patterns, where children echo a model. However, he suggests a female model, as the male model is an octave lower, and could cause children to misunderstand, and also to potentially strain their voices (Phillips, 28).
Indeed, it is cute when children in grade one stand in a row and cannot sing in tune. Yet after a few more years this not only loses its charm, but the individuals concerned become self-conscious about their singing. It is important that if we as a society value music making, we need to ensure that children are trained to understand and appreciate music, and feel comfortable with it. Children can sing in tune- they just need to be showed the way.
Hulse, S. & Takeuchi, A. “Absolute Pitch”. Psychological Bulletin 1993: 345-361.
Jourdain, Robert. Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy. New York: Harper Collins, 1997.
Nowak, Rachel. “Brain Center Linked to Perfect Pitch”. Science February 3, 1995: 616.
Peretz, I. & Zatorre, R. “Brain Organization for Music Processing”. Annual Review of Psychology 2005: 89-114.
Phillips, Kenneth. Teaching Kids to Sing. Toronto: Maxwell Macmillan Canada, 1992.