Finding The Notes Among Us

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The honk of a horn and the rumble of a truck sound like noise to most people. But to Lucy Fitz Gibbon, and others with absolute pitch, there are notes embedded in the noise. Exactly why some people have this mysterious ability to recognize pitch isn't well understood.

IRA FLATOW, host:

Time for our Video Pick of the Week. Flora Lichtman, our multimedia editor, is here. And this is a good one.

FLORA LICHTMAN: Thanks, Ira.

FLATOW: They're all good, but this is great one, because it's multimedia, right?

LICHTMAN: Right. This week, we investigated what seems like a superpower to me. And let's see if people can guess what it is. I'll set the scene for you.

FLATOW: Okay.

LICHTMAN: I was walking down the street with a college senior, Lucy Fitz Gibbon, and we come to a rumbling truck. And I'm sitting there, like, oh, this is going to be terrible for the audio...

FLATOW: Right.

LICHTMAN: ...I hear noise.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

LICHTMAN: And she starts humming, and says, hmm, that's an E flat.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: What? The truck?

LICHTMAN: The truck was making an E flat. And then there's honking in the background, and that's a B natural. I think you catch my drift here.

FLATOW: So she hears - where we hear noise, she hears the musical notes.

LICHTMAN: The pitch, yup.

FLATOW: The pitch of the noise.

LICHTMAN: Yes. So she has perfect pitch, or what researchers call absolute pitch.

FLATOW: Absolute pitch.

LICHTMAN: And it really is kind of amazing to walk around with her because -she's clearly experiencing the world in a way that I can't really relate to.

FLATOW: Yeah. So how do you know if you have perfect pitch?

LICHTMAN: Well, we spoke with a researcher, David Ross, at Yale University Medical School, and he actually gave me a perfect pitch test. And I think we should do this test for listeners. Now, it's a little bit difficult, because in his test, he gives you a tone-generating device so...

FLATOW: Right.

LICHTMAN: ...you can actually give the answer with that. But if you had any musical training, you probably - and have perfect pitch, you'll pass it. Okay.

FLATOW: All right, what we...

LICHTMAN: So here's the test.

FLATOW: Okay.

LICHTMAN: Are you ready, Ira?

FLATOW: I'm ready.

LICHTMAN: Oh, you're ready. Okay. Good. Listen to the first tone you hear...

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

LICHTMAN: ...and remember it. That's it.

FLATOW: All right.

LICHTMAN: That's the only test.

FLATOW: Go for it.

(Soundbite of a series of notes)

LICHTMAN: Easy, right? Okay. Do you have it in your head?

FLATOW: Yeah.

LICHTMAN: Let's get ready and hear the answer. So keep that note in your head.

FLATOW: (Makes noise)

(Soundbite of tone)

FLATOW: Close.

LICHTMAN: Pretty good, Ira.

FLATOW: Close, yes. I have, what do you call it? So I have...

LICHTMAN: Absolute pitch.

FLATOW: Is it catching? I take I take something for it? I don't have absolute pitch. I couldn't pick out an A from a C and...

LICHTMAN: It's - but for me, I could - it was erased instantaneously.

FLATOW: Yeah.

LICHTMAN: I mean, I couldn't hear it after the second note was played.

FLATOW: So this - does this drive her nutty? If she hears all these sounds every day, saying, my laser printer is putting out a B flat, right?

LICHTMAN: It's funny, you should mention that. Actually, in her office where she works, the scanner, what she describes, is her Waterloo, by the way, is just below, I think it's a B flat. So it's just out of tune, at least the Western tuning scale, right? And it's constantly being used and so apparently it's very irritating, because she's a singer...

FLATOW: Oh, yeah.

LICHTMAN: ...and so she's pretty attuned to it.

FLATOW: ...hear these things that are just out of tune, that's even worse.

LICHTMAN: Yeah, it can...

FLATOW: If they were good notes, okay.

LICHTMAN: It can be very annoying, apparently.

FLATOW: Wow.

LICHTMAN: But, you know, I think the really interesting part of this research is just - and this is what David Ross is trying to understand, is how people, and why this group of people - and it's about one in 10,000, that's the thought - hear pitches in this different way. And I think that test is indicative. Think about if you did that test with...

FLATOW: Yeah.

LICHTMAN: ...color.

FLATOW: Oh, yeah.

LICHTMAN: And someone - and they showed - said, okay, remember the first color.

FLATOW: I'd remember that.

LICHTMAN: I think most people...

FLATOW: Yeah.

LICHTMAN: ...who are not colorblind would not have a problem remembering it, because color has this intrinsic identity to all of us.

FLATOW: Right. So he wants to know why everybody is not this person, right?

LICHTMAN: That's how he frames the question. And his theory is that, you know, our ears are taking in the signal in the same way.

FLATOW: Right.

LICHTMAN: We're all hearing the same signal, and our ears are encoding it in the same way, but that for some reason, in people without absolute pitch, that signal gets lost somewhere in the brain.

FLATOW: Hmm. Well, if you want to see Flora's Video Pick of the Week, and take the test yourself...

LICHTMAN: Yes, you could take it.

FLATOW: ...go to our website at sciencefriday.com and it's right there, up there on the little video side on the left. Play it. Take the test. You can even download it onto your iPhone if you want on our iPhone app and play it over and over again.

LICHTMAN: Yeah. And the test - this is the thing, the test should not be hard. David Ross said that for people with absolute pitch, the biggest struggle is not falling asleep because it's so easy for them...

FLATOW: Yeah.

LICHTMAN: ...which just gives you a sense of the...

FLATOW: Flora's done it again. Have fun. Our Video Pick of the Week on our sciencefriday.com website. Thank you, Flora.

LICHTMAN: Thanks, Ira.

FLATOW: See you next week.

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