Absolute pitch

Test yourself for absolute pitch and synaesthesia

Hello dear reader

Open UniversityIt has been a crazy long week for me as I have been teaching for the Open University (OU), the main correspondence based University in the UK.  The OU runs summer schools for its psychology degree and every year I attend one of these residential schools to spend a week living on campus (this year at the University of Sussex) tutoring a lovely group of students who are running their very first experiments.

The week is really intense as most of these students have never met each other before coming to the school and it is part of my job to coordinate their getting together in groups and working on their designs, building stimuli, testing people and then, finally, the joys of ‘analysis day’! On the last day (today) the students all make posters to present their work. I never ceased to be amazed at how much work the students manage to get through in a week.

Teaching phraseThe OU residential summer schools are one of my favourite teaching experiences;I have some  good friends who are tutors (I have done the schools for 6 years now) and I am teaching a great group of adults who are always so motivated to learn.

Anyway, enough about me and on to the subject of this week’s blog – one of my wonderful masters students!! I have loved tutoring on the MSc in Music, Mind and Brain for the last 5 years and one of the best things is supervising the students for their thesis project.

Supervising on the MMB is very different to the OU as the work is more advance (postgrad vs. undergrad) and extended over a longer period of time. It can cover far more techniques (e.g. brain stimulation) and populations (e.g. musicians, amusics). But like with the OU I have always been blessed with amazing students. One of my previous MMB students, Nora, is currently really close to having her project published and I can’t wait to blog about it! There are many other projects that have given fantastic results and inspiration over the years.

Guang YiAnother one of my current MMB students, Guang Yi, is working on a project looking at the relationship between absolute pitch and synaesthesia. He is  looking for participants to take his online tests so I asked him to introduce his project for you here.

Please read of his ideas and, if you have a few minutes, have a go at his pitch and colour tests!! We would alsi be really gratefull if you could pass around the link.

Thank you dear reader. I will be back soon with some early blogs in advance of the big SMPC conference that is coming up in a few weeks.

The hyper-connected brain – by Guang Yi Chua

Piano colourDo you know someone who says that they see different colours when they hear sounds, especially musical tones? This is a variety of synaesthesia, where two traditionally distinct sensory experiences are combined.

What about someone who can correctly name any note without the assistance of a reference? We call this ‘absolute’ or ‘perfect pitch’

Researchers have traditionally investigated these two phenomena independently, and information about them is well-documented within music psychology. Seem interesting? Then I need your help in completing an online study that will help me investigate possible links between these conditions. Read on for more information!

Studies show that people with either of these conditions* have a higher density of neuronal connections between similar regions of the brain; Ramachandran and Hubbard (2001) refer to these high density regions as hyperconnectivity within the brain’s neuronal networks. Recent evidence suggests a possible relationship between individuals with tone-colour synaesthesia and absolute pitch (AP) due to this hyper-connectivity.

MusicLet us first explore AP. Most people with musical training can identify a pitch if you play them a first note, tell them what it is, and then play a second pitch to identify. The ability to do this is called relative pitch. Absolute pitch is the ability to name a musical pitch without an external reference, meaning they do not need the first step of the example I just mentioned – they just know what pitch it is. Absolute pitch abilities vary on a spectrum, but for the purpose of this article, I will not go into more detail than this.

silkNow let’s talk about synaesthesia; many different kinds exist. I have a friend who does not enjoy listening to Bach because it feels like someone rubbing sandpaper all over his body, but he loves Debussy because it feels like he is rolling around in the softest silk; some people have strong colour associations with different days of the week. The list of possible synaesthetic experiences is enormous, and even though researchers have extensively documented these experiences, the list is by no means complete.

Tone-colour synaesthesia is a subset of synaesthesia. Put simply, synaesthesia is a condition where an external stimulus elicits concurrent involuntary responses in two senses –the intended and an unexpected one. In the case of individuals with tone-colour synaesthesia, in addition to hearing tones like the normal population does, they perceive colours simultaneously.

The most common thing between people with AP and tone-colour synaesthesia is that they have these experiences almost instantaneously. People with AP have the name of every musical pitch pop instantly and without effort – it is not something they can turn off; similarly, people with tone-colour synaesthesia experience colour without having to think about it.

The next most common thing these people have? They are not aware that these experiences are unusual because they think everyone else sees the world the same way they do! This is where the online study comes in – I am looking at the rate of incidence in absolute pitch and tone-colour synaesthesia. You do not have to have either of these conditions to help in this study. I just need as many people as possible to take it.

The study takes approximately half an hour, and you will need headphones or speakers in order to take it. At the end we can give you a good idea of whether or not you have AP or tone colour synaesthesia.

Here is the web address: http://psy770.gold.ac.uk/apsyn

If you have any questions, please email me at ap.synesthesia.online.test@gmail.com

Thank you so much!

*Disclaimer: I should emphasize that even though I use the word “condition” to describe AP and synaesthesia, neither of these conditions is detrimental to people’s daily functioning.