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What is learning?

Posted: Tue Mar 17, 2009 6:40 pm
by Kayd
I had read a few pages in the middle of Mr Aruffo's research when I decided to go back to the beginning. I was reading the first article from August 1, 2002, and I was reminded of one of my own observations in my first brish with learning perfect pitch. What triggered the thought was the comparison with an athlete.

Athletes can spend hours a day working out, or lets say lilfting weights. Now suppose through this "practice" the weight lifter becomes able to lift more weight than they did before. Did they "learn" to lift more weight? Or was it that the structure of their body, the size and capacity of their musceles changed to allow them to be able to lift more weight.

It's been known for a long time that the brain is capable of growing new connections ahd changing it's structure in response to learning situations. Not just in children, but in adults. It's fairly easy to find good references to this with a simple web search, such as this article:, on how the cortex can change structure through learning and practice.

We typically think of learning as repeating something over and over, or finding some hook that allows us to remember. However the ability of the brain to change in response to learning situations raises the question: is learning such as might occur in attempting to develop perfect pitch really "learning" in the classical sense or is there some rewiring occuring some change in the structure of the brain that allows someone to hear something they were incapable of hearing before. Such a change is more akin to the athlete excercising a muscle until it is capable of lifting more weight than it is to what we commonly think of as learning. This is just my own personal believe, but I've had too many occasions in my life where I felt that not only was I learning, but my ability to learn and remember specific things had improved.

I realized this first when I was learning songs and realized I could hear a musical phrase once or twice and remember it weeks later without trouble. I couldn't have done that when I was younger, but years of memorizing songs had improved my fundamental ability to remember. I hadn't just learned songs I'd learned how to remember them.

Another example is when I had my first brush with "learning perfect pitch." I started with some exercises from a well know course, which had me listening to two notes in an interval and trying to identify and hum them. It turned out I was terrible at it, but in the course of a couple months I was able to develop the ability to hear distinct notes in first two notes spaced far appart then in two notes a half step appart, then in three note chords. What was interesting was that I had become able to do something that I wasn't just bad at (hearing individual notes in a three note chord), nor was it that my ability to recognize them had improved. Instead, I could hear something that was imperceptible to me before.

So had I "learned" to hear it, or had I exercised my brain in such a way that it had made my ear able to percieve something I could not perceive before. This makes me wonder: if absolute pitch can be learned, maybe it's not so much learning as exposing yout brain to a learning situation until it adapts and allows you to hear clearly what you could not hear before.

Posted: Fri Mar 27, 2009 6:43 pm
by Kayd
By the way, one reason I posted the above is because it has certain implcations that may not be obvious, but I thought they should be.

If there are two methods of learning, one in which we reenforce patterns in the brain until they are easily recalled, and one where the brain actually changes its fundamental ability to percieve things then it makes it difficult to make assertions such as:

"we can hammer G and C and B-flat tones into our brain all we want, and that won't make us any better at extracting those pitches from tones, chords, or music; our increasing ability to extract pitch from music is not dependent on our increased familiarity with the pitch-stimulus sensation, but on our increased familiarity with the structure of musical objects."

If there are actual changes in perception occuring in the brain if you are actually able to hear things you could not hear before, not because you've 'memorized" them but because you've changed the way your brain processes the information then it is likely that the increased perception helps in all kinds of other areas of percieving sound. If I greatly improve my fundamental ability to remember names It's likely I've improved my ability to remember all things, not just names.

If hammering the tones G, C and B-flat into your brain alters your fundamental perception of all sound then it can help you better hear them in all circumstances. In other words it is probably far easier for the person who can recognize pitches in isolation to learn to recognize them in chords than it is for someone without the ability to learn the same level of discrimination, simply because hearing them at all means your perception of pitch is fundamentally better. Whats more the person with perfect pitch may find learning relative pitch much easier because a part of their brain is already wired to better detect subtle changes in sound.

It also has other implications of a more practical nature. If I want to cram for an exame I can repeat information over and over and hammer those patterns into my brain until I can recall them more easily. A weight lifter can not "cram" in the same manner. Lifting weights for 24 hours straight may actually hurt more than it helps because it is when resting that the muscle rebuilds and grows. If the kind of learning involved in perfect pitch involved changing your perception, or growing or changing neural connections in the brain, then listning to pitches 12 hours a day may have little more effect than doing it a half hour a day and the quality of the listning may be more important than the duration. For example, it may be more effective to do frequent short practices throughout the day than spend a large chunk of hours practicing once a day.

Posted: Fri Mar 27, 2009 7:13 pm
by Kayd
Just to post my observations. I took a stab at perfect pitch learning about 8 years ago with Bruge's course. It did some interesting things to my ear which were not entirely related to learning perfect pitch, and even without a lot of practice those things persist today. I can hear deeper into music and can hear individual parts. I can recognize tones in a chord better, but that is a part of what he has you practice.

About ten days ago I started APA and within a couple days was surprised at the differences and similarities. Burge's approach seem to be focused on dwelling on the difference in the way each note sounds, both individually, but also in a chords. However it is more contemplative, it's as if you are listening for some quality that you cannot quite hear at first and just waitning for awareness of the quality to grow.

APA also has you listening for notes within chords and intervals, but it is both faster and different. It seems focused on comparison which seems to help immensly. Almost immediately I picked up on the C sounds and was able to get up to level 12 the first day. I coudn't always clearly hear the C, but I hear some quality of the interval or chord that I identify as C. Within a few days I was making good progress and now I'm up to level 19. That's pretty good progress for 10 days (without practing some days), especially if I compare it to Burge's course.

I'm not trying to bash Burge, I think his course has some interesting aspects to it and it does do what it advertises up to the point I stuck with it (I shifted to focusing more on relative pitch after a while then had to focus more on work and left muscial things behind for a time). However, even after a short time I can hear how APA might work much better. Right now, I find the octave a little confounding because I hear the C so strongly that it makes it hard to hear the C an octave lower. I don't know why, but I'm sure it will get easier, it does every day.

I am still reading through the vast amount of research and it is quite interesting. I'm learning a lot, especially with respect to the importance of different ways of hearing and cultivating both relative and absolute pitch as a part of being fluent in the language of music.

Posted: Sun Mar 29, 2009 4:41 pm
by Space
I can certainly attest to the appearance of a type of perception that simply wasn't there before. Prior to trying Burge's course notes just sounded like 'notes'. Over time, the perception of chroma developed and pitches began sounding unique. Like right now, the refridgerator is humming Bb. Not just a note, but a distinctly unique sensation that I've come to recognize as 'Bb'.

Still, it's hard to decide whether this perception of pitch chroma can ever be fully 'opened up' so that all pitches, regardless of timbral and tonal context or even frequency (especially frequency) have clear unique chromas.

A child learns the 12 pitches of the musical scale more or less spontaneously. Then, for the rest of his/her life can identify these pitches presumeably in any context. However, what about other pitches between those 12? What if you tried to take an adult with AP from childhood and have them learn an entirely new tuning, say 13tet, 19tet or something like that. Would they be able to learn the new scale just as easily as an adult as they did the old one as a child? And if they did, did they take each pitch as a purely unique chroma to begin with, or did they use the previously learned pitches as reference points? And do the new pitches actually sound 'unique' or do they just sound like a flat or sharp version of another pitch they already know?

Been thinkin about that lately.


Posted: Mon Mar 30, 2009 6:45 pm
by Kayd
Part of a clue to the answer to that question may be in whether they can already identifym, at least to some degree, how sharp or flat the note is with respect to the wester scale. If they can with any degree of accuracy, then they already hear the sound, they just can't name it. In other words, if you know that a tone is "about a quarter note flat" then you already hear a unique sound that is different from the same not in perfect tune. All that is necessary then is to be able to recognize and name the notes.

Posted: Tue Mar 31, 2009 8:28 am
by Space
Maybe I'm just splitting hairs but that 'sharpness' or 'flatness' that they hear is a most likely heard as a certain percentage of the chroma of one note versus the semitone next to it. I don't think they hear a quarter-tone flat C as being a completely unique chroma - it's a flat version of the C pitch.

This is why many absolute pitchers are bothered by music that is flat or sharp to standard pitch but 'in tune' with itself. They hear the pitches as being flat or sharp as compared to a standard - the pitches sound 'wrong' even though the relationships may be right. If they heard all pitches as truly unique chromas, no pitch could sound 'wrong' accept in context. It would just sound like a unique pitch with its own particular merits.

For that matter, if every interval, scale degree, chord type, etc. were truly unique to our ears, there would be no 'wrong' musical sounds whatsoever!

I think this is the definition of categorical perception, yes? Is there any kind of human mode of identification that isn't categorical?

Posted: Tue Mar 31, 2009 8:31 am
by Space
Of course, all sensory experiences are unique but we have trained ourselves to perceive specific types of sounds as 'meaningful' and those that lie outside of those bounds are heard in comparison to those that are meaningful.

Posted: Sat Feb 23, 2013 4:40 am
by youandme
We would have a much harder time identifying the note we are playing.
I think the tuning dealt with the matter of getting a note, then providing the octave.I believe it was adjusted to accommodate the 3rds and 6ths. Then we finally got the 2nds and 7ths thrown in the mix. The black keys were used for changing the scale/mode patterns. And now we have a scale.

Posted: Sat Feb 23, 2013 10:33 am
by lorelei
I don't think they hear a quarter-tone flat C as being a completely unique chroma - it's a flat version of the C pitch.
Well, either a flat version of C or a sharp B... the two chromas are around equal.
Of course, all sensory experiences are unique but we have trained ourselves to perceive specific types of sounds as 'meaningful' and those that lie outside of those bounds are heard in comparison to those that are meaningful.
I suppose so, and also agree with youandme's thoughts on this. Certain things, like tuned Cs and Ds, are trained to be meaningful, but it's not as meaningful to hear something and know that it's a 1/3 sharp F based on categorical perception. A 1/3 sharp F has mostly F chroma and some F# chroma, and it's not a unique, completely different chroma from all the other pitches around it.

Posted: Thu Apr 18, 2013 12:01 pm
by DaleCannedy
Space wrote:Of course, all sensory experiences are unique but we have trained ourselves to perceive specific types of sounds as 'meaningful' and those that lie outside of those bounds are heard in comparison to those that are meaningful.
Yeah I agree we must adapt those techniques which are merely favorable to that it becomes feasible to us.