Perfect pitch is not infallible

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Perfect pitch, or absolute pitch, is an ability to instantaneously identify or sing any given musical note without a reference pitch.  Some people exhibit what seems to be perfect pitch, but is it truly perfect?  Researchers at the University of Chicago performed a study to test absolute pitch.

The results from a test group of 27 people found absolute pitch changed when the subjects were subjected to music that was slowly shifted out-of-tune.  Once they adjusted to the out-of-tune music, their mind accepted the detuned music as in-tune, indicating the mind is very adaptable when it comes to sound.

This relates to listening to music as a hobby.  If you have ever compared two sound systems, whether they are speakers, car audio, or headphones, they can have significant tonal differences.  The second system you listen to can sound tonally off, especially right after you make a quick switch.  When going back to the first system after spending time with the second, the first may then sound like it is off.  This is due to the brain adapting to the sound of what you are listening to, interpreting it as “right.”  (Of course, there are exceptions.)  I had this experience when A/B comparing the EarSonics SM3 and the Sony EX-1000, as both sounded horrible in comparison with the other.

Now, take an audio source you have listened to for a long time, and then go to something dramatically different.  Your brain is used to the sound signature, so if it is colored and/or presented to one of the extremes, other sound signatures can be a shock.  For example, a musician that uses the Shure SE535, which is mid-forward, and switches to the laid-back Sennheiser IE80 may hate the IE80’s sound simply because they are used to something completely different.  The same can be said for switching from headphones to earphones, speakers to headphones, earphones to a car stereo, etc.  They each have their own strengths and weaknesses, not to mention significant differences in presentation.

How about pop culture?  So many car stereos have enhanced bass, even on the “flat” setting.  Music tracks are mastered with boosted bass, clubs pump-up the bass, etc.  Knowing about how the brain adapts, it is easy to see why the bloated, boosted bass of Beats is so accepted by such a large population.  I guess Dre knows what he is doing!

People can overcome one sound signature as their brain will adjust to new sound signatures over time and store the memories, adapting much quicker to a certain sound signature in the future.  This can help explain why one person will like the sound of a product and another won’t, at least at first.  Essentially, this is called brain burn-in!

Taking this to the audiophile hobby and using it for review, it is important to find a truly tonally neutral sound.  Perfect pitch can help identify something that tonally neutral sound, but the brain can be fooled.  The Etymotic ER-4 is regarded as being tonally neutral, however I believe that it is in a limited bandwidth and not over the full frequency spectrum, which can in turn change the tonality. I do have several high-end custom in-ear monitors that I believe are overall more tonally accurate, but they are all different in certain ways, therefore it is difficult to really say which is the most accurate.  I would have to be at a live concert, record it, and play it back to really know what is truly tonally accurate.

Giving products time for your brain to burn in will help you figure out if you truly like a sound or not, and sound doesn’t have to be accurate to be enjoyed.  From a review perspective, I compare each product under review with many others that I know and have already reviewed, allowing me to assess the sound signature accurately.  Just because something doesn’t sound right at first doesn’t mean it can’t be enjoyable.

Perfect pitch isn’t infallible when listening to playback of recorded music, therefore I believe it is important to understand what you like, why you like it, and what you can do to help expand your listening experience and preferences.  Doing so may just increase your listening pleasure and help you find some new audio gems!

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About Author

Having a life-long love of high-quality audio and gadgets, average_joe got back in touch with his audiophile side after a hiatus caused by life. His focus became headphones and related gear as the size and price fit his life better than home audio. He believes the entire audio chain is important, and likes to continue to think past the headphone and on into the head, as he believes understanding the details of how we hear will lead to a better audio experience.

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