Music gets so much easier when you instinctively know all the notes. But being able to reliably identify or reproduce a pitch without error is rare. If you're not born with perfect pitch, prior studies suggest, your only hope of getting it is to receive musical training at a critical period in your childhood. New research at the University of Chicago suggests otherwise, however. Perfect pitch might be attainable well into adulthood.

More formally known as absolute pitch, perfect pitch occurs in around one in every 10,000 people. It's particularly useful to musicians, as it grants an ability to identify by ear the pitches, tones, and key signatures played by musical instruments and sounded by everyday objects such as alarms and car horns. Many people with perfect pitch can also sing or hum at a desired pitch on request, with no reference note for them to mimic. Some lucky souls can even hear a song for the first time and then play it on their preferred instrument with all the correct notes.

In this new study, the researchers tested auditory working memory capacity – essentially how well you can remember sounds shortly after hearing them. Seventeen students with variable amounts of musical experience were played notes sampled from real musical instruments and then asked to recreate the note they heard. In a separate experiment, the students were asked to identify a single, isolated piano note by name.

These two experiments were conducted three times. The second test came after a training program in which participants listened to and classified 180 piano notes, with corrections and reinforcement immediately following each classification. The students showed significant improvements after this training, and those tested again a few months later retained most of their new-found ability to identify notes.

A second group of participants, consisting of 30 students, staff, and community members, received training on 12 piano notes and also showed improvements afterwards.

"This is the first significant demonstration that the ability to identify notes by hearing them may well be something that individuals can be trained to do," said study lead Howard Nusbaum. "It’s an ability that is teachable, and it appears to depend on a general cognitive ability of holding sounds in one’s mind." Which is to say that if you have a good working, or short-term, memory, then you're more likely to be able to learn much of what is categorized as absolute pitch.

This research does not, however, illustrate the comparative pitch recognition abilities of someone with "true" perfect pitch versus someone who has acquired the ability through training in adulthood.

If my own experience is anything to go by, as a trained violinist and self-taught guitarist and pianist who does not have perfect pitch, this gulf between acquired and natural perfect pitch is very large indeed. The pitch-perfect people I have met can associate and recognize pitches no matter what the timbre (tonal quality), whereas those who have acquired similar abilities through training struggle to perform as well beyond the instruments they specialize in.

Or to put it another way, if you teach somebody what middle-C sounds like on a piano, there's a good chance they'll be able to recognize a middle-C piano note by ear alone, but they may require further training to identify (again, unprompted and without first hearing any reference notes) when a tuba makes a sound at the same pitch.

A paper describing the study was published in the journal Cognition.