I would like to share here the article that appeared in the magazine Super Interesting.
by Nelson Jobim.
Long before he became famous for Bachianas Brasileiras and other masterpieces of classical music, Heitor Villa-Lobos was already a prodigious boy, a professional cellist at the age of 12. But it would be impossible to say how much of that early talent was born with him. From an early age, the brilliant composer was educated by his father, the most passionate amateur musician – and an ultra-strict teacher. Part of his method was to force his son to identify which musical notes were emitted in any ambient sound, from a bird’s hoot to a train’s brake. And, every time I went wrong – crock! – poor Hector would enter the waterfall.
Now Science is discovering, as in the case of the Brazilian conductor, that the absolute ear is not a divine gift, but something that can be acquired through training, since it was done in childhood. Until recently, it was believed that it was an innate and extremely rare privilege, the prerogative of one in 10,000 people. This view begins to be overturned. There are researchers who think that we are all born with this potential.
Ear education starts early
It is easy for a music teacher to recognize students who have absolute listening. This gifted tribe often suffers from the compulsion to musically identify any noise. There is even an anecdote about the Austrian composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) as a young man. Once he would have exclaimed “Sun sharp!” When he heard a pig’s squeak.
Mozart, the most celebrated child prodigy in the history of music, had in common with Villa-Lobos an ambitious and demanding father, who forced him to study night and day. The question is whether he developed his extraordinary talent because he started early or started early because he had a natural gift.
In the United States, a survey presented in November to the American Acoustic Society concludes that we all have, at least potentially, an absolute ear. Its author, psychologist Diana Deutsch, from the University of California, started from an analogy with tonal languages - the different languages, mostly Asian and African, in which the same word can have different meanings just by varying the intonation.
Deutsch made a group of Vietnamese and Chinese repeat the same words on different days, analyzing the results on a computer. The differences did not exceed a semitone. So little change suggests that speakers of tonal languages would have all heard absolute, as they depend on it to understand themselves. “It doesn’t mean that they are able to identify musical notes. After all, they were not trained for this ”, explained the researcher to SUPER. “But, as they learned a tonal language in childhood, they developed the gift. If they could, we all can, as long as music education is not late, ”he guarantees.
From father to son
Of course, genetic disposition also counts. Geneticist Peter Gregersen of New York University researched 600 individuals with absolute pitch and found that “25% of their children also have this ability, compared with 1% of the children of musicians without absolute pitch.”
Still, Diana Deutsch and Daniel Levitin, a psychologist at McGill University in Canada, think that we can all be educated until we develop the gift, regardless of our genetic heritage. “About 95% of the children of Persian speakers also speak Persian,” Levitin told SUPER. “This is not a genetic phenomenon, but a cultural and linguistic fact. So much so, that if you learn a language after a certain age, you will always have an accent and difficulty thinking about it. ”The difference is, according to Levitin, in learning between 3 and 6 years. Maximum up to 9 years.
In music, the researchers say, the same thing would happen. When a child hears his mother say: “This is red, that is brown”, he learns to identify the color with the word. If you hear a clear sound instrument, such as a piano or xylophone, and you are told “this is a pity”, you will make the same call. “Learning transforms this association into a conditioned reflex,” says Levitin (see page 58).
Combining genetics with education is the recipe for success. Whoever has never had a musician in the family, right, has less chance. But it is enough for your parents to sing in tune in the bathroom for you to be able to invest in your child’s training as a new Villa-Lobos – perhaps even better, without a pluck. The essential thing is to educate him in childhood. “I don’t believe that the gift is 100% natural or something that anyone can learn,” says German neurologist Gottfried Schlaug, now at Harvard University, in the United States. “After all, many have tried without success. But nobody develops a perfect pitch without being exposed to music from an early age. ”
One detail remains. The gift does not guarantee creativity in composition or genius in interpretation. Helen Tucker, music teacher for children in London, is keen to emphasize to SUPER: “A musician with an absolute ear can play like a robot. Technical perfection does not mean expressiveness. ”
Musician’s brain is very special
Temporal lobe is the name of the region of the cerebral cortex where sound signals are processed. “I deduce that the ability to produce music must also be there,” says German neurologist Helmut Steinmetz, one of the researchers at Henrich Heine University in Düsseldorf, Germany, responsible for discovering that musicians have a larger left temporal lobe than other individuals.
Steinmetz and his partner Gottfried Schlaug compared, in MRI scans, the brains of thirty musicians – eleven with absolute hearing and nineteen without – with those of thirty other individuals. In all, the left temporal lobe is slightly larger than the right, but this difference is twice as large among musicians and even greater among those with absolute ears.
For neurologist Robert Zatorre, from the Neurological Institute of Montreal, Canada, this finding becomes even more surprising if we consider that the left side of the brain is associated with verbal and analytical functions and the right side with intuition and the arts. If musicians have a larger left temporal lobe, it means that this cerebral hemisphere also receives musical information – not just the right. Which clearly indicates that music, in addition to art, is also language. “Each of these hemispheres must process different musical elements,” concludes Zatorre.
In the experiment carried out by Steinmetz and Schlaug in Germany, the most extraordinary was the conclusion that the brain can increase in size with training. Schlaug told SUPER that “a left temporal lobe larger than the right is the necessary condition for the formation of an absolute ear”. It looks amazing, but it isn’t. According to Daniel Levitin, the brain development images made by neurologist Helen Neville, in 1994, at the University of Oregon, “reveal a huge growth in neural connections until the age of 9 and the end of this process at the age of 18”. This explains both the easiness of children to learn languages or to acquire absolute ear and even to increase the size of the brain. Thus, having genius perception becomes easier.