I took a class when I was an undergraduate at Stanford on psychoacoustics and cognitive psychology, and one of the requirements for the course was to do a simple research project. Roger Shepard, one of the instructors for the course, suggested I do a project to learn more about the mysterious ability known as "absolute pitch." People with absolute pitch (or AP) are able to identify musical tones by their note names. They can hear a car horn and say something like "that's an A-flat!" or you can ask them to sing a C-sharp and they will do it. It is not clearly understood why some people can do this and others cannot.
I thought about the problem for a couple of weeks, read articles about it in the library, and then scheduled a meeting with the teaching assistant for the course, Perry Cook. (Perry is now an assistant professor of computer science and music at Princeton.) Perry asked me if people without AP could be taught something like AP. Suppose we gave them a sound source, such as a tuning fork, and told them that it had a name like "Fred" or "Ethyl." If they practiced listening to and humming this tone many, many times over a period of several days, and associating this arbitrary name with the tone, would they be able to reproduce the tone when given the name one week later?
This simple question turned out to be the foundation for a research program that has kept me busy for the last eight years! Its appeal to me is that it touches on a number of important topics in psychology including memory, categorization, learning, language acquisition, and expertise. In particular, it has had an impact on arguments about whether the human memory system functions by storing specific exemplars or abstractions (e.g., Goldinger, 1996, 1998; Hintzman, 1986; Nosofsky & Zaki, 1998).
It turned out that the subjects in this study performed very well, learning their tone name and reproducing it accurately. This suggested that many people had something similar to AP--they had good memory for musical pitch, even if they didn't know formal note names (like C-sharp or do). How would people do if they were asked to sing the first few notes of their favorite popular song--would they sing these at the correct pitch? Taking inspiration from an earlier study by Andrea Halpern (1989) I asked subjects to do just this. The surprising result is that people were very good at this task, indicating that their long-term memory preserved a stable and accurate representation of musical pitch, and that they could evoke these pitches with what amounted to ad hoc labels (the name of the song or a particular lyric).
I reported the first experiment (the tuning fork experiment) in my term paper and performed the second experiment (singing popular songs) for my senior honors thesis in psychology at Stanford, supervised by Barbara Tversky, Roger Shepard, Perry Cook, and Gordon Bower. It was a version of this paper that I submitted for the Psi Chi Guilford competition in 1992 and which received second place.
Winning the second-place Guilford Award in 1992 was a very important event for me, occuring at a critical stage of my career: I was just between undergraduate and graduate school, and having to make difficult decisions about my future. I wasn't sure that I wanted to continue in psychology (I was thinking about mathematics, anthropology, and linguistics as possible alternatives), partly because I lacked confidence that I had anything to contribute to psychology. Winning the award made me realize that someone out there thought I had something worthwhile to say, and this gave me the encouragement to apply to graduate psychology programs.
I entered graduate school at the University of Oregon in 1992, and under the supervision of Douglas Hintzman I developed the paper further, adding a more formal, theoretical context, and this new paper (an expanded version of the Guilford paper) was published in Perception & Psychophysics two years later (Levitin, 1994). A follow-up experiment (examining memory for tempo) was published two years after that with Perry Cook as coauthor (Levitin & Cook, 1996). These two papers--and extensions to them suggested by Douglas Hintzman and Michael Posner at Oregon--became the core of my PhD thesis: The Guilford paper (in modified form) became Chapter 1 of my thesis, and its follow-up became Chapter 2. I continued to follow questions about absolute memory for musical sound for the rest of my thesis and through three years of postdoctoral study, touching on issues in categorical perception and the mental codes used to represent pitch.
Along the way I have developed a number of other research interests, and have published papers on experimental design, consciousness, visual perception, and the perception of timing. But the simple question of the nature of absolute pitch seems to have captured the interest of many people, and this has brought me into contact with a number of new colleagues working on questions about Williams syndrome, conditional associative learning, anticipation, self-reference, and the cognitive neuroscience of memory. The Guilford Award and Psi Chi did two important things for me. First, they encouraged me to think of myself as a psychologist (even before I really was one). Second, they helped me to see that the study of absolute pitch was interesting and rich enough to pursue beyond a simple course project. Recently, my dissertation advisor, Michael Posner, and my department chair at McGill, Tony Marley, have helped me to see my previous work on absolute pitch in the context of larger, ongoing issues in the study of expert behaviors, and to conceive of new research projects that explore musical behavior as a domain-specific higher level system of expertise. This is one direction that I hope to pursue in the coming years, along with trying to answer lingering questions (raised in my Guilford paper) about absolute memory.
Goldinger, S. D. (1996). Words and voices: Episodic traces in spoken word identification and recognition memory. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory & Cognition, 22(5), 1166-1183.
Goldinger, S. D. (1998). Echoes of echoes? An episodic theory of lexical access. Psychological Review, 105(2), 251-279.
Halpern, A. R. (1989). Memory for the absolute pitch of familiar songs. Memory and Cognition, 17, 572-581.
Hintzman, D. H. (1986). "Schema abstraction" in a multiple-trace memory model. Psychological Review, 93(4), 411-428.
Levitin, D. J. (1994). Absolute memory for musical pitch: Evidence from the production of learned melodies. Perception & Psychophysics, 56, 414-423.
Levitin, D. J., & Cook, P. R. (1996). Absolute memory for musical tempo: Additional evidence that auditory memory is absolute. Perception & Psychophysics, 58, 927-935.
Nosofsky, R. M., & Zaki, S. R. (1998). Dissociations between categorization and recognition in amnesic and normal individuals: An exemplar-based interpretation. Psychological Science, 9(4), 247-255.