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myths, misconceptions, and learnability” – Online Talks at Midday on 13-17 July) – News, reviews, features and comment from the London jazz scene and beyond

Pianist/composer Sam Leak is doing five online talks next week Monday-Friday 13 – 17 July, each day at noon, each lasting around forty-five minutes,  on the subject of the Cambridge University Ph.D. he is currently working on, the learnability of absolute pitch/perfect pitch. Interview by Sebastian.

Sam Leak lecturing

LondonJazz News:   I understand your doctorate is based on the hypothesis that absolute pitch in some forms can be learnt and acquired? Is that right?!

Sam Leak: Yes that’s correct. The working title for it is “Can Absolute Pitch Be Learned by Adults?” In fact one of the reasons that I’m giving the online talks is that I’m hoping people will sign up to an experiment of mine (email link to participate below). I’ve been designing it for the last few years – it’s an Absolute pitch (the same thing as ‘Perfect Pitch’) training scheme. I need as many participants as I can get, so please help to get the word out!

You’re onto something when you say ‘some forms.’ As early as 1937 the scientific literature has recognised that Absolute Pitch comes in different forms. Yale’s David Ross has split it into two main types, which he calls ‘heightened tonal memory’ and ‘absolute pitch encoding.’ It is entirely possible that one may be learnt and the other may not be. The jury is very much out on this at the moment. It’s a fascinating puzzle, and lots of interesting work is being done on it (including, I hope, my own..).

LJN: How will your talks next week relate to that?

SL:  The talks will be as follows:

– Monday: ‘Why do Science? Philosophical Underpinnings”

– Tuesday: ‘What is Science? The Scientific Method’

– Wednesday: ‘Absolute Pitch and Music Psychology’

– Thursday: ‘Absolute Pitch and the Brain’

– Friday: ‘Learning Absolute Pitch: the History of Attempts’

The idea is to set out the framework within which to understand the literature (or indeed any scientific literature) before delving into the studies themselves. I’ve tried to make it accessible for everyone, and they’ll all be free to watch.

LJN: Where / when can the talks be accessed and how long will they be?

SL:  The talks will be publicly available to watch on my Facebook page (LINK) , and they’ll be around 45 minutes to an hour each, or thereabouts. They’re going to take place at midday for every weekday next week (13th-17th July)

LJN: Who are they aimed at ?

SL: They’re written to be as accessible as possible. It’s my attempt at a week of TED talks..

Also, anybody that wants to take the experiment can take it. Obviously learning perfect pitch isn’t something that you can do in an afternoon.. It’s quite an involved training method, so I expect that it will mainly be of interest to musicians.

LJN: Have your ideas and methods changed since you started this work ?

Of course. My ideas about pretty much everything are evolving all of the time. These days I’m so much better at critically evaluating scientific literature. This is part of the reason that my first two talks will be on how and why to conduct experiments. I’d like to give people the tools to be critical themselves. I find a lot of people fall into two camps. Some people barely value science at all, and see it as a relative (perhaps even problematic) system for acquiring knowledge about nature. On the other end of the spectrum there are people that see it as the producer of ultimate and unquestionable objective knowledge about the world. Obviously neither of these perspectives is correct. I want people to understand why science is so important, but also to be able to look at scientific claims and studies, and to ask the right kinds of probing questions about them.

Within the last year I’ve got much better at understanding the neuroscientific literature. I attended some classes at Cambridge (where I’m doing the PhD) a few years ago in which, to gross you out, I got to physically hold two and a half human brains – the lecturer introduced them to us by name… However, if I’m honest, I was learning so much different stuff at that stage (the scientific method, how to code, psychology, statistics etc.) that a lot of the information washed over me. However, a more recent conversation with Jon Silas, a fellow lecturer at Middlesex University, gave me something of a Rosetta Stone moment. Now, with a much better idea of the framework and methods involved, I feel a lot more confident to be critical of the neuroscientific literature.

LJN:  Are you more convinced by your hypothesis?

SL:  I’m not religiously attached to it. The whole point of science is to make positive, testable claims about the world, and then test them against reality. If we’re not happy for our hypotheses to be proved wrong, then we’re not scientists. However, I’m nonetheless confident in it. The lay understanding of perfect pitch is the ability to recognise and produce pitches without an external reference note – at the very least I’m confident that *this* is learnable in adulthood. Obviously there is a deeper understanding of perfect pitch that is lot more nuanced – I’ll go into this in my talks.

LJN: How can people find out how close they are to the holy grail, whether they actually do have or can acquire perfect pitch ?

SL:  That is a far more complex question than you could possibly imagine! In the behavioural sciences we rely a lot upon what are called ‘operational definitions.’ For example, you might want to study ‘fear’ in a study, but.. what exactly is fear? You end up deciding upon a combination of measurable things (e.g., heart rate, perspiration, etc) that you think might collectively represent the more abstract concept that you want to measure. This is the same with perfect pitch. The ways in which absolute pitch has been operationally defined are a big weakness in the literature. I’ll discuss this in the talks.

Although… if you can effortlessly, and absolutely, recognise the notes being played by an ensemble of different instruments as they play together in real time, then I think it’s fair to say that you’ve probably got it..

Sam Leak (centre) with the other members of his trio, Will Glaser and Simon Read

LJN: Just going off topic briefly… What are  you currently doing apart from this musically – as in playing / listening / transcribing / enjoying ?

SL: I’ve been listening a lot to an album by Sam Amidon called ‘The Following Mountain,’ and ‘Shadows and Light’ by Joni Mitchell. I’ve also been listening to a lot of Larry Goldings, Abdullah Ibrahim, Joe Lovano, and Brad Mehldau.

Playing… I’ve been concentrating a lot on my solo piano playing! Pretty much by necessity (thank you Coronavirus…) but it’s actually been really useful and fun. Now that we’re being allowed out of the house I’ve been starting to work on a duet with trumpeter Quentin Collins, so I’ve had Kenny Barron and Stan Getz’s masterpiece ‘People Time’ spinning quite a bit..

Transcribing.. I could do with getting back on the transcription bandwagon. At the start of lockdown I transcribed John Taylor‘s ‘Wych Hazel,’ which I’ve subsequently been performing my own version of on my solo piano livestreams. It’s absolutely stunning – John Taylor, what a genius!

LINKS: Sam Leak’s Facebook Page, where the talks will be
Sam Leak website


To participate in the absolute pitch experiment and training scheme, email: [email protected]  (NB the underscores)

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