Correlation Between Relative Pitch and Age, Gender, or Musical Background
|Areas of Science||
|Time Required||Long (2-4 weeks)|
|Prerequisites||Access to a piano|
|Material Availability||Specialty items|
|Cost||Low ($20 - $50)|
AbstractHere's an interesting way to get some music into your science fair project. What predictions would you make about people with relative pitch?
The purpose of this project is to determine what percentage of the population can sing on pitch, and whether singing on pitch depends on the age, sex, or musical background of the subjects.
Andrew Olson, Ph.D., Science Buddies
This project is based on:
- St. Louis, C.B., 2003. "Pitch'ure Perfect," California State Science Fair Abstract [accessed September 1, 2006] http://cssf.usc.edu/History/2003/Projects/J1722.pdf.
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Last edit date: 2018-04-02
With lots of practice, musicians can identify intervals between notes that they hear. Developing this skill is essential to "playing by ear." Musicians who have developed this skill are said to have relative pitch, meaning that, if they hear one note, they can sing or play another note at a given interval relative to the first note. For example, you play a middle "C" and a musician who has relative pitch can play or sing the "G" that is one-fifth higher. An even rarer ability is absolute pitch, which means that the person can identify any note that you play. It's as if they have the notes memorized somewhere in their mind, and can compare notes that they hear to the remembered notes.
The voice can be a musical instrument, too. How well can people sing on pitch? Do you think the ability would vary according to age, or gender, or musical training? In this project, the test subjects will hear recorded notes and then try to sing them, so this will be a test for relative pitch.
The following vocal range classifications are typically used in classical music (from highest to lowest). The ranges listed are typical, but actual vocal range differs from person to person, so these should be taken as general guidelines (Wikipedia contributors, 2006). You can use these ranges as a guide when selecting the note sequences to record for your tests.
Figure 1. General guidelines for the vocal ranges of singers. The top line corresponds to high, medium, and low female voices, and the bottom line corresponds to high, medium, and low male voices.
Terms and Concepts
To do this project, you should do research that enables you to understand the following terms and concepts:
- absolute pitch,
- relative pitch,
- vocal range.
- What notes would you expect to be within the vocal range of most adult females?
- What notes would you expect to be within the vocal range of most adult males?
- This article describes a UCSF study on the genetics of absolute pitch:
Shiels, M., 2002. "Looking for Genetic Perfection," BBC News [accessed September 1, 2006] http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/1789179.stm.
- Wikipedia contributors, 2006. "Vocal Range," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia [accessed September 1, 2006] http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Vocal_range&oldid=72971683.
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Materials and Equipment
To do this experiment you will need the following materials and equipment:
- 50–100 volunteers for each group (e.g., males and females; musicians and non-musicians, etc.) you want to test (see the Science Buddies resource How Many Survey Participants Do I Need?);
questionnaire forms; ask each volunteer:
- their age,
- their gender,
- the number of years taking music lessons,
- if they think they will be able to sing three notes on pitch after hearing them.
- available from a local music store or online,
- many models are available; look for features similar to this one: Seiko SAT500 chromatic tuner;
two recordings of a 3-note sequence:
- for example, the notes B, C, G,
- record one sequence for the female vocal range,
- and one sequence for the male vocal range (see Figure 1);
- playback device for note sequences;
- Note: If obtaining recording and playback equipment is problematic, you can dispense with the recording and simply play the appropriate note sequence on a piano for each volunteer.
Note: There are special considerations when designing an experiment involving human subjects. ISEF-affiliated fairs often require an Informed Consent Form for every participant who is questioned. In all cases, the experimental design must be approved by the fair's scientific review committee (SRC) prior to the commencement of experiments or surveys. Please refer to the ISEF rules for additional important requirements for studies involving human subjects: http://www.sciencebuddies.org/science-fair-projects/project_src_safety_human_subjects.shtml.
- Do your background research and make sure that you are knowledgeable about the terms, concepts, and questions, above.
- Prepare the questionnaire forms. Check them on a small sample and make sure all your questions are clear before making copies for the project.
- Make two recordings of the 3-note test sequence which your volunteers will sing. One recording will be for high voices, the other recording will be for low voices. (Again, if obtaining recording and playback equipment is problematic, you can dispense with the recording and simply play the appropriate note sequence on a piano for each volunteer.)
- The chromatic tuner displays the frequency (pitch) of the note being sung and shows the deviation direction (flat or sharp) if the note is sung off-pitch. Practice using the chromatic tuner with your own singing voice until you are proficient with it. You should also get some practice with other volunteers before collecting data for your project. For example, you'll need to know how close the tuner has to be to the person singing, and how long the singer has to hold a note in order to get a good measurement.
For each volunteer:
- Play the three-note sequence corresponding to the vocal range of the volunteer (recording or piano).
- Have the volunteer practice singing each note.
- Play the notes a second time.
- Have the subject sing each note and use the chromatic tuner determine if the volunteer is on pitch or not.
- Record if the volunteer is on pitch, flat, or sharp on each note. (If flat or sharp, write down by how much.)
- Ask the volunteer if they thought that they had sung on pitch.
Here are some ideas for analyzing the data:
- What percentage of each group sang all three notes on pitch?
- What percentage of each group knew whether they were on pitch or not?
- Analyze the errors that were made. Was singing flat more common, or singing sharp (or was it about even)?
Compare the performance of different groups. For example, you can divide your test subjects:
- by age,
- by gender,
- by music training experience.
- See the Variations section for more ideas.
If you like this project, you might enjoy exploring these related careers:
- Devise a scale for measuring how close volunteers came to each note, and score all subjects' performances. Is there a correlation between number of years of music lessons and singing accuracy? For an example of correlation analysis, see the Science Buddies project Which Team Batting Statistic Predicts Run Production Best?.
- More advanced students should calculate the statistical significance of differences between groups.
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