Yes, Your Child Can Develop Absolute Pitch From Hearing Video Game Music Ad Nauseam
The True Story of My Seven-Year-Old Boy and His Nintendo Jams
During the spring of 2020 at the height of the Covid pandemic, my panicking parental brain began directing me to dig through the closet for my vintage, well-preserved Nintendo Entertainment System, wonky RF adapter and all. You see, that unassuming gray box represented my last best hope at mollifying (okay, entertaining) my kids during lockdown. And hoo boy, did it work. The look of pure joy in their eyes when they first saw those 8-bit graphics and heard the catchy chip tune melodies for Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, and Mega Man was equal only to their first time tasting bacon.
“The fact of the matter is that these notes are laid in digital stone, and that combined with the repetitiveness of the music in-game better facilitates audiation.”
It was revitalizing reliving the Nintendo nostalgia of the late 80s and early 90s with my kids. Hearing these familiar songs again—in all their triangle and saw wave glory—immediately brought me back to my childhood gaming days, when I beat every game on the NES and Super NES without the internet, a reverse button, or a legion of YouTubers hive-minding the next any% speed run glitch. It did not dawn on me until three years later that an elementary school-aged child hearing repetitive music like Super Mario Bros.’ Underground Theme (with a loop length of 12 seconds) repeated cumulatively for hours could wake up the otherwise dormant part of their brain that allows the select few to equate sound waves with exact musical pitches in a Western tuning system, aka absolute (or perfect) pitch.
To be fair, my now seven-year-old son is just learning the note names on violin at school, and he does not really know the notes on our piano at home, although he has heard my wife and I play the piano since his aqua-baby days in the womb. But this makes the whole story even more amazing than the Mushroom Kingdom’s green and white-spotted 1-up shroom. After having bought a Nintendo Switch and the must-have games Super Mario Odyssey and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, my youngest son began singing the songs from these games around the house, moving effortlessly from Odyssey’s tuneful and bouncy Snow Kingdom (Shiveria Town) to Zelda’s stress-inducing Thunderblight Ganon Theme, and he would not stop singing until hitting every note from the beginning of the track to the end. It did not matter if the melody was being played by wooden flute or a section of strings playing so chromatically that even Schoenberg would crack a smile. The fact of the matter is that these notes are laid in digital stone, and that combined with the repetitiveness of the music in-game better facilitates audiation (audiation is the term for hearing music in your mind that is no longer present as physical sound waves).
At first I thought that this was a great display of youthful musical memory and relative pitch. But one day after dinner, he began singing Snow Kingdom (Shiveria Town), after which I decided to check his notes against the original soundtrack version on YouTube. Lo and behold, he was singing the initial pitches of F-sharp, D, and A dancing around a D Major triad exactly in tune with the recording. If I asked, “does it go like this?” and proceeded to sing those pitches a little bit flat or sharp, he would promptly correct me with the proper tuned pitches. I then tested to see if he was remembering all of the music from the games he played or heard played around the house, and every single piece of music he sang was spot on with the track. We went through each world in Super Mario Odyssey, all kinds of music from Breath of the Wild, and even boss levels from Mega Man 2 that he hadn’t played in months. Each song was an exact match to the original key and pitches. Heat Man’s Stage? No problem. Just don’t forget the bass synth intro, dad.
A few weeks ago we had the new neighbors over for dinner, and I played a quick jazz run on the piano that ended on a high B. My son said “hey Dad—that’s the note for the beginning of the Guardian music! So I checked the track. Of course it was.
“I have yet to play a gig where the horn player says ‘let’s play Mario’s Overworld Theme as a bossa in 7—in F#.’”
Conventional wisdom and much academic study have led to the conclusion that absolute pitch is most often developed in young children who are exposed to a fixed pitch musical instrument like piano from an early age. My wife, who has absolute pitch, played piano from a very young age and even went to a specialized musical school in Lviv, Ukraine where many of the children had perfect pitch. I don’t know if “good ears” can be passed down genetically like my Monet Water Lilies-period nearsightedness, but if it can be, then I would say our kids got my wife’s ears.
I did not begin playing the piano until the age of 15, so the fleeting developmental window for absolute pitch in my ears had closed; however, hours of ear training in the form of melodic and harmonic transcription in my teens developed my refined sense of relative pitch. But even after 30 years of playing the piano and living the life of a professional musician, I still have trouble identifying the exact pitch away from the piano. Interestingly, the only music that has come close to providing a surefire source for pitch identification is video game music. Perhaps this is because video game music is never played in any other key, unlike the plethora of jazz standards that are part of my everyday musical life. I have yet to play a gig where the horn player says “let’s play Mario’s Overworld Theme as a bossa in 7—in F#.”
So could this unconventional way of developing absolute pitch in young, bright-eyed gamers be used to create armies of musically super-developed children who ace their ear training classes? Could the repetitiveness (and catchiness) of game music be the window into development of absolute pitch in elementary-aged children? Video game developers and music education professors, take note! Game music might be the most entertaining way of developing a musical superpower of the 21st century…Let’s a-go!
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