Understanding the physical origin of threshold switching and resistance drift phenomena is necessary for making a breakthrough in the performance of low-cost nanoscale technologies related to nonvolatile phase-change memories. Even though both phenomena of threshold switching and resistance drift are often attributed to localized states in the band gap, the distribution of defect states in amorphous phase-change materials (PCMs) has not received so far, the level of attention that it merits. This work presents an experimental study of defects in amorphous PCMs using modulated photocurrent experiments and photothermal deflection spectroscopy. This study of electrically switching alloys involving germanium (Ge), antimony (Sb) and tellurium (Te) such as amorphous germanium telluride (a-GeTe), a-Ge15Te85 and a-Ge2Sb2Te5 demonstrates that those compositions showing a high electrical threshold field also show a high defect density. This result supports a mechanism of recombination and field-induced generation driving threshold switching in amorphous chalcogenides. Furthermore, this work provides strong experimental evidence for complex trap kinetics during resistance drift. This work reports annihilation of deep states and an increase in shallow defect density accompanied by band gap widening in aged a-GeTe thin films. © 2013 Materials Research Society.