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Absolute pitch ("AP"), widely referred to as perfect pitch or perfect ear, refers to the ability to identify the pitch of a note by name without the benefit of a reference note, or to be able to produce a note (as in singing) that is the correct pitch without reference. It is an aspect of both pitch perception and pitch discrimination


Absolute pitch, or perfect pitch, is "the ability to attach labels to isolated auditory stimuli on the basis of pitch alone" without external reference.[1] Possessors of absolute pitch exhibit the ability in varying degrees. Generally, absolute pitch implies some or all of the following abilities:

  • Identify and name individual pitches played on various instruments
  • Name the key of a given piece of tonal music
  • Identify and name all the tones of a given chord or other tonal mass
  • Sing a given pitch without an external reference
  • Name the pitches of common everyday occurrences such as car horns

Individuals may possess both absolute pitch and relative pitch ability in varying degrees. Both relative and absolute pitch work together in actual musical listening and practice, although individuals exhibit preferred strategies in using each skill[2].


The musicologist Richard Parncutt and the cognitive psychologist Daniel Levitin introduced the following distinctions in their entry on absolute pitch in the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians.

"Passive" absolute pitch

Persons with passive absolute pitch are able to identify individual notes that they hear, and can identify the key of a composition (assuming some degree of musical knowledge). Some may be able to identify several notes played simultaneously, and therefore identify complex chords. Those with passive absolute pitch are not always capable of singing a given note on command.

"Active" absolute pitch

Persons with active absolute pitch are able to sing any given note on cue, without prior pitch references. Usually, people with active absolute pitch are not only able to identify a note, but can recognize when that note is sharp or flat. Active absolute pitch possessors in the United States number about 1 in every 10,000.[3]

Not all people with active absolute pitch are musicians. However, musical training is necessary for full development of the auditory potential of a person with absolute pitch.

Among autistics and savants, the incidence of absolute pitch rises to 1 in 20 or higher. Absolute pitch is also common among those with Williams syndrome.[3]

Scientific studies related to absolute pitch

Absolute pitch as a difference in cognition, not elementary sensation

Absolute pitch is not limited to the realm of music, or even to humans. Songbirds and wolves have exhibited the ability. In fact, studies indicate that absolute pitch is more a linguistic ability than a musical one. Absolute pitch is an act of cognition, needing memory of the frequency, a label for the frequency (such as "B-flat"), and exposure to the common range considered a note. (A note in modern tuning can vary in its exact frequency.) It may be directly analogous to recognizing colours, phonemes (speech sounds) or other categorical perception of sensory stimuli. And while most people have been trained to recognize and name the colour blue by its frequency, it is possible that only those who have had early (somewhere between the ages of 3 and 6)[4] and deliberate exposure to the names of musical tones will be likely to identify, for example, middle C. Absolute pitch, however, may be genetic, possibly an autosomal dominant genetic trait,[5][6] though it "might be nothing more than a general human capacity whose expression is strongly biased by the level and type of exposure to music that people experience in a given culture."

Absolute pitch and linguistics

Absolute pitch is more common among speakers of tonal languages such as most dialects of Chinese or Vietnamese, which depend heavily on pitch for lexical meaning. "Tone deafness" is unusual among native speakers of these languages[citations needed]

. Speakers of Sino-Tibetan languages have been reported to speak a word in the same absolute pitch (within a quarter-tone) on different days; it has therefore been suggested that absolute pitch may be acquired by infants when they learn to speak in a tonal language[7] (and possibly also by infants when they learn to speak in a pitch stress language). However, the brains of tonal-language speakers do not naturally process musical sound as language;[8] perhaps such individuals may be more likely to acquire absolute pitch for musical tones when they later receive musical training.

It is possible that level-tone languages which are found in Africa-- such as Yoruba [9] (with three pitch levels) and Mambila [10] (with four pitch levels)-- may be better suited to study the role of absolute pitch in speech than the contour-tone languages of East Asia.

Further, speakers of European languages were found to make use of an absolute, though subconscious, pitch memory when speaking.[11]

Absolute pitch and perception

Although absolute pitch is predicated on the ability to perceive and identify "tone chroma",[12] where "tone chroma" is a psychological interpretation of a fundamental vibratory frequency,[13] absolute pitch is not a heightened ability to perceive and discriminate fine gradations of sound frequencies,[14] but rather the ability to mentally categorize sounds into predefined pitch areas.[15] An absolute listener's sense of hearing is no keener than that of a non-absolute ("normal") listener;[16] furthermore, the tasks of identification (recognizing and naming a pitch) and discrimination (detecting changes or differences in rate of vibration) are accomplished with different brain mechanisms.[17]

Nature or nurture?

Many people have believed that musical ability itself is an inborn talent[18]. Some scientists currently believe absolute pitch may have an underlying genetic basis and are trying to locate genetic correlates[19]; most believe that the acquisition of absolute pitch requires early training during a critical period of development, regardless of whether or not a genetic predisposition toward development exists or not[20]. The "unlearning theory," first proposed by Abraham[21], has recently been revived by developmental psychologists who argue that every person possesses absolute pitch (as a mode of perceptual processing) when they are infants, but that a shift in cognitive processing styles (from local, absolute processing to global, relational processing) causes most people to unlearn it; or, at least, causes children with musical training to discard absolute pitch as they learn to identify musical intervals [22]. Additionally, any nascent absolute pitch may be lost simply by the lack of reinforcement or lack of clear advantages in most activities the developing child is involved with. An unequivocal resolution to the ongoing debate would require controlled experiments, which are both impractical and unethical.

Researchers have been trying to teach absolute pitch ability for more than a century[23], and various commercial absolute-pitch training courses have been offered to the public since the early 1900s.[24] It has been shown possible to learn the naming of tones later in life, although some consider this skill not to be true absolute pitch.[25] No training method for adults has yet been shown to produce abilities comparable to naturally-occurring absolute pitch.[26]

For children aged 2-4, however, recent observations have shown a certain method of music education[27] to apparently be successful in training absolute pitch[28], but the same method has also been shown to fail with students 5 years and older, suggesting that a developmental change in perception occurs which favors relative learning over absolute and thus supporting the theory of the "critical period" for learning absolute pitch[29].

Potential problems

Persons who have absolute pitch may feel irritated when a piece is transposed to a different key or played at a nonstandard pitch.[30] They may fail to develop strong relative pitch when following standard curricula, despite the fact that maintaining absolute strategies can make simple relative tasks more difficult. Inadequately trained absolute pitch possessors can find it quite difficult to play in tune with an orchestra which is not tuned to standard concert pitch A4 = 440 Hertz (442 Hz in some countries), possibly because their comprehension of musical pitch may be categorical rather than spectral[31].

Correlation with musical talent

There is no necessary correlation between the possession of absolute pitch and musical genius. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Franz Liszt, Frédéric Chopin and Ludwig van Beethoven are some of the classical composers/musicians who had absolute pitch; Joseph Haydn, Igor Stravinsky, Maurice Ravel, and Richard Wagner are among those who did not. Absolute pitch is not a prerequisite for developing a high level of talent as a musician or composer.

Relative pitch

Many musicians, and most jazz musicians, have quite good relative pitch, a skill which can certainly be learned. With practice, it is possible to listen to a single known pitch once (from a pitch pipe or a tuning fork) and then have stable, reliable pitch identification by comparing the notes heard to the stored memory of the tonic pitch. Unlike absolute pitch, this skill is dependent on a recently-perceived tonal center.

Musical opinion

Musicians may disagree about the value and relevance of absolute pitch ability to musical experience.

Some prominent musicians have stated that absolute pitch can and should be acquired. Composer and theorist Paul Hindemith wrote that his experience “time and again has proved that ‘absolute pitch’ can be acquired and developed,” adding that "if not, the question may be raised whether there is any musical gift at all in a mind that cannot learn to remember and compare pitches."[32] Zoltán Kodály said that "Developing the ear is the most important thing of all. The myth of ‘perfect pitch’; it is not innate but a question of practice, just like measuring by eye." [33]

Other prominent musicians have stated that absolute pitch cannot and/or should not be acquired. For example, composer and musical educator Ron Gorow[34] has said that "If you have perfect pitch, God bless you. If not, don't worry about it. Get a $4 tuning fork and get on with your work! Don't waste your money on methods that promise you can identify a pitch. There is no pay-off unless you want to show off at parties."

See also

References & Bibliography

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  1. Ward, W.D. and Burns, E.M. (1982). "Absolute Pitch" D. Deutsch (Ed.) The Psychology of Music, 431-452, Orlando: Academic Press. ISBN 0-12-213562-8.
  2. Miyazaki, Ken'ichi (June 2004). How well do we understand absolute pitch?. Acoustical Science and Technology 25 (6): 270–282.Full text
  3. 3.0 3.1 Sacks, Oliver (May 1995). Musical Ability. Science 268 (5211): 621–622.
  4. Takeuchi, A.H. & Hulse, S.H (1993). Absolute pitch. Psychological Bulletin 113: 345-361.
  5. Profita, J,. & Bidder, T.G (1998). Perfect pitch. American Journal of Medical Genetics 29: 763-771.
  6. Baharloo, S., Johnston, P. A., Service, S. K., Gitschier, J. & Freimer, N. B. (1998). Absolute pitch: An approach for identification of genetic and nongenetic components. American Journal of Human Genetics 62: 224-231.
  7. Deutsch, D., Henthorn, T., and Dolson, M. (2004). Absolute pitch, speech, and tone language: Some experiments and a proposed framework. Music Perception 21: 339-356. Full text
  8. Gandour, J., Wong, D., and Hutchins, G. (1998). Pitch processing in the human brain is influenced by language experience. Neuroreport 9: 2115-2119. Full text
  9. Connell, B., Ladd, D.R. (1990). Aspects of pitch realization in Yoruba. Phonology 7: 1-29.
  10. Connell, B. (2000). The perception of lexical tone in Mambila. Language and Speech 43: 163-182.
  11. Braun, M. (2001). Speech mirrors norm-tones: Absolute pitch as a normal but precognitive trait. Acoustical Society of America: Acoustics Research Letters Online 2: 85–90. Full text
  12. Revesz, G. (1913). Über die beiden Arten des absoluten Gehörs. Zeitschrift International Musikgesellschaft 14: 130-137. Full textFull text (English)
  13. Korpell, H.S. (1965). On the mechanism of tonal chroma in absolute pitch. American Journal of Psychology 78: 298-300.
  14. Oakes, W.F. (1955). An experimental study of pitch naming and pitch discrimination reactions. Journal of Genetic Psychology 86: 237-259.
  15. Rakowski, A. (1993). Categorical perception in absolute pitch. Archives of Acoustics Quarterly 18: 515-523.
  16. Fujisaki, W. and Kashino, M. (2002). The basic hearing abilities of absolute pitch possessors. Acoustic Science and Technology 23: 77-83. Full text
  17. Tervaniemi, M., Alho, K., Paavilainen, P., Sams, M., and Näätänen, R. (1993). Absolute pitch and event-related brain potentials. Music Perception 10: 305-316.
  18. Copp, E.F. (1916). Musical Ability. Journal of Heredity 7: 297–305.
  19. Drayna, D., Manichaikul, A., DeLange, M., Snieder, H., and Spector, T. (2001). Genetic correlates of musical pitch recognition in humans. Science 291: 1969–1972.
  20. Chin, C. (2003). The development of absolute pitch. Psychology of Music 31: 155–171.
  21. Abraham, O. (1901). Das absolute tonbewußtsein.. Sammelbände der Internationalen Musikgesellschaft 3: 1–86. Full text Full text (English)
  22. Saffran, J. R. & Griepentrog, G. J. (2001). Absolute pitch in infant auditory learning: Evidence for developmental reorganization. Developmental Psychology 37: 74–85.
  23. Meyer, M. (1899). Is the memory of absolute pitch capable of development by training?. Psychological Review 6: 514–516.Full text
  24. Maryon, E. (1924). The Science of Tone-Color, Boston: C. C. Birchard & Co.. Full text
  25. Levitin, D. J. & Rogers, S. E. (2005). Absolute pitch: Perception, coding, and controversies. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 9: 26-33. Full text
  26. Takeuchi, A.H. & Hulse, S.H (1993). Absolute pitch. Psychological Bulletin 113: 345-361.
  27. Oura, Y. & Eguchi, K. (1982). Absolute pitch training program for children. Music Education Research 32: 162–171.
  28. Sakakibara, A. (1999). A longitudinal study of a process for acquiring absolute pitch. Japanese Journal of Educational Psychology 47.
  29. Sakakibara, A. (2004). Why are people able to acquire absolute pitch only during early childhood?: Training age and acquisition of absolute pitch.. Japanese Journal of Educational Psychology 52: 485–496.
  30. Miyazaki, K. (1993). Absolute pitch as an inability. Music Perception 11: 55-72.
  31. Harris, G.B. (1974). Categorical perception and absolute pitch, Ontario: University of Western Ontario.
  32. Hindemith, P. (1946). Elementary Training for Musicians, 206-207, London: Schott and Co., Ltd..
  33. Kodály, Z. (1974). "Who is a Good Musician" F. Bonis (Ed.), L. Halapy and F. Macnicol (Trans.) The Selected Writings of Zoltán Kodály, London: Boosey and Hawkes.
  34. Gorow, R. (2002). Hearing and Writing Music, September Publishing.

Further reading

External links

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