Absolute Pitch

Most people that are musically inclined have at one point or another been asked if they have perfect pitch. What is perfect pitch, and does it really exist? Scientifically, perfect pitch is really referred to as absolute pitch. By definition, absolute pitch is the “ability to produce or identify specific pitches without reference to an external standard” (Baggaley, 1974). This is a somewhat rare ability – it occurs in as few as 1 in 10,000 people. Absolute pitch consists of two abilities: being able to maintain long-term representations of specific pitches in memory and be able to attach meaningful labels to these pitches (the note name (A#), frequency (A440), or solfege value (Do)).

There have been instances where individuals could indirectly use absolute pitch; being able to identify if one pitch is higher or lower than another is such a use. An inherent problem in identifying if an individual has absolute pitch is their ability to vocally reproduce the intended pitch; while they might be able to aurally identify the pitch and its value, there can indeed be a disconnect between the mentally intended pitch and the vocally produced pitch.

Various experiments have been conducted to correlate AP in adulthood as a result of extensive practice, and these have generally produced negative or unconvincing results. Based on a still ongoing study conducted by the University of California at San Francisco, the majority of individuals with absolute pitch began formal musical training before age 7. This finding “supports the hypothesis that early musical training may be necessary for the development of absolute pitch”, however early musical training alone does not guarantee the development of absolute pitch. Pitch has been proven to be prominent in families, indicating a genetic predisposition to the development of pitch.

Ask around the next time you’re in a musical situation – see if you can meet someone with perfect pitch. Ask if they’ve had perfect pitch their whole life, you might just be surprised to learn it was a skill they acquired over time!

Comments

  1. Neat research! I have little to no natural musical ability, so it is incredibly interesting to me to learn that absolute pitch requires both training and genetic predisposition. I look forward to hearing more about AP during the symposium!

  2. Anuraag Sensharma says:

    This is interesting! Considering that different musical traditions have different types of scales, I have always wondered how it is possible for there to be a genetic predisposition for something like perfect pitch. But if people can really distinguish frequencies, that would make sense cross culturally. Did you find anything on how fine distinctions in frequency people with perfect pitch can distinguish? I’d imagine people could resolve pitches which are only so close together…

  3. I am fascinated by the idea of acquiring the mental faculty of absolute pitch, especially as it pertains to development during childhood. As a linguist, I have spent a lot of time exploring the relationship between language acquisition (an auditory capability grounded in the temporal lobe) and age, and it is interesting to note a correlation between the ages of acquisition for perfect pitch and for first language development. Maybe there is something to the neurology which creates a meaningful relationship between the two!

  4. serdunham says:

    This is a very interesting post! I find it especially interesting because I’ve got perfect pitch myself. I’ve played violin most of my life and both my parents work in the classical music field, so I guess I fall into the “early musical training” category of the study you referenced. I do wonder how much of it is actually genetic, and how much isn’t. For instance–I imagine there’s a pretty high correlation between starting to play an instrument early and having musician parents. The prominence of perfect pitch within families might be due to the fact that people with perfect pitch come from highly musical backgrounds, not because it’s genetic. Do any of the studies you looked into try to separate out genetics from environmental effects along these lines?