Absolute pitch

From Academic Kids

Absolute pitch, widely referred to as perfect pitch, can refer the ability to identify a note by name without the benefit of a reference note. The term is also less commonly used to describe the exact pitch of a note described by its number of vibrations per second.



Musical historians Geoffrey Ward and Ken Burns defined ability of absolute pitch as: "The ability to attach labels to isolated auditory stimuli on the basis of pitch alone." A person with absolute pitch will be able to, at minimum, know when a piece isn't played in its original key.

Persons who have absolute pitch, but who do not have strong musical training, will seem annoyed or unnerved when a piece is transposed to a different key (or played in nonstandard pitch), and will have difficulty transposing music without manually calculating intervals between known pitches. They may feel that such a piece does not have the intrinsic beauty of music, and in some cases will be physically uncomfortable; cases are known of musicians who had to tune every instrument or they would actually feel sick. They may have a harder time developing relative pitch than others, and for many musical tasks like transposition, lack of training in relative skills can trip up a musician with absolute pitch, who will attempt to use their absolute knowledge for what is clearly a relative task. Also, poorly-trained absolute pitch possessors can find it quite difficult to play in tune with an orchestra which is not tuned to standard concert pitch A=440 Hz (e.g. "authentic" baroque ensembles that play in "chamber tuning" A=415 Hz, about a semitone below modern concert pitch). They may also have trouble when learning to play certain instruments, such as the trombone and the violin family of stringed instruments, where playing initially out of tune will be uncomfortable.


"Passive" absolute pitch

Musicians with passive absolute pitch are able to identify individual notes which they hear, and can identify the key of a composition (assuming some degree of musical training), but have trouble singing a given note on command.

"Active" absolute pitch

Musicians with active absolute pitch will be able to sing any given note when asked. Usually, people with active absolute pitch will not only be able to identify a note, but recognize when that note is slightly sharp or flat. Active absolute pitch possessors in the United States number about 1 in every 10,000. Most of these people started music training before the age of six. Musical training is necessary for full development of the auditory potential of a person with perfect pitch.

Correlation with musical genius

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Leonard Bernstein, Phil Spector and Paul Shaffer are four musicians who had perfect pitch; Igor Stravinsky, Maurice Ravel, and Richard Wagner are among those who did not. There is no necessary correlation between absolute pitch and musical genius: many with absolute pitch do not work in music, and it can be a liability when attempting to play an instrument without having had prior musical training (especially for those for whom out-of-tune music is uncomfortable). Absolute pitch alone does not make a great musician.

Absolute pitch and biology

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 colors or other categorical perception of sensory stimuli (such as speech sounds). And while most people have been trained to recognize and name the color blue by its frequency, it is possible only those who have had early, somewhere between the ages of 3 and 6 (reviewed in Takeuchi and Hulse 1993), and deliberate exposure to the names of musical tones—usually musicians—will be likely to identify a middle C. Absolute pitch, may, however, be genetic, possibly an autosomal dominant genetic trait (Profita and Bidder 1988; Baharloo et al. 1998), though, "Absolute pitch 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." In addition, perfect pitch is more common among speakers of the tonal languages Mandarin Chinese, Cantonese Chinese and Vietnamese, which depend heavily on pitch-shifts for meaning. Such cultures have very few "tone deaf" people. On the other hand, there are a number of Japanese speakers who have perfect pitch as well, although Japanese is not a tonal language (though it does have a pitch accent). Speakers of Sino-Tibetan languages have been reported to speak a word in the same absolute pitch (within a quarter-tone) on various days.

Until the middle of the 20th century, most people believed that musical ability itself was an inborn talent. Some scientists believe absolute pitch is due to genetics and are trying to map the gene for it; others believe most humans don't typically develop this ability because there is no social use for it, and are trying to teach adults how to develop it. The debate is not yet settled, as data on this highly specialized ability are quite scarce. It is nevertheless becoming increasingly apparent that people can acquire perfect pitch [at least for single instruments] through learning. Pitch recognition is now taught at the Eastman School of music and various "perfect pitch" courses have been offered since the early 1980s.

Many musicians, and probably most jazz musicians, have quite good relative pitch, a skill which can certainly be learned. With practice, it's 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 you hear to the tonic pitch in your head. Unlike true perfect pitch, this skill can also be adjusted up and down as needed.

Famous Possessors of Absolute Pitch

Additionally, a 1952 Peanuts comic strip implied that Charlie Brown had absolute pitch.


  • Wallin et al. (2000). The Origins of Music, p.12-13. Cambridge, Mass.: A Bradford Book, The MIT Press.
    • Ward and Burns (1982).

External links

de:Absolutes Gehr fr:Oreille absolue it:Orecchio assoluto ja:絶対音感 nl:absoluut gehoor sl:absolutni posluh


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