Tone chroma

Absolute pitch

Absolute pitch (AP), widely referred to as perfect pitch, is the ability of a person to identify or recreate a musical note without the benefit of a known reference.


Absolute pitch, or perfect pitch, is "the ability to identify the frequency or musical name of a specific tone, or, conversely, the ability to reproduce a frequency, frequency level, or musical pitch without comparing the tone with any objective reference tone, i.e., without using relative pitch..

Naming/labeling of notes need not be verbal. AP can also be demonstrated by other codes such as auditory imagery or sensorimotor responses such as reproducing a tone on an instrument. Therefore if a musician is from an aural tradition, unfamiliar with musical notation they can still show AP if allowed to reproduce a sounded note.

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 (e.g. A, B, C#) 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 noises 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.

The distinction between the abilities to name the pitch of a note without reference to another note, and to sing a named note without reference to a previously sounded note, has long been acknowledged (see, for example, references in the New Grove Dictionary of Music.)

Dr. Robert Zatorre's research results support that absolute pitch possessors have a number of different encoding strategies that may be used concurrently, for example verbal labeling of tones. Absolute pitch possessors are able to match pitches of tones to some fixed internal scale allowing then to give the corresponding label of the tone. However, they can also effect the match without recourse to the verbal label and can make use of what they know about the pitch of the tone, provided that the tone matches their individual internalized template.

Scientific studies

Difference in cognition, not elementary sensation

Physically and functionally, the auditory system of an absolute listener does not appear to be measurably different from a non-absolute listener. Rather, "AP perception is not dependent on a special kind of ear; it reflects a particular ability to analyze frequency information, presumably involving high-level cortical processing. 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 range of sound encompassed by that categorical label. Absolute pitch may be directly analogous to recognizing colors, phonemes (speech sounds) or other categorical perception of sensory stimuli. Even as most people have learned to recognize and name the color blue by its frequency, it is possible that those who have had early (somewhere between the ages of 3 and 6) and meaningful 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, 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.

Influence by music experience

Absolute pitch sense appears to be influenced by cultural exposure to music, especially in the familiarization of the equal-tempered C-major scale. Most of the absolute listeners that were tested in this respect identified the C-major tones more reliably and, except for B, more quickly than the five "black key" tones, which corresponds to the higher prevalence of these tones in ordinary musical experience. One study of Dutch non-musicians also demonstrated a bias toward using C-major tones in ordinary speech, especially on syllables related to emphasis.


Absolute pitch is more common among speakers of tonal languages such as most dialects of Chinese or Vietnamese, which depend heavily on pitch variation across single words for lexical meaning (Mandarin with 4 possible pitch variations, Cantonese with 9, Minnan with 8, and Vietnamese with 6). 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 (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; 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, with three pitch levels, and Mambila, with four—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 have been found to make use of an absolute, though subconscious, pitch memory when speaking.


Although absolute pitch is predicated on the ability to perceive and identify "tone chroma — where "tone chroma" is a psychological interpretation of a fundamental vibratory frequency — absolute pitch is not a heightened ability to perceive and discriminate fine gradations of sound frequencies, but rather the ability to mentally categorize sounds into predefined pitch areas. An absolute listener's sense of hearing is no keener than that of a non-absolute ("normal") listener; 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.

Race (culture) and absolute pitch

The prevalence of absolute pitch is considerably higher among individuals with early childhood in East Asia. This difference has been suggested to be racial in origin. A study has claimed that individuals of East Asian heritage reared in the United States or Canada have "no significant difference" in prevalence of absolute pitch than do Caucasians of the same geographical origin, asserting that the difference in prevalence is more likely to be explained by linguistic experience than genetic heritage. Many East Asians speak tone languages such as Mandarin and Cantonese, while others (such as those in Japan and certain provinces of Korea) speak pitch accent languages; the prevalence of absolute pitch may be explained by exposure to pitches together with meaningful labels very early in life.

Natural vs. nurtured

Many people have believed that musical ability itself is an inborn talent. Some scientists currently believe absolute pitch may have an underlying genetic basis and are trying to locate genetic correlates; 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. The "unlearning theory," first proposed by Abraham, 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. Additionally, any nascent absolute pitch may be lost simply by the lack of reinforcement or lack of clear advantages in most activities in which the developing child is involved. An unequivocal resolution to the ongoing debate would require controlled experiments that are both impractical and unethical.

Researchers have been trying to teach absolute pitch ability for more than a century, and various commercial absolute-pitch training courses have been offered to the public since the early 1900s. 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. Although it has been shown possible to learn to identify pitches, keys, and everyday sounds later in life, no training method for adults has yet been shown to produce abilities comparable to naturally occurring absolute pitch.

For children aged 2-4, observations have suggested a certain method of music education may be successful in training absolute pitch, but the same method has also been shown to fail with students 5 years and older.

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. Musicians with absolute pitch may fail to develop relative pitch skills when following standard curricula, persisting instead in a habit of conceptualizing music as a sequence of absolute tones; it thus becomes difficult for them to transpose or play a transposing instrument. Absolute pitch possessors have also been known to find it difficult to play with an orchestra that is not tuned to standard concert pitch A4 = 440 hertz (442 Hz in some countries); this may be due to a perception of pitch which is categorical rather than freely adjustable. Additionally, post-tonal music can be problematic for a person who attends to individual pitches rather than intervallic content.

Special populations

The prevalence of absolute pitch is higher among those who are blind from birth, due to optic nerve hypoplasia, and has been claimed to be higher among individuals with Williams Syndrome and those with an autism spectrum disorder.

Correlation with musical talent

Absolute pitch is not a prerequisite for developing a high level of talent as a musician or composer, and musicians may disagree about the overall value and relevance of absolute pitch ability to musical experience. Owing to uncertainty in the historical record, and, until recently, lack of objective tests, it is often impossible to determine whether notable composers and musicians had absolute pitch or not. Since absolute pitch is rare in European musical culture, claims that any particular musician possessed it are to be doubted, unless there is clear contemporary evidence. Among composers of the Baroque and Classical eras, such evidence is available only for Mozart's perfect pitch. He famously attained it at the age of 3. Experts have only surmised that Beethoven had it, merely due to his remarkable ability to compose undetrimented music long after becoming completely deaf. For 19th century-musicians such as Camille Saint-Saëns and John Philip Sousa, it became more common for the presence of absolute pitch to be recorded. Nicolas Slonimsky was discovered to have perfect pitch as a child of six, which led to him being given music lessons by his aunt Isabelle Vengerova, and a life as a musician. He even titled his 1988 autobiography "Perfect Pitch: A Life Story" ([ISBN 0-19-313155-3]). The same was the case with jazz pianist Keith Jarrett, starting with his parents discovering his ability to reproduce musical lines on the piano at the age of three.

Absolute pitch may influence the ability to transpose while sight-reading, as a musician with absolute pitch may focus greater attention on the exact notes presented in a musical score rather than the structural characteristics represented by the notation.

Relative pitch

Many musicians have quite good relative pitch, a skill which can 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.

See also


Current research

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