More than you may want to know about absolute pitch

Why do some people develop AP and others do not?  Well, it’s definitely not due to practice.  Various claims aside, there is no scientific evidence of any adult being able to acquire AP through intensive practice.  There seems to be a critical period in early childhood when AP is most likely to be acquired, and people who have AP don’t remember acquiring it.  It just seems to happen.  There is some evidence that it can be inherited.  A person with AP is four times more likely than someone without it to say that a family member has AP. 

In Western cultures, about 1 in 10,000 people have absolute, or perfect, pitch. But AP is far more prevalent in cultures with a tonal language such as Mandarin, Cantonese, Vietnamese, or Thai.    In Mandarin, for example, words have a different meaning depending on the tone with which they are spoken, so people whose first language is a tonal language develop the brain circuitry very early in their development that links a certain tone with a certain word.   The brain of someone with AP most likely links pitches with certain verbal labels (such as C or F) in the same way that a person speaking a tonal language links tones and words.

In 2006, Diana Deutsch, psychologist at UCLA who herself has perfect pitch, conducted a large study using first-year students at the Eastman School of Music, all non-tonal language speakers, and at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, all speakers of Mandarin.  The Chinese students who had started music lessons at 4 or 5 showed a 60% incidence of AP, while only 14% of American students who began music lessons at that age possessed AP.  The Chinese students who had begun music lessons at age 6 or 7 showed a 55% incidence of AP compared to 6% of English speakers beginning music at that age.  And Mandarin speakers who began at age 8 or 9 showed a 42% incidence of AP; no Americans who began studying music at the age of 8 or 9 possessed AP.  There was no difference with male or female students.

There have been lots of other studies, and they all confirm that speakers of tonal languages have a far greater prevalence of AP, and the earlier the music lessons begin, the higher the incidence of AP.  Other researchers have looked at whether it is simply an ethnic difference, but musicians of Chinese or Vietnamese ethnicity who grow up in the States show the same incidence of AP as Caucasians.  So it is how the brain circuits are wired for speaking a tonal language at an early age that predisposes one to develop AP.

Deutsch’s study and others show that beginning music lessons early is critical for developing AP.  My friend Nan Shannon, who began piano lessons at 5, has a D.M.A. from Peabody and now lives in Denver, says that her first piano book contained a game.  Each time she walked by the piano, she was supposed to play middle C and sing it.  Eventually she was to walk past the piano, sing C first and check to see if she was right.  Nan has perfect pitch.  She doesn’t know if the game helped develop it, but obviously, the game was teaching the brain to associate a particular sound with a verbal name, the same as speakers of a tonal language do with pitch and words.

Even though I have always been able to name any pitch on the piano and on most other instruments, I always assumed that I didn’t have perfect pitch because I can’t consistently give the pitch of car horns, bells, chimes, or my refrigerator as some APers can.  But researchers say that absolute pitch occurs on a continuum.  Some people with AP can give the pitch of whistles, car horns, bells; others, like me, cannot.   Some people with AP have it specific to a particular instrument.  There is actually a term “absolute piano,” since for most APers who identify with a particular instrument, that instrument is piano.  (Do a Google search for string players with AP if you want to find out what they think about a pianist’s perfect pitch.)

Some people have AP for just a single tone – usually their tuning pitch.  And if someone grows up playing a piano that is consistently a half step low, and that person develops perfect pitch, it will be a half step lower than A 440.  But Mozart’s AP was also lower, at A 421.   Researchers count the consistency of naming the right notes, not the pitch standard, as evidence of absolute pitch.

Blind musicians have AP at a higher percentage than average, as do people with autism.  Many AP possessors are better at identifying white notes than black (could be that they learn those first).  There are actual differences in structures in the brain of people who possess AP.  I won’t go into that here, but if you’re interested, Diana Deutsch’s website contains a list of her publications, many of which are available as PDFs online. Some of the publications are reviews of the current research, including research that has studied brain differences in APers.

It has been ironic to discover over the past few years that I have AP just about the time I may begin to lose it due to age.  There are a couple of instances in which a pitch shift occurs for possessors of AP (other than the temporary shift we talked about in the last post).    But on a permanent basis, pitches begin to be slightly sharper or flatter for some possessors of AP after the age of 50.  With some, it is slight.  With others, it can be as much as three semitones.  And certain medications can cause pitch to flatten, particularly carbamazepine, which is used for the treatment of epilepsy.   And I personally wonder about gabapentin, which I took for a couple of years for migraines.  During that time, I was suddenly hearing at Baroque pitch, which was very confusing.  But now that I no longer take gabapentin, my pitch sense is back to normal – just in time to start flattening due to my increasing years.

APers, any experiences you’d like to share?

15 responses to “More than you may want to know about absolute pitch”

  1. Michael Taylor Avatar
    Michael Taylor

    It makes me wonder if this is yet another reason (along with our global landscape) to start teaching Chinese to school students at as young an age as possible. This would reinforce the notion that there are a myriad of reasons/advantages to doing this.

    1. LS Avatar

      Of course learning Chinese is a great idea for many reasons, but the benefit in terms of acquiring AP seems to only be for people who grow up in the culture.

  2. Lyle Sanford Avatar

    For years I worked with emotionally disturbed children, some of whom were on the autistic spectrum, and it anecdotally seemed they were more likely to have AP – happy to have that confirmed.

    1. LS Avatar

      I have very little experience with children on the autistic spectrum, so it’s interesting to know that your experience seems to confirm the research.

  3. Avatar

    There is a variety of so-called idiot-savant that has exceptional musical ability. Some of these are blind. As I recall, most if not all of these were born this way. And there is Steven Mithen’s book, ‘The Singing Neanderthals’, in which he propounds the idea that in pre-modern humans, chanting and drumming may have played an important part in the development of declarative language (as distinct from conversational language). Interesting idea, but with some holes.

    1. LS Avatar

      Mithen isn’t the only one who proposes that music may have come before language, and there is a lot of research these days into the connection between the two. I vastly prefer Mithen’s theory to that of psychologist Steven Pinker, who famously said that music is “auditory cheesecake.”

      1. Avatar

        I agree! I’ll bet Pinker has rued that statement more than once. If Mithen’s hypothesis is extended to all archaic homo sapiens, it holds more water, in that Neanderthals never reached some areas populated by the archaics, and there is no reason to think that the Neanderthals had language when the Denisovans, for example, didn’t.

        1. LS Avatar

          The last I heard, Loren, Pinker was still standing by his “auditory cheesecake” comment.

  4. Kay Hooper Avatar

    I’m wondering if it is possible for older people to memorize one pitch, like the start of a frequently heard TV show. I also have a memory of reading something years ago about crowds having a preferred key, which I believe was F major. If not given another starting pitch, football fans will sing in F major, for example.

    Keep these interesting topics coming!

    1. LS Avatar

      I don’t know about the crowd pitch of F major, but Daniel Levitin (This is Your Brain on Music)has conducted a study in which people were asked to sing a popular sing which exists in only one recording. Most people sang at or very near the pitch that they were used to hearing in the recording, which indicates some kind of pitch memory for that particular song. And Andrea Halpern did a study in which people were asked to sing twice a popular song such as Happy Birthday. While participants in the study tended to not sing in the same key as each other, there was a great deal of pitch consistency between an individual’s two different recordings of the tune. So again, there seems to be some encoding of pitches of a particular song in long-term memory. But since non-musicians don’t have letter labels for the pitches, we tend to not think of it as AP. But maybe it is.

  5. Janis Avatar

    The only thing I’m 100% sure of regarding AP is that any online discussion of it immediately descends into the conversational equivalent of pocket lint inside of about five replies. I still don’t know what “pitch” I have.

    I can’t TELL you what the notes are, but I can definitely tell you if you are or aren’t playing something in the “right” key, and when I get the chance, I will invariably work out or play back things in their “proper” key. This has some strange effects when I noodle out things like “Open Arms” in Db because the band used to play it live a half-step flat as a matter of habit.

    I despise playing things in what I consider the “wrong” key, as I find it horribly disorienting. This has complicated matters for me from time to when I had to work out some Baroque stuff on the piano a half-step flat because playing them in Em or Gm made my eyes cross.

    I can also tune my viola cold with no reference pitch starting on the A string. I’m also amused by the apparent tendency for people’s mental reference pitches to get flat with age since I’m pushing 50 and … well yes, I do have a tendency to tune up, start playing scales, and then discover that I’m uniformly and perfectly about a quarter-tone flat when I go to the piano. 🙂

    But I can’t name individual pitches. Is this AP? Is it a version of it? Does it even matter? Meh.

    1. LS Avatar

      Hi Janis, Your experiences seem to prove the point of many researchers that AP consists along a continuum, and is not a single, absolute quality. People experience AP in different ways – the clincher seems to be consistency – and you talk about being “uniformly and perfectly about a quarter-tone flat.” That sounds like AP in terms of current research. Does it matter? Only if it matters to you.

  6. Nita Avatar

    Hi, Very interesting! I have had AP since a child – I discovered that I had it in Grade 1 when I asked my class teacher if the ‘Bluebells of Scotland’ that she played on the piano for us to walk into the classroom to was in F major. It was in Bb major which I had not heard of at that stage but that gave me the information to work it all out according to the ‘colours’ in the notes I heard. I am over 50 but I would say that for the last 10 years at least my accuracy has been declining to a semitone flatter :(. Age and perhaps some loss of hearing? I don’t hear the colours of the notes clearly any more, especially if I am producing the pitch first rather than hearing a note and naming it. (Flat notes are ‘twangy’ to me and sharp notes ‘flowery’ (how I thought of them in Grade 1) and yes, I could hear G#/Ab for example both ways – wish I could talk to JS Bach about it!) My children played brass instruments so I was constantly transposing in my head when they were practising, perhaps that has something to do with it too? Now, I take myself back forty years to my high school orchestra rehearsals where I played flute and listen for the A from the oboe. Then I am usually right! That has to be with the colour of the note as I can recall the oboe tone colour. But my piano teacher now well into her 80s has no such trouble! Still spot on!

    1. LS Avatar

      Hi Nita,
      This is fascinating. I find it particularly interesting that your piano teacher’s sense of pitch in her 80s is still right on and that the way you thought of flat and sharp notes in Grade 1 is still the way you hear them. Thanks for writing.

  7. Roberto Avatar

    Plus one to the medication statement. I’m on gabapentin and I can tell the days that I take it vs days I take it late that my perception of pitch is inherently different. I never noticed til I started singing, being mainly a piano player. Thanks!