18 August 2006

Do you have Absolute Pitch?

Do you have any friends who, when hearing a tune, can repeat exactly the same immediately on an instrument, or who can name a note when the sound strikes them? If you do, you happen to have known someone who has absolute pitch.

Absolute pitch, sometimes also referred to as perfect pitch, is the ability to recognise a musical note by name, or to sing a note at the correct pitch without any other reference note. Those who have this sort of talent can usually:

  • recognise and name individual pitches played on instruments
  • recognise and name all the tones of a chord or a mass of tones
  • name the key of a musical work (of course the music has to be tonal, but not contemporary atonal works)
  • sing a pitch without any reference note
  • name the pitches of ordinary sounds in everyday life – for example, a car honk or a clash of ceramic plates
Some people believe that this is an innate capacity which is the expression of certain genes, some argue that this can be acquired through early training during a critical period when children develop their musical ability, and yet others prove that the skill can be learned at a later stage of life.

Whatever the arguments are, I would say that absolute pitch may be useless if the one who possesses it cannot name a given pitch in agreement with the cultural context or musical practices of the society he or she stands in. A person with this talent or skill must be able to give the appropriate names, which is understandable and meaningful within a musical tradition.

For example, in Indian Classical music, an octave is not divided into 12 notes and its tuning system is very much different from the equal temperament system employed in the West. Therefore, an absolute-pitch, Western-classical-music person may not be able to name those pitches used in Indian classical music, even though he or she can recognise them or correctly reproduce them all the time by singing them.

Some scientific studies have shown that a person has to be exposed to early music training, normally by the time of six years of age, otherwise he or she will never develop absolute pitch, even if there is certain inborn predisposition for the ability to have absolute pitch. Hence, be it a natural aptitude or acquired skill, a person must learn the particular names of pitches used in a particular music tradition so that those given pitches can be name properly and the ability be exercised in musical activities such as composition and performance.

For those who would like to know more about scientific research on absolute pitch, here is an on-going interesting project to identify the genes that are involved in the development of absolute pitch, University of California Absolute Pitch Study, as well as some articles published in academic journals and the lay press.

For those who would like to see if they have absolute pitch to participate in the research, click here to start the test.

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