5

I have heard many different views of people that absolute pitch is ONLY acquired by training, ONLY by genetics, by genetics but also possible with training or ONLY both. But what is the truth?

According to Wikipedia, absolute pitch generally implies some or all of the following abilities, achieved without a reference tone:

  • Identify by name individual pitches (e.g. F♯, A, G, C) played on various instruments.
  • Name the key of a given piece of tonal music.
  • Reproduce a piece of tonal music in the correct key days after hearing it.
  • Identify and name all the tones of a given chord or other tonal mass.
  • Accurately sing a named pitch.
  • Name the pitches of common everyday sounds such as car horns and alarms.

Also, the majority of musicians have relative pitch. What is the reason for this? Is it because absolute pitch is WAY harder to train than relative pitch? Or is it simply, because absolute pitch is only genetic?

According to wikipedia, relative pitch implies some or all of the following abilities:

  • Determine the distance of a musical note from a set point of reference, e.g. "three octaves above middle C"
  • Identify the intervals between given tones, regardless of their relation to concert pitch (A = 440 Hz)
  • the skill used by singers to correctly sing a melody, following musical notation, by pitching each note in the melody according to its distance from the previous note. Alternatively, the same skill which allows someone to hear a melody for the first time and name the notes relative to some known reference pitch.

Edit: What is your personal view on this subject and why?

  • 2
    I'm not sure if all the science is in on absolute pitch. In other words, we don't know for sure how and why some people have it and others don't. – Todd Wilcox Jan 9 '18 at 19:48
  • 2
    Of the few people I know with absolute pitch, there is a tendency towards synesthesia.... I have neither, so there ends my contribution ;) [I really do have friends who don't like certain changes "because they sound too brown" etc] – Tetsujin Jan 9 '18 at 19:49
  • 3
    You should remove the edit. Personal views are not on-topic here. – Todd Wilcox Jan 9 '18 at 20:49
  • 3
    From what i hear, absolute pitch is overrated. With good relative pitch, you can figure out the name of a note by comparing it to any other known note. I have seen claims that absolute pitch can be taught successfully from a young age though. – Ye Dawg Jan 9 '18 at 22:16
  • 2
    Training as a child, according to some evidence: Why Adults Can't Develop Perfect Pitch (Rick Beato points to a scientific article in this video) – Allan Felipe Jan 9 '18 at 22:16
8

There are elements of both.

The genetic side

Some people have amusia, the inability to discern pitch. These people can't identify common melodies and struggle to tell voices apart.

Some people have synesthesia, a condition where one sense triggers the impression of another. I know a pitch/color synesthete who sees pitch classes as colors, and tuning differences as hue/saturation variances. From talking to him, it sounds like he's always been able to distinguish pitch very accurately, even before his (now extensive) musical training.

Outside of these extremes, I personally believe that there is some amount of pitch discerning ability that's innate. Sorry for the lack of a source, but I don't think this has been extensively studied. I can tell you from my experience going through a massive school band program and continuing to work with high school and college students regularly that some people "get it" far easier than others, in a way that goes beyond what can be explained by motivation or studiousness.

The training side

Some musical instruments require a certain amount of absolute pitch. Singing is an obvious example, even though most singers rely on reference pitches. Orchestral strings would be another, but I think that the ability to play a pitch correctly without testing it is a matter of muscle memory instead. My example is the brass family.

On all brass instruments, you play multiple notes with each fingering. To play well, you have to know what a note sounds like before you play it. If your idea of the note is off, you'll either crack it, or play the wrong note entirely. This is a struggle for most beginners, but hordes of them learn. They weren't all born with great absolute pitch, they learn it.

I have a skill I call "pitch memory". I don't have the ability to instantly name a pitch class from hearing it, but a few pitches have been burned into my brain from sheer repetition. Tuning A, tuning Bb, and that damn opening C that we played a million times when we did the William Tell Overture in school band. If I need to generate a pitch, I can start from one of these and use an interval.

For yet more anecdotal evidence, most trumpet players (who start on a Bb instrument) are thrown for a loop the first time they try to play a C trumpet. The same fingering doesn't produce the same pitch that they remember! They have developed a strong enough sense of absolute pitch, at least in the context of one instrument, to cause confusion.

  • 2
    Interesting your take on vocals. As I'd say that most people who 'just sing' have no formal musical training, yet can sing in key - some sort of key. Once one pitch is recognised, any others will be found from relative pitch, though I don't know if musical training or knowledge has much or any bearing on this. – Tim Jan 9 '18 at 21:02
  • Sorry irrelevant, but is there a bug with those 'i's in the headers? no dot? Or is that just me? – MCMastery Jan 9 '18 at 23:53
  • @MCMastery That bug isn't happening on my end. – Richard Jan 10 '18 at 1:53
  • 2
    @MCMastery not really a bug, but on certain screen resolution & dpi, the dot looks merged with the body. That's why it looks like capital I instead. (zooming in/out will show the dot again) – Andrew T. Jan 10 '18 at 2:15
  • 1
    I think there's another important factor, which is the nurture side, rather than strictly genetics. I think being exposed to a musical environment can greatly contribute to someone's pitch ability, particularly at a very young age when one is developing auditory skills. I have always had very good relative (though not absolute) pitch that comes naturally to me, and I attribute it to the fact that my mother played piano around me when I was young and started me in choir and piano lessons when I was still in grade school. – David K Jan 10 '18 at 13:10
3

This is covered in various places by David Huron in Sweet Anticipation

Obviously, absolute pitch (AP) must involve learning, since the pitch categories and pitch names are culture-specific. But the evidence for learning runs deeper. Japanese researcher Ken'ichi Miyazaki hash shown that people of have absolute pitch are faster at identifying some pitches that others. ... this finding implies that AP is learned through simple exposure, and that AP possessors learn best those sounds that occur most frequently (p.64)

And more in chapter 7

Experimental research concerning AP has been carried out for more than a century. The intense curiosity about AP arises from its relative rarity. If everyone had AP we wouldn't give it a moment's thought. ... evidence suggests ... a genetic predisposition[11] ... [but] existing research suggests that a critical learning period is involved. ... [possessors of AP] typically begin musical instruction ... at a comparatively early age—often before the age of six or seven. (p.110)

Subsequent discussion involves the lack of fixed tuning (human voice, gamelan, violin, guitar, ...) that denies a stable pitch environment; if it does not matter that "Happy Birthday" is sung one day in key X and another in key Y, then absolute pitch if the brain is capable of that could be crowded out by (more useful) relative pitch mental representations. (And there appear to be "significant disadvantages" to having AP...)

Nothing I see one could tack some Platonic Truth to (or what do you mean by "truth"?) as there's evidence both for genetics and learning and ongoing research on the subject.

  • 2
    I find this argument extremely unconvincing. It's like arguing that a person can't tell colours apart, unless they know the (culture-specific) names for those colours; or that it's not possible to tell two people apart unless you know their names. Moreover, to hear a note one day, and to be able to recall it the following day doesn't require having a name for that note. Speaking from my own experience, learning the letter names for each note was simply an exercise in applying labels to things that I could already tell apart. In other words, I believe I had absolute pitch long before I ... – Dawood ibn Kareem Jan 10 '18 at 10:32
  • ... knew anything at all about musical notation or the names of notes. – Dawood ibn Kareem Jan 10 '18 at 10:32
  • @DawoodibnKareem one of David Huron's grad students attempted to train absolute pitch for a year or so and thought they were doing great...until they were tested. Colors meanwhile are in all ways problematic; I'm colorblind, so cannot tell various colors apart. Also I would call various shades in the ~472.5 nanometer range "blue" that a Russian would shake their head in disbelief that I cannot distinguish "siniy" from "goluboy", independent of being colorblind. ("Though the Language Glass" by Guy Deutscher covers the problems with colors in more detail.) – thrig Jan 10 '18 at 14:59
  • Meanwhile, telling people apart (which mostly uses the visual system) could easily be argued as an evolutionary advantage for social primates. Indeed, most people are very good at this. Could you explain how you think this relates to absolute pitch, which most people are very bad at (and what would an evolutionary advantage of AP be?) One does not need absolute pitch to listen to speakers and tell Mary apart from Eve. – thrig Jan 10 '18 at 15:29
2

You ask for a personal view. I was given a piano and started taking lessons when I was six years old. Several years later I was in a class learning music dictation and I wondered why the teacher would always tell us the starting note before playing a melody to write down. It seemed as unnecessary as telling us the starting letter in a word to write down. That was when I first knew that some people do not have absolute pitch.

C, D and E were very different and distinct sounds, like the voices of three different friends, or like the tastes of chocolate, steak and garlic.

Perhaps having a pitch standard in my home and using it every day gave me the idea that A-440 is universal and eternal standard -- which it is not, actually; it's as arbitrary as "one hundred cents equals one dollar" and hasn't even been in place as long as American decimal currency.

If all you have is a guitar and you tune it to itself, it can drift. It might have taught me that an external standard (absolute pitch) is not as important as internal concord (relative pitch). Maybe I would have learned relative pitch, instead of faking it all along via absolute pitch.

I'm 66 years old now. Age messes with your pitch. The mechanism in your ear changes in some way, and now if you play a C it might sound like a D to me. But if I play a keyboard or I know the key of a piece I'm listening to, a C sounds like a C.

  • As far as I've heard and read, typical no-absolute pitch, non-tone deaf people hear C, D, and E as 3 distinct sounds, and the relative pitch people recognize that they're major 2nds away from each other--they just can't recognize that any of them is C. – Dekkadeci Jan 10 '18 at 21:45
  • They are distinct as pitches, but to me they always had some other distinct quality. I can't explain it. It's as if I could tell you that someone was exactly six feet one inch tall because I sensed his "six-foot-one-inch-ness". – Mark Lutton Jan 11 '18 at 2:55
2

It has to have some kind of genetic/biological basis. I have no musical education whatsoever and didn't start playing an instrument until I was 12. Unfortunately I'm totally not gifted, so I have never played a lot, just strummed some chords and picked a few melodies, simply because I liked it.

Much later I was wondering why many of my friends used a tuner to tune their guitars. I thought it was something you use only when performing and was really amazed when I found out they needed a reference pitch at the least to tune by ear.

I do have a very sharp ear, the slightest off-pitch sounds like nails on a chalkboard. And if I've heard a song once I'll always remember what the correct starting pitch is. However, songs with identical, repeating parts but in a different key do throw me off somewhat, apparently my brain starts to doubt between both keys. And as an experiment I used a DAW to raise a song by a semi-tone over the course of the song (i.e. it starts at the correct pitch and gradually, indiscernible, the pitch is raised until it ends a semi-tone higher) and my brain doesn't pick up on it. If I think about the song right after, it hears it at the incorrect pitch. Only if I let the song disappear from my mind it will "reset" after a while.

Of course this doesn't prove that you can't learn AP. Only that for some people it definitely is not learned.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.