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Absolute pitch: Myths, evidence and relevance to music education and performance

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Abstract

The assumed extreme rarity of absolute pitch (AP), sometimes known as “perfect pitch”, is not supported by empirical evidence. Instead, studies indicate a prevalence of at least 4% for music students, making AP of potential importance to everyday music education. Considerable scientific curiosity about AP exists, though rarely have research findings been practically applied to music education. This review looks at the evidence of the origins of AP and of the distinct neurological, language and cognitive features of possessors, and considers the relevance of these to music students. The absence of systematically gathered data from those with AP about their experiences is discussed, and implications for the educational needs of this group considered.

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... More recent studies have focused on the prevalence of AP in musician subgroups, with data gathered from these international studies suggesting rates in these subgroups ranging from 4% to 65%, with variations attributed to factors including genetic, ethnic, and/or language backgrounds, as well as the age of onset of musical training (Deutsch et al., 2006;Leite et al., 2016;Miyazaki et al., 2012. For an overview, see Carden & Cline, 2019). Regardless of the population studied, the rarity of AP is perplexing, leading to suggestions that the lack of AP is analogous to colour anomia, in which patients can discriminate between colours, but are unable to associate them with verbal labels (Deutsch, 2013). ...
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Genuine absolute pitch is distinguished from quasi- and pseudo-absolute pitch. "Genuine absolute pitch cannot be acquired in adulthood unless a certain predisposition exists." Statistics relative to the occurrence of this capacity in normal and blind persons are given. "It is evident, then, that inheritance, attention and experience are the important factors for the creation of genuine absolute pitch, inheritance being of prime importance in the talented musician, attention representing the most important item in the blind, and experience determining the degree and extent of the final product, particularly in the professional musician." (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2012 APA, all rights reserved)
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The present manuscript summarizes and discusses the implications of recent neuroimaging studies, which have investigated the relationship between musical expertise and structural, as well as functional, changes in an auditory-related association cortex, namely, the planum temporale (PT). Since the bilateral PT is known to serve as a spectrotemporal processor that supports perception of acoustic modulations in both speech and music, it comes as no surprise that musical expertise corresponds to functional sensitivity and neuroanatomical changes in cortical architecture. In this context, we focus on the following question: To what extent does musical expertise affect the functioning of the left and right plana temporalia? We discuss the relationship between behavioral, hemodynamic, and neuroanatomical data obtained from musicians in light of maturational and developmental issues. In particular, we introduce two studies of our group that show to what extent brains of musicians are more proficient in phonetic task performance.
Article
Absolute pitch (AP) is the ability to identify a tone's pitch or to produce a tone at a particular pitch without the use of an external reference pitch. AP exists in varying degrees among people generally described as AP possessors. AP possessors vary not only in the accuracy with which they can identify pitches but also in their ability to produce pitches absolutely and in their ability to identify tones of various timbers and in various pitch registers. AP possessors' memory for pitches is mediated by verbal pitch names; they do not have superior memory for pitches per se. Although the etiology of AP is not yet completely understood, evidence points toward the early-learning theory. This theory states that AP can be learned by anyone during a limited period early in development, up to about age 6, after which a general developmental shift from perceiving individual features to perceiving relations among features makes AP difficult or impossible to acquire.
Article
Absolute pitch (AP) is the ability to recognize a pitch, without an external reference. By surveying more than 600 musicians in music conservatories, training programs, and orchestras, we have attempted to dissect the influences of early musical training and genetics on the development of this ability. Early musical training appears to be necessary but not sufficient for the development of AP. Forty percent of musicians who had begun training at <=4 years of age reported AP, whereas only 3% of those who had initiated training at >=9 years of age did so. Self-reported AP possessors were four times more likely to report another AP possessor in their families than were non-AP possessors. These data suggest that both early musical training and genetic predisposition are needed for the development of AP. We developed a simple computer-based acoustical test that has allowed us to subdivide AP possessors into distinct groups, on the basis of their performance. Investigation of individuals who performed extremely well on this test has already led us to identify several families that will be suitable for studies of the genetic basis of AP.
Article
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Article
Absolute pitch (AP) is a behavioral trait that is defined as the ability to identify the pitch of tones in the absence of a reference pitch. AP is an ideal phenotype for investigation of gene and environment interactions in the development of complex human behaviors. Individuals who score exceptionally well on formalized auditory tests of pitch perception are designated as "AP-1." As described in this report, auditory testing of siblings of AP-1 probands and of a control sample indicates that AP-1 aggregates in families. The implications of this finding for the mapping of loci for AP-1 predisposition are discussed.
Article
Autistic musical savants invariably possess absolute pitch ability and are able to disembed individual musical tones from chords. Enhanced pitch discrimination and memory has been found in non-savant individuals with autism who also show superior performance on visual disembedding tasks. These experiments investigate the extent that enhanced disembedding ability will be found within the musical domain in autism. High-functioning children with autism, together with age- and intelligence-matched controls, participated in three experiments testing pitch memory, labelling and chord disembedding. The findings from experiment 1 showed enhanced pitch memory and labelling in the autism group. In experiment 2, when subjects were pre-exposed to labelled individual tones, superior chord segmentation was also found. However, in experiment 3, when disembedding performance was less reliant on pitch memory, no group differences emerged and the children with autism, like controls, perceived musical chords holistically. These findings indicate that pitch memory and labelling is superior in autism and can facilitate performance on musical disembedding tasks. However, when task performance does not rely on long-term pitch memory, autistic children, like controls, succumb to the Gestalt qualities of chords.
Article
Reports of a relatively high prevalence of absolute pitch (AP) in autistic disorder suggest that AP is associated with some of the distinctive cognitive and social characteristics seen in autism spectrum disorders. Accordingly we examined cognition, personality, social behavior, and language in 13 musicians with strictly defined AP (APS) and 33 musician controls (MC) without AP using standardized interviews and tests previously applied to identify the broad autism phenotype seen in the relatives of autistic probands. These included the Pragmatic Rating Scale (PRS) (social aspects of language) the Personality Assessment Schedule (PAS) (rigidity, aloofness, anxiety/worry, hypersensitivity), and WAIS performance subtests (PIQ). On the basis of their behavior in the interviews, subjects were classified as socially eccentric, somewhat eccentric, or not eccentric. Forty-six percent of the APS, but only 15% of the MC, were classified as socially eccentric (p < .03). APS but not MC showed higher scores on block design than on the other PIQ tests (p < .06), a PIQ pattern seen in autism spectrum disorders. Although APS and MC did not differ significantly on other measures it is of note that APS mean scores on the PRS and PAS (5.69, 4.92) were almost twice as high as those for the MC (3.03, 2.45). Thus, musicians with AP show some of the personality, language, and cognitive features associated with autism. Piecemeal information processing, of which AP is an extreme and rare example, is characteristic of autism and may be associated as well with subclinical variants in language and behavior. We speculate that the gene or genes that underlie AP may be among the genes that contribute to autism.
Article
Absolute pitch (AP) is the rare ability to identify the pitch of a tone without the aid of a reference tone. Understanding both the nature and genesis of AP can provide insights into neuroplasticity in the auditory system. We explored factors that may influence the accuracy of pitch perception in AP subjects both during the development of the trait and in later age. We used a Web-based survey and a pitch-labeling test to collect perceptual data from 2,213 individuals, 981 (44%) of whom proved to have extraordinary pitch-naming ability. The bimodal distribution in pitch-naming ability signifies AP as a distinct perceptual trait, with possible implications for its genetic basis. The wealth of these data has allowed us to uncover unsuspected note-naming irregularities suggestive of a “perceptual magnet” centered at the note “A.” In addition, we document a gradual decline in pitch-naming accuracy with age, characterized by a perceptual shift in the “sharp” direction. These findings speak both to the process of acquisition of AP and to its stability. • perceptual magnet • pitch perception
Article
Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder, characterised by deficits in socialisation and communication, with repetitive and stereotyped behaviours [American Psychiatric Association (1994). Diagnostic and statistical manual for mental disorders (4th ed.). Washington, DC: APA]. Whilst intellectual and language impairment is observed in a significant proportion of diagnosed individuals [Gillberg, C., & Coleman, M. (2000). The biology of the autistic syndromes (3rd ed.). London: Mac Keith Press; Klinger, L., Dawson, G., & Renner, P. (2002). Autistic disorder. In E. Masn, & R. Barkley (Eds.), Child pyschopathology (2nd ed., pp. 409-454). New York: Guildford Press], the disorder is also strongly associated with the presence of highly developed, idiosyncratic, or savant skills [Heaton, P., & Wallace, G. (2004) Annotation: The savant syndrome. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 45 (5), 899-911]. We tested identification of fundamental pitch frequencies in complex tones, sine tones and words in AC, an intellectually able man with autism and absolute pitch (AP) and a group of healthy controls with self-reported AP. The analysis showed that AC's naming of speech pitch was highly superior in comparison to controls. The results suggest that explicit access to perceptual information in speech is retained to a significantly higher degree in autism.
What’s so perfect about perfect pitch??
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The world’s most musical languages. The Atlantic
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Special talents of autistic savants
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The pros and cons of perfect pitch. The Trumpet Blog
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Royal College of Music head criticises the decline in provision in schools
  • The Guardian