Monday, September 17, 2007

Do you have absolute pitch?

Curious that I came across this article, just after a post on Pavoratti's High C. From Athos et al.
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.
From a commentary by Drayna in the same issue of PNAS:
Absolute pitch is an especially tantalizing trait for genetic analysis. It has an onset early in life, it occurs equally in males and females, it is highly heritable, it is rare in the population, and it appears to be nonsyndromic, that is, unassociated with other conditions. All of these features bode well for the prospects of gene finding. However, unlike most inherited neurological conditions for which affected individuals present themselves to a medical specialist, AP individuals and families have not been easily ascertained. The demonstration by Athos et al. that a web site can be an effective tool for identifying, testing, and recruiting AP subjects is an important development. The identification of the genetic variation that leads to AP is likely to tell us much about a part of the auditory system that is currently obscure, and the results of Athos et al. are indeed encouraging in this quest.


  1. Anonymous9:19 PM

    Curiously, I was surfing around looking for updated discussion on Williams Syndrome...anyway, noticed the blog on perfect pitch. There has been some interesting research on Williams Syndrome and musical abilities, in which a very high portion of people with WS have perfect pitch and appear to be able to develop it later in development than most. For more information, check out : "The Strangest Song" by Teri Sforza,Howard Lenhoff and I think there is something mentioned about it in Daniel J. Levitin's "This is your brain on music...".

  2. The most amazing thing about absolute pitch is that it is so rare. As a possesser of absolute pitch, it seems like such an easy ability. Different notes have very distinct sounds to them. There is some learning aspect with absolute pitch because as a child, I was very familiar with all of the piano white notes and the F-sharp and B-flat which are so commonly played. I had to think up from an internally known reference note to double check the 3 other black notes. Once I was a bit older, I was equally sure about all notes.