Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Perfect Pitch: You either have it or not?

Last week a paper was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA (PNAS) that generated quite a stir, both in the academic world and in the press. In that paper researchers from the University of California presented the results from an elaborated web-based study (with about 2200 participants) that investigated the ability of Absolute Pitch (AP): being able to name the pitch of a tone without the use of a reference tone. Something some see as a musical gift, others as a burden.

The researchers found a bimodal distribution in pitch-naming ability that was interpreted as “you either have it or not”. Furthermore, they suggested a genetic basis for AP. And that’s were the discussion started ...

While there is some research in the possible genetic basis for AP, related studies (not mentioned in the PNAS paper) have argued, and to a large extend shown, that AP might well be a result of biases due to the task and stimuli used, largely a result of training, and problably more widepread than some think.

For example, Glenn Schellenberg and Sandra Trehub form the University of Toronto found support for a normal, not bimodal, distribution once pitch-naming or reproduction requirements are eliminated (such knowledge about piano keyboards or music notation) and familiar materials (such as soundtracks of tv programs) are used. They argue that good pitch memory is actually widespread.

Oliver Vitouch from the University of Klagenfurt wrote a comment a few years ago, called “Absolute models of absolute pitch are absolutely misleading”, summarizing the state of affairs in AP research, and arguing that it is mainly a result of musical training. Clearly there is little agreement on the claim that AP is a trait.

In addition, I find AP actually not such a special phenomenon. Although we could agree that AP occurs at different levels of preciseness on a continuous scale, in the end we should also agree that Relative Pitch (RP) is far more special. While we might share AP with quite a few animals, RP is far less common, arguably making AP in humans less special.

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