- This passage1 furnishes a good characterization of absolute pitch (AP)—otherwise known as perfect pitch — the ability to name or produce a note of a given pitch in the absence of a reference note. AP possessors name musical notes as effortlessly and rapidly as most people name colors, and they generally do so without specific training. The ability is very rare in North America and Europe, with its prevalence in the general population estimated as less than one in 10,000. Because of its rarity, and because a substantial number of world-class composers and performers are known to possess it, AP is often regarded as a perplexing ability that occurs only in exceptionally gifted individuals. However, its genesis and characteristics are unclear, and these have recently become the subject of considerable research.
- In contrast to the rarity of AP, the ability to name relationships between notes is very common among musicians. Most trained musicians have no difficulty in naming the ascending pattern D-Fx as a major third, E-B as a perfect fifth, and so on. Further, when given the name of one of these notes, they generally have no difficulty in producing the name of the other note, using relative pitch as the cue. Yet most musicians, at least in Western cultures, are unable to name a note when it is presented in isolation.
- The rarity of AP presents us with an enigma. We can take color naming as an analogy: When we label a color as red, we do not do so by comparing it with another color (such as blue) and determining the relationship between the two colors; the labeling process is instead direct and immediate. Consider, also, that note naming involves choosing between only 12 possibilities—the 12 notes within the octave. Such a task should be trivial for musicians, who typically spend thousands of hours reading musical scores, playing the notes they read, and hearing the notes they play. In addition, most people have no difficulty naming well-known melodies, yet this task is considerably more complex than is naming a single note. It appears, therefore, that the lack of AP is analogous to color anomia, in which patients can recognize and discriminate colors, yet cannot associate them with verbal labels.
Footnote 1: On Mozart, aged 7.
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