- This passage1 provides a good characterization of absolute pitch — the ability to name or produce a note of a given pitch in the absence of a reference note. This ability, which is also known as “perfect pitch,” is very rare in our culture, with an estimated overall prevalence of less than one in ten thousand. People with absolute pitch name musical notes as rapidly and effortlessly as most people name colors. Yet absolute pitch is often regarded as a mysterious endowment that is available only to a few gifted individuals. This impression is strengthened by the fact that most famous musicians, such as Bach, Beethoven, Handel, Menuhin, Toscanini, Boulez, and so on, were known to possess this ability.
- In contrast with the rarity of absolute pitch, the ability to judge one musical note in relation to another is very common. So, for example, most musicians, when presented with the note F and given its name, have no difficulty in naming the note two semitones higher as G, the note four semitones tones higher as A; and so on. (A semitone is the pitch relation formed by two adjacent notes on a keyboard, and corresponds to a frequency ratio of approximately 18:17.) What most people, including most musicians, cannot do is name a note when they hear it out of context.
- As someone with absolute pitch, it has always seemed puzzling to me that this ability should be so rare. When we name a color, for example as green, we do not do this by viewing a different color, determining its name, and comparing the relationship between the two colors. Instead, the labeling process is direct and immediate. Consider, also, that note naming involves choosing between only 12 possibilities; namely the 12 notes within the octave (termed pitch classes). Such a task should not be difficult; indeed, it should be trivial for professional musicians, who spend many thousands of hours reading musical scores, playing the notes they read, and hearing the notes they play. As another point most people can easily identify well-known melodies when they hear them; yet the amount of information required to do this is vastly greater than is required to name a single note. A lack of absolute pitch, viewed from this perspective, appears akin to the syndrome of color anomia, in which the person can recognize and discriminate between colors, yet cannot associate them with verbal labels. So the real mystery of absolute pitch is not why some people possess this ability, but instead why it is so rare.
Footnote 1: On Mozart, aged 7.
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