Absolute Pitch and Varying Levels of Pitch Recognition
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Absolute Pitch and Varying Levels of Pitch Recognition

Absolute pitch and varying levels of pitch recognition in both musicians and non-musicians.

Absolute Pitch is the ability to hear and decipher different music notes instinctively. A 'true possessor' of absolue pitch can be played a music tone, and can tell you instantly what its corresponding name is. Many researchers have questioned that whether this ability is obtained through genetics, music education - from a young age, or a mixture of both (Gregersen, 1999; Baharloo.S et al, 2000).

It has recently been considered that there are different varying levels of absolute pitch, from 'true absolute pitch' possessors, to varying levels of 'Heightened Tonal Memory' (Ross et al, 2005). Heightened tonal memory possessors can decipher what note is played, but would require a reference note, where as an absolute pitch possessor would not. A reference note, for example, would be middle C on a piano, the subject would then be played a note within the octave higher or lower and would be able to place the note, with varying levels of accuracy. One might say that this aims towards the thought that 'true absolute pitch' possessors require a genetic influence, where as 'heightened tonal memory' can be obtained through years of music education. 

Another aspect of the point was brought to attention when testing different musicians for traces of absolute pitch (Ross et al, 2005). As could be quite easily predicted, Musicians trained from a young age solely on guitar would be able to place guitar notes much easier than piano notes, and vica versa.

Until fairly recently, non-musicians have not really been tested for absolute pitch, as a basic level of music theory would be required to pitch associate to a note name. Tests carried out by Bermudez et al (2005), allow for non-musicians to take part, as subjects are required to note replicate, rather than note associate.

The subjects are played a tone, and are asked to replicate the tone via turning a dial on an oscillator frequency sweep. When the subject is happy with their note being the same, the frequency they chose is recorded. The results are then put within tolerance bands to determine the subjects abilities, from possession of true absolute pitch, to varying levels of pitch recognition.

The results form these tests show that even non-musicians can show varying levels of pitch recognition, but maybe not to the extent of obtaining absolute pitch. This may be seen as important evidence towards highlighting genetical influences on pitch recognition, as well as musical training.



Baharloo.S, Service.S.K, Risch N, Gitschier.J, Freimer.N.B, 'Familial Aggregation of Absolute Pitch', Am. J. Hum. Genet., 2000; 67:755–758,

 Bermudez.P, Zatorre.R, 'Conditional Associative Memory for Musical Stimuli in Nonmusicians: Implications for Absolute Pitch', The Journal of Neuroscience, August 24, 2005; 25(34):7718 –7723

Gregersen.P.K, 'Absolute Pitch: Prevalence, Ethnic Variation, and Estimation of the Genetic Component', Am. J. Hum. Genet., 1999; 65:913–917,

Ross.D.A., Gore.J.C, Marks.L.E, 'Absolute Pitch: Music and Beyond'. Epilepsy & Behaviour 2005; 578–601.

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Comments (2)

Thanks for sharing this great write up.

Cheers, glad you liked it. I am currently doing my dissertation around a similar area. I am looking into how heterodyne principals (removing the fundamental pitch from a tone) effects musicians and non-musicians in their abilities of pitch recognition. Results are currently really interesting, I will write up an article on what I find once I have completed my study.