Cognitive Daily

Yesterday, in our post on perfect pitch (usually called absolute pitch in research reports), we offered a quick test to see if we could identify the portion of our readers with absolute pitch. At first, things were looking good for the absolute pitch crowd. Readers listened to this note:

A whopping 18.8 percent of the 165 respondents identified it correctly as E. Since random chance would predict that just 8.33 percent of responses would guess this note, it would appear that over 10 percent of our readers have absolute pitch.

But some readers pointed out that many string instruments have an E string; this is a particularly easy note to guess — that’s a good point. So we changed the note and conducted a new poll. This time readers heard this:

Only 7.2 percent of 195 respondents correctly identified the note as G-sharp — a rate lower than the 8.33 percent random chance level. What’s up with that? Are there *no* readers with absolute pitch?

There is a potential explanation. Athos et al.’s study noted that even people with absolute pitch tend to make a disproportionate number of errors on “black keys” — sharps and flats. So I computed the average number of responses on white keys and black keys. On average, people guessed a given white key 10 percent of the time, while selecting a given black key just 4.5 percent of the time. Now we can compare our actual results to these baseline figures:

i-ed99b30bd69b92954a91948619e36d31-guesses.gif

So in Poll 1, people correctly identified E 8.8 percent more often than they selected other white keys, and in Poll 2, people correctly identified G sharp 2.7 percent more often than they selected other black keys.

Now, there are some other problems with our data. One commenter who claimed to have perfect pitch identified the G sharp as an A. This is consistent with Athos et al.’s finding that people with perfect pitch often misidentified that note, possibly since orchestras tune to a wide range of As. Indeed, in Poll 2, 12.3 percent of respondents said the note was an A, 2.3 percent more than chance, and 2.6 percent more than in Poll 1. It’s possible that that extra 2.3 percent includes many people with absolute pitch

So can we say that at least 2.7 percent, and up to 5 percent (2.7 + 2.3) of our readers have absolute pitch? Actually, that figure only represents about 10 individuals, so we certainly can’t say it with precision. I should also point out that during the time the poll was up, around 2,000 people visited the site, but only 360 responded. Maybe they didn’t respond because they had absolutely no clue what the answer was. So it’s possible that the actual percentage is substantially lower. Statistical error rates mean the percentage could be much higher as well.

Comments

  1. #1 egoblasted
    October 11, 2007

    second pitch has a distinct wobble (piano may need tuning)

  2. #2 Dave Munger
    October 11, 2007

    Really? How do you tune GarageBand?

  3. #3 Markk
    October 11, 2007

    I wouldn’t know an A from a Z. Never had any education in musical notation. You are testing that as well as pitch sensitivity, so there is already some kind of bias built in. That is why I didn’t answer.

  4. #4 christopher
    October 11, 2007

    @egoblasted – those are called ‘overtones’. :D

  5. #5 Katy
    October 11, 2007

    I can’t answer for the same reason as Markk. If you had a different way of testing this, such as asking me to match what I heard to something that is less of (what I see as) an arbitrary meaningless textual representation of a pitch, then sure. I think I’d do pretty well.

  6. #6 scote
    October 11, 2007

    “I can’t answer for the same reason as Markk. If you had a different way of testing this, such as asking me to match what I heard to something that is less of (what I see as) an arbitrary meaningless textual representation of a pitch, then sure. I think I’d do pretty well.”

    …and yet identifying “arbitrary meaningless” representations of pitch is what perfect pitch entails. However, it does bring up the question of how one might identify those with absolute pitch perception (as opposed to relative pitch) with out need for them to necessarily know musical notation. It does seem that many people can’t read music but are excellent musicians, so it is also likely the case that there are many people who have absolute pitch but can’t tell you the name of the note even though they can pick it out without need of a relative scale.

  7. #7 Maura
    October 11, 2007

    It depends on which instrument is playing the note, and which register the note is. Now, if that note were played an octave higher on the piano, people might be able to guess it better. Or if it were say, played on a flute or sung it might be easier. That’s my opinion. I for instance, could have instantly told you it was a G sharp if it were an octave higher. But since it was in the low register and vibrated differently I didn’t quite guess it as quickly. I could describe it in colors-is it a teal, an aqua or a turquoise? Or maybe a combination of teal and aqua? lol

  8. #8 Dave Munger
    October 12, 2007

    It depends on which instrument is playing the note, and which register the note is. Now, if that note were played an octave higher on the piano, people might be able to guess it better.

    Good point. But people with absolute pitch show no differences across a very wide range of notes. The only systematic differences that were found by Athos et al. were the tendency to go sharp as people aged, worse performance on the black keys, and worse performance on certain notes (most notably, G-sharp).

  9. #9 Freiddie
    October 12, 2007

    I have an idea. Perhaps some absolute pitch people use a specific piece of music to tune a note in their heads? (In my case, I find myself repeating Mozart’s K. 545 in my head, but realized that I was playing in C# instead of C). So maybe this doesn’t work.

  10. #10 Remis
    October 12, 2007

    I said myself “it’s too low to be an A, but it’s not G…”

    It is a rather unusual note… but, absolte pitch, is about just identifying and naming a note? what about people that can distinguish between half and even quarter of semitones?

    Being a bass player myself, I think that playing an instrument with clear distinction between notes (like guitar, piano) demands less skill thatn, say, violin or fretless bass, instruments in which you need to hit the correct notes without going out of pitch… switching to a fretless bass have been very hard ofr me for the said reasons

  11. #11 Gordon Worley
    October 12, 2007

    I found the survey somewhat difficult because I believe I have absolute pitch but very little musical training, so I don’t actually know the names of the notes. My only reason to suspect I have absolute pitch is that I can distinguish and tell the distance between harmonicas in different keys without a reference note (i.e. hear each harmonica on a different day after being in a quiet room for several minutes).

    But maybe this doesn’t really mean I have absolute pitch (although I did come close on the survey, saying G instead of G#).

  12. #12 mafalda
    October 13, 2007

    in my opinion many people do have absolute pitch but it’s a matter of language and practice/memory . all those who’ve never had any musical education or experience couldn’t tell the names of notes but may be, being it also a genetic factor, if they get trained a bit, they could easily use the right name to the right note.

  13. #13 Adrian Benson
    October 15, 2007

    I always thought there were two types of pitch recognition.Perfect(or absolute) and relative (for which you have some way of relating what you hear to a fixed pitch in your mind.
    My fixed pitch is the first note of the signature tune to “The Sky at Night” (which I think is by Sibelius). This is an E.
    I can then usually work out relative to this what note I have just heard, (most of the time)
    I have known two people with absolute pitch. Both were unbearable because they were always complaining about musicians,either instrumental or vocal being out of tune,thus totally spoiling their enjoyment of the music they were listening to.
    So I guess this could be the test for absolute pitch.If you are continually complaining about tuning you may be cursed with perfect pitch.

  14. #14 Becca
    October 19, 2007

    Relative to comment #7 on perfect pitch, Maura laughs (lol) at the prospect of hearing a pitch as aqua or teal. Does Maura know that there are people who do, in fact, see certain colors when its matching pitch is played? One such individual, (whose name I wish I had on hand, but which you can google, i’m sure) is a composer and has written musical pieces named after the color they evoke by the key signature.

  15. #15 Kath
    December 9, 2007

    I don’t understand this:
    “This is consistent with Athos et al.’s finding that people with perfect pitch often misidentified that note, possibly since orchestras tune to a wide range of As.”

    From an individual musician’s point of view, if they play in an orchestra then they will always tune to the same A. Some countries tune to a slightly different A, but for the majority of musicians, their A remains consistent all their life whether it’s A440 here in Australia or A444 (I think it is) in parts of Europe, so that statement doesn’t make any sense to me.

    The exception being if you’re doing a lot of early music, in which case it may be a different A, but that’s not the majority of people.

    That statement makes it seem as if orchestras just pick an A at random to tune from which is different to every other orchestra, just for the hell of it.

    #7 and #14, you’re referring to synaesthesia.

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