Archive for August 28th, 2009

Absolute pitch: what it can tell us about cognitive faculties

August 28, 2009

P Bermudez and R J Zatorre explain why in this mini-review at Journal of Biology:

Root, fifth, sixth, flatted seventh, octave, ninth, flatted seventh, octave, ninth, octave. When played with the right rhythm and attitude, these musical intervals will be recognized by many people as the main thematic refrain from So What, by Miles Davis. We are able to discern this because the pattern of intervallic relationships (of both pitch and time) forms the melody, no matter the starting pitch. If given the information that the root note is ‘D’, any trained musician will be able to compute the rest of the note names by identifying the intervallic distances between each note of the melody and the root (or any other note that has been determined), yielding D, A, B, C, D, E, C, D, E, D. This ability is referred to as relative pitch. A small minority of musicians, however, can identify all the notes ‘absolutely’, each in isolation and without reference to any other note. In other words, they possess some sort of internal template, a stable representation of pitches to which they can compare the incoming signal and subsequently identify the notes by name, by sounding them on an instrument, or other responses. This is referred to as perfect or absolute pitch (AP). A comprehensive review of the factors influencing the likelihood of acquiring AP is far beyond the scope of this brief commentary, although the two most frequently mentioned are early musical training (particularly during an early developmental phase during which there is relatively preserved affinity for absolute information), and a predisposing biology, the nature of which is still largely speculated. As we will see shortly, a brain functional magnetic resonance imaging study comparing musicians with and without AP published recently in BMC Neuroscience by Shulze and colleagues [1] now fits another piece to the puzzle.

Take a look!