Absolute pitch, what it is and how it develops

Last update on Sep, 29, 2022

Is the ability to precisely identify a note without a reference sound a natural gift or can you learn absolute pitch?

Absolute pitch refers to the ability to identify the absolute pitch (or frequency) of musical notes without a reference sound. Whilst some consider absolute pitch (also known as 'perfect pitch’) to be genetic in nature, a natural talent deriving from one’s DNA, others believe it only comes with many years of practice. Let's take a closer look at what it is and how it develops.

Absolute pitch, a natural gift

A study by the University of California in San Diego suggests that absolute pitch is, at least in part, a natural talent. The talent is prevalent in Asia, where tonal languages such as Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese are spoken. In order to understand whether absolute pitch was actually linked to DNA, 27 English-speaking people, seven of whom were classified as having absolute pitch, were subjected to a verbal memory, or absolute pitch test.

The test consisted of remembering, in the correct order, a numerical sequence heard through headphones. The results showed that musicians with absolute pitch were able to remember the sequence of numbers they’d heard much better. This would demonstrate that absolute pitch is associated with auditory memory, i.e. a highly developed ability to remember sounds, and this is, at least, partly dependent on DNA. 

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Exercises for the absolute ear

The opposing school of thought considers absolute pitch to be the result of years of ear training, i.e. training to recognise and precisely name an isolated sound in the absence of a musical context. Moreover, for the purposes of musical education and a musician’s performance, the same thinking favours relative pitch over absolute pitch. Music is a succession of notes which, when combined, create melodies and harmonies. The art of combining notes and understanding the relationships between them is believed to be based on relative pitch, i.e. the brain's ability to measure tonal distances between notes and to reason in terms of intervals. Opinion seems likely to remain divided for some time to come. 

Absolute or relative ear? Differences

As previously outlined, absolute pitch refers to the ability to identify the absolute pitch of musical notes without the aid of a reference sound. Relative pitch, however, is defined as the ability to immediately recognise the intervals between one note and another and, consequently, the nature of chords. Relative pitch is undoubtedly more common than absolute pitch, also because it can develop over time through practice and does not necessarily have to be an innate, natural gift. 

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Musicians with an absolute pitch

Below is a list of composers and musicians, past and present, gifted with absolute pitch:

  • Beethoven
  • Bach
  • Mozart
  • Jimi Hendrix
  • Michael Jackson
  • Frank Sinatra
  • Mariah Carey
  • Celine Dion
  • Barbra Streisand
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