Music and Sound Research

Absolute Pitch Acquisition

Absolute pitch (the ability to name or produce a musical pitch accurately without external reference) is a cognitive ability possessed by only a small proportion of humans, though the ability is common in certain branches of the animal kingdom (where relative-pitch—understanding relational properties between pitches once transposed—is rare). Some studies have hypothesized that all babies are born with absolute pitch (AP), but that this ability is “unlearned” as they develop higher-order relational processing skills. Others propose that absolute-pitch abilities are learned only during a critical period in early childhood, similar to that for acquisition of a second language. Still others point to the higher incidence of AP in Chinese musicians and hypothesize a linguistic link with the acquisition of a tone language. Our work seeks to untangle some of these issues by using a statistical-learning paradigm that familiarizes listeners with a lengthy stream of pitches, and then tests memory for three-tone segments of the stream versus transposed segments not present in the stream. With a population of AP musicians at the Eastman School, we can test the reliability of the statistical-learning test against traditional tests of absolute pitch, and so develop a test that is free from a labeling component (e.g., this pitch is a G#). Without labels, we are free to adapt the design to nonmusicians, including nonmusician speakers of tone languages, to infants, and even to animals to address some of the research questions described above. This work is ongoing, and has already produced a test that reliably distinguishes between two classes of musicians: those with and without absolute pitch.