Proceedings paper




Oliver Vitouch & Andrea Gaugusch

Music Psychology Unit, Dept. of Psychology, University of Vienna, Austria



Absolute pitch (AP; sometimes also "perfect pitch" or "positive pitch") is the ability to identify or produce tonal pitches without reference to an external standard (Takeuchi & Hulse, 1993). This auditory long-term memory for pitches seems to be based on the perceptual coding of tone chromata, is reported to have a low prevalence in humans (less than 1 : 10.000, at least in its "perfect" form), and has been subject to nature/nurture debates for more than a century (cf. Stumpf, 1883; Meyer, 1899; Bachem, 1937, 1940; Miyazaki, 1988; Takeuchi & Hulse, 1993; Chin, 1997; for a recent synopsis see Ward, 1999). Considering neurophysiological evidence, however, the principle of tonotopic organization throughout the auditory projection pathway suggests that "absolute" information about pitches should be available on every human's primary auditory cortex (see, e.g., Romani, Williamson, Kaufman & Brenner, 1982; Pantev, Bertrand, Eulitz, Verkindt, Hampson, Schuierer & Elbert, 1995; Pantev, Oostenveld, Engelien, Ross, Roberts & Hoke, 1998). Accordingly, it has been proposed that also non-possessors of AP may have access to "latent" long-term pitch representations in auditory memory (e.g., for the pitches of well-known tunes): Long-term memory for musical keys in spontaneous pitch production (Halpern, 1989; Levitin, 1994) or pitch recognition (Terhardt & Ward, 1982; Terhardt & Seewann, 1983), i.e., active and passive "absolute tonality," can be understood as weakened forms of AP.



Using the 12 major key preludes from Johann Sebastian Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, Terhardt & Ward (1982) and Terhardt & Seewann (1983) showed that musically literate subjects without AP performed above chance in discriminating original keys even from one-semitone transpositions. However, these experiments did not reliably exclude short-term memory judgments based on tone intervals (i.e., relative pitch cues). We aimed to scrutinize the finding of musical key recognition in non-AP possessors by using a 24-hours inter-stimulus interval for rigorous short-term memory interference (Hall, 1982) and updated technical means ("identical replication" by digital transposition).


Study Design

We presented 52 students without manifest AP with the first prelude in C major from the Well-Tempered Clavier, either in the nominal key or digitally transposed to C-sharp, and tested their ability to discriminate between these two keys. Each condition was presented seven times in a random sequence of 14 trials, one trial per day. As the two versions were identical except for their pitch difference of one semitone, subjects without AP were expected not to achieve a discrimination rate above chance level (7 correct judgments or 50%).

Testing Material and Procedure

A digital recording of the C major prelude (BWV 846) was duplicated in C-sharp on an electronic piano (Yamaha Clavinova, CLP-840); both versions were recorded with a Digital Audio Tape Deck (Pioneer D-05). N = 52 non-AP-possessors (mostly 17-18 years old students), who declared to be familiar with the piece, were tested in single sessions, one trial per day only, on 14 subsequent days. Full-length recordings (2'13") were presented in random order, 7 times each, via stereo headphones. Other than in the Terhardt studies, no written musical material (score of the prelude) was provided. While or after listening to the piece, participants had to judge which version they actually heard and to mark their dichotomous decision on a response sheet. No feedback was given.



Even with our rigorous testing mode, participants clearly outperformed chance (see Figure 1, left panel). With a mean hit rate of 8.2 (59%, SD = 1.8 or 13%), the close-to-normal score distribution is significantly shifted to the right compared to a chance distribution (one-sample t-test, p < .001, effect size d = 0.7). Performance was still slightly better (M = 8.7 or 62% hits, SD = 1.5 or 11%; between-groups p = .017) in participants with piano playing experience (Figure 1, right panel). Except for this familiarity / musical expertise effect, we found no other moderating effects, such as training effects (trials 1-7 vs. 8-14, p = .542), or systematic choice preferences (e.g., for the "white" key; Takeuchi & Hulse, 1991).


Figure 1: Distribution of hit rates in the key recognition task



The small, but stable effect that we found points to the existence of a rudimentary ability for absolute pitch recognition. There is increasing evidence about "latent" forms of AP being more widespread, at least among individuals with some musical pre-experience, than traditionally assumed. Thus, it seems more adequate to adopt a continuum view of AP instead of maintaining a discrete distinction between "possessors" vs. "non-possessors."



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