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absolute pitch

If absolute pitch were a phenomenon exclusively due to learned verbal categories, how would one explain the finding that several investigated animal species have absolute pitch?


(a) songbirds

Hulse, S. H. & Cynx, J. Relative pitch perception is constrained by absolute pitch in songbirds (Mimus, Molothrus, and Sturnus). J Comp Psychol 99, 176-196 (1985).

(b) monkeys and rats

D'Amato, M. R. A search for tonal pattern perception in cebus monkeys: Why monkeys can’t hum a tune. Music Perception 4, 453-480 (1988).

(c) echolocating bats

Schmidt, S., Preisler, A. & Sedlmeier, H. in Advances in Hear Res (eds. Manley, G. A., Klump, G., Köppl, C., Fastl, H. & Oeckinghaus, H.) 374-382 (World Scientific Publishers, Singapore, 1994).

Preisler, A. & Schmidt, S. in 23rd Göttingen Neurobiology Conference (eds. Elsner, N. & Menzel, R.) 309 (Georg Thieme Verlag, Stuttgart, 1995).


The findings by Saffran appear to be very revealing in this respect, showing that young infants at the age of 8 months, unlike adults, primarily rely on absolute pitch cues.


Saffran, J. R. & Griepentrog, G. J. Absolute pitch in infant auditory learning: evidence for developmental reorganization. Dev Psychol 37, 74-85 (2001).

Saffran, J. R. Musical Learning and Language Development. Ann NY Acad Sci 999, 397-401 (2003).


In summary, these results suggest that absolute pitch is a primary perceptual mode that is heavily superseded by relative pitch (probably in the course of language acquisition).  Early musical training or learning a tonal language like Thai or Japanese may help to prevent this edging out-process, with the consequence that certain subjects retain the ability to perceive absolute pitch throughout life. Verbal categorizations of notes may be helpful in this respect, but it would be misleading to take them for the main underlying cause.


Annemarie Seither-Preisler



Dr. Annemarie Seither-Preisler


Universitätsklinikum Münster

Abteilung für Experimentelle Audiologie

Klinik und Poliklinik für Hals-, Nasen- und Ohrenheilkunde

Kardinal von Galen Ring 10

D-48149 Münster


Tel.: 0049 / 251 / 83 / 56817

Fax: 0049 / 251 / 83 / 56882

Email: preisler@uni-muenster.de