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Re: absolute pitch & animals
I think one has to be very careful when saying that someone or some
species "has absolute pitch". This can mean various different
things which are not equivalent. There is lots of evidence that certain
animals use absolute pitch cues (for example, a generalization gradient
to respond to a learned fixed pitch; or that vocalizations have a very
stable pitch structure). This is not necessarily functionally equivalent
to the human musician's ability to identify, by verbal labelling or
otherwise, a large range of pitches. Taken to its absurd extreme,
according some of these definitions, my refrigerator at home "has
absolute pitch" since it hums loudly every evening at something
pretty close to a b-flat!
I always liked the idea, described by Ward among many others, that the
cognitively interesting aspect of the AP phenomenon was the ability to
have a large number (up to 60 or so) of fixed categories along the pitch
continuum. This is very different from what usually happens with other
perceptual continua, such as loudness, intensity, weight, or hue, where
the limit is typically on the order of 7-10 categories (Miller's magic
number). In other words, everyone has the ability to make absolute
judgments, but they are very broad, whereas true AP people apparently
possess very narrow perceptual categories, that they can then learn to
attach a label to.
I know of no animal evidence showing that any species can be trained to
pick out one of, say, 50 distinct responses to each of 50 distinct tone
frequencies. This is precisely what the best human AP possessors can do
quickly and without much effort. Only such a demonstration would
constitute evidence that an animal possessed an analogous cognitive
ability as the human AP musicians. Until someone shows this, we should be
careful about making generalizations across species. I am NOT saying that
studying these phenomena in animals is not useful--quite the contrary I
think it's quite important. I am only arguing that the phenomena should
not be assumed to be identical, especially when behaviorally they are not
the same at all.
PS This whole thread started when someone asked a perfectly reasonable
and specific question about sex distribution in absolute pitch. Did
anyone ever answer that, or is all this free-association that I am also
contributing to all we got out of it? Perhaps the list would work better
if we all refrained from giving random opinions, and stuck to addressing
specific issues. Or am I just being grumpy?
PPS For further reading (of my views, anyhow): Zatorre, R.J. (2003)
Absolute pitch: a model for understanding the influence of genes and
development on neural and cognitive function. Nature Neuroscience,
At 09:45 29/04/04 +0200, Leon van Noorden wrote:
I completely agree with
you that verbal labeling of the aboslute pitch categories is only one
stage in the perception process. These labels depend on what you have
learned when you were young. I see it more as a way to access the outcome
of the absolute pitch processor. It would be interesting to know what are
the labels the animals attach here. What do they imagine when they hear a
certain absolut pitch object?
Do they "see"
a big or small ape? or a "red" or "green"
- -----Oorspronkelijk bericht-----
- Van: AUDITORY Research in Auditory Perception
- Verzonden: 29 apr 04 9:09
- Aan: AUDITORY@LISTS.MCGILL.CA
- Onderwerp: 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?
- 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
- (b) monkeys and
- D'Amato, M. R. A search for tonal pattern perception in cebus
monkeys: Why monkeys can’t hum a tune. Music Perception 4,
- (c) echolocating
- 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,
- 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
- 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: firstname.lastname@example.org
Robert J. Zatorre, Ph.D.
Montreal Neurological Institute
3801 University St.
Montreal, QC Canada H3A 2B4