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Re: absolute pitch & animals

Dear List

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, 6, 692-695.

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" goldfinch?
-----Oorspronkelijk bericht-----
Van: AUDITORY Research in Auditory Perception [mailto:AUDITORY@LISTS.MCGILL.CA]namens Annemarie Seither-Preisler
Verzonden: 29 apr 04 9:09
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?

(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


Robert J. Zatorre, Ph.D.
Montreal Neurological Institute
3801 University St.
Montreal, QC Canada H3A 2B4
phone: 1-514-398-8903
fax: 1-514-398-1338
web site: www.zlab.mcgill.ca