Dear Robert and List-
You might check Takeuchi and Hulse (1993)
Psychological Bulletin for a fairly recent discussion of AP at the behavioral
level. Also, Ron Weisman has shown a remarkable ability of song birds to
place pitches into many categories -- better than humans at the same task.
----- Original Message -----
Sent: Thursday, April 29, 2004 10:40
Subject: Re: absolute pitch &
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
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
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,
At 09:45 29/04/04 +0200, Leon van Noorden
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
- 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?
- (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
- (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,
- 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: firstname.lastname@example.org
Robert J. Zatorre, Ph.D.
Montreal Neurological Institute
3801 University St.
Montreal, QC Canada H3A 2B4