Not Absolutely Perfect or Perfectly Absolute

Not Absolutely Perfect or Perfectly Absolute

Last week’s chatter on perfect pitch evoked such strong opinions on my commentary that I decided to attack this issue again. In particular, one respondent wrote:

You’re confusing the issue here. Absolute Pitch (AP, the correct technical term; “Perfect Pitch” is a pop corruption) is genetically determined, and therefore an innate characteristic exactly on the order of, say, eye color, and not something one “believes in.” In no circumstance is it learnable.

While I do concur that “perfect pitch” is the vernacular term, the issue that absolute pitch is wholly genetic, like say, blue eyes, is still a controversial theory in the scientific community.

Systematic music training in early childhood seems effective for acquiring AP. Possible genetic contributions to AP are undeniable, but evidence for them is inconclusive.
 Ken’ichi Miyazaki, Department of Psychology, Faculty of Humanity, Niigata University

“Perfect pitch,” known in the scientific literature as “absolute pitch” (AP), is a rare phenomenon that has fascinated musicians and scientists alike for over a century. There has been a great deal of conflict in the literature between advocates of the two main theories on the etiology of AP: some believe that AP is learned early in life through intensive musical training, whereas others believe AP to be largely innate.
 Epilepsy Behavior. 2005 Dec; 7(4):578-601. Pub 2005 Aug 15.

Absolute Pitch, commonly referred to as Perfect Pitch, is an intriguing behavioral trait involved in music perception and is defined as the ability to recognize the pitch of a musical tone without an external reference pitch.
 USCF Genetics Absolute Pitch Study

Below is a quote from one of the scientific articles that I feel sums up the basic arguments people postulate:

The etiology and defining characteristics of this skill, absolute pitch (AP), have been very controversial. One theory suggests that AP requires a specific type of early musical training and that the ability to encode and remember tones depends on these learned musical associations. An alternate theory argues that AP may be strongly dependent on hereditary factors and relatively independent of musical experience.
 The Neuralsciences of Music, Vol. 999 December 2003,
from the NY Academy of Sciences

So, we are back to the age-old nature vs. nurture debate, one found in almost all areas of study concerning human characteristics. Judging from the numerous studies out there, the field is filled with theories but no universally accepted facts. I continue to have serious misgivings about how we musicians treat the skill, but the discussion of perfect/absolute pitch provides valuable insight into a myriad of topics relating to how we perceive learning, teaching, listening, and even judging the quality of both music and musicians. The verdict is still out, and we should not shut the door on any possible answers.

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