Absolute vs Perfect Pitch: when Art is beyond Science

Marco Mancino and Alfonso Ussia – Liceo Classico San Giuseppe de Merode.

Many of us know that talented musicians are able to make our soul feel better. Nevertheless, not all of us know what lays behind this gift. It is not alchemy, and it is not supernatural powers. It is Perfect Pitch.

The Perfect Pitch is a phenomenon which has to be analysed in order to be understood. It is composed of two distinct components: one of them can be explained by science, and it is called Absolute Pitch. The other cannot be explained by science, because is a matter of personal sensitivity. For this reason the result is called Perfect Pitch, because perfection is not universal for all the human mind. For instance, singer Whitney Houston managed to change tune during her performances, while other pitch perfect singers couldn’t. How is that possible? Science says that it is a matter of memory; Art instead says that is a matter of passion, which only some people have.


The neurologist Oliver Sacks in his seminal book Musicophilia states that “people with Absolute Pitch can immediately, unthinkingly tell the pitch of any note, without either reflection or comparison with an external standard”. In addition, people with Absolute Pitch show the ability to interact in different ways with phenomena outside their bodies, as if they were moved by intrinsic forces. For example, Diana Deutsch says that “music and language have common origins”. This means that notes are like words, thus each one is different from the others. For this reason, melodies are like poems, because they provide a range of sensations which delve far beyond the senses of sight and hearing. They touch the deepest core of our body, our soul. Musicians with absolute pitch are more likely to evoke these emotions in people listening to their music. It is shown by a recent cardiological study that hearing Mozart, Vivaldi and Bach, as well as a particular kind of zen music, “Reiki music“, improves physical health. Absolute Pitch in those musicians is helpful in evoking emotions which lead to benefits in people’s wellbeing. But also musicians as Stevie Wonder or Ray Charles are known for their higher musical sensibility, following their blindness which allowed them to express their “pathos” in a different way.

Comparison between Mandarin speakers musicians with AP (red) and non-Mandarin speakers musicians with AP (blue).

There is a scientific explanation for Absolute Pitch, and many studies have been carried out on this topic. It is estimated that approximately 1 out of 10.000 people are pitch perfect, although this ratio changes depending on several factors. UChicago news researchers showed in 2013 that “Absolute Pitch” is primarily a matter of DNA. In fact they found that Absolute Pitch possessors develop genes which other people simply do not have. Nevertheless, AP can be partially developed with training. According to Deutsch, musicians who start playing an instrument early, when their brain is still developing, are more likely to have Perfect Pitch (table above). Furthermore, languages such as Mandarin are called “tonal languages”, thus the meaning of the words changes with the frequencies in which these words are pronounced. So people who study these languages are shown to be more likely to develop AP. In fact, the Eastman School of Music has conducted a study which shows that 60% of Chinese students that begin musical training between ages of 4 and 5 years old meet the criterion of AP, while only 14% of the “nontone” language speakers develop that ability (table on the left). Furthermore, the probability of meeting the criterion decreases further as one gets older. Researcher Gottfried Schlaug and his colleagues showed in 1995 that in musicians with AP there was an exaggerated asymmetry between the volumes of the right and left “planum temporale”. This supports the statement that AP and memory are strictly connected in a “symbiotic relationship”, and thus gifted musicians are able to replay  very precisely a tune that they have heard only once.

A “synesthesia table” of notes and colours

Nevertheless, science cannot entirely explain the dynamics of this gift that some people have. For instance, we personally know a musician who  has the ability to interpret songs and arrange them even without knowing the chord pattern. But if someone asks him the pitch of a heard note, he will not be able to identify it. I would not define his ability “Absolute Pitch”, but rather “Perfect Pitch”. Some people may not share our opinion, but Absolute and Perfect have quite different meanings. The artistic output which relate to Perfect Pitch, in fact, are shown in many different ways, albeit coming from the same brain. New forms of artistic sensitivity, which science cannot predict at all, are being constantly discovered. For instance, it is shown that some people with Absolute Pitch are synesthetic, but the association of colour frequencies to pitches is personal, as a form of different colour perception. These different perceptions lead to an idea of “equilibrium of tones as it was a painting”, a sort of personal interpretation of what is beauty. And we all know that beauty is imperfect! So, according to Sacks, Perfect Pitch is also from the artistical point of view quite imperfect, given that it is a way of producing beauty. Platonism helps us to interpret this concept, since beauty must be always related to an idea, and ideas are intrinsicals. What is absolute is free from restriction and gives the possibility to reach a target. And that target is the perfection. Finally, it must be said that Perfect Pitch opens access to a new language, whose principals are completely unknown.

“Absolute pitch is not just a matter of pitch perception. People with AP must be able not only to perceive precise pitch differences, but to label them, to line them up with the notes or names of a musical scale” says Sacks. Perfect Pitch, instead, is how Absolute Pitch can be applied to art, thus it is the real gift for a talented musician. What is absolute is satisfying if taken singularly, but limits the ability to evoke emotions. What is perfect, instead, is the principal of reaching beauty, and therefore connects rational targets with what goes further beyond numbers and graphs: the pleasure of making someone happy.


Oliver Sacks, “Musicophilia”

Diana Deutsch, “the Psychology of Music”





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