Glenn Gould had it -- so did Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, Horowitz and Sinatra. On the surface, absolute pitch seems like the province of musical geniuses -- the exotic gift that they have and we don't. But the truth about absolute pitch -- and the opposite phenomenon of tone deafness -- is much more interesting, and helps us understand what "musical talent" really is and isn't.
What is Absolute Pitch?
Absolute pitch (AP) is the ability to produce and identify a certain musical tone without any reference tone. A person with AP is able to hum middle C or any other note on request, without any prompting from a song or an instrument.
How common is AP?
In strict definitional terms, AP is pretty rare -- somewhere between 1 in 10,000 and 1 in 2000 in the general population. But the rare part is the note-naming, not the note reproducing. Many studies have now shown that most people can sing a familiar song in the right key without being given a reference tone, and that virtually everyone who speaks a tonal language such as Mandarin can remember and recall specific pitches. What few people possess is the specific trained ability to link that tone to a named note.
"Our studies tie right in with the idea that we all have this latent absolute pitch ability, but we can't get fully bloomed absolute pitch without early childhood training," says Shepherd College's Laura Bischoff.
"The real puzzle about perfect pitch is not why so few people possess it but rather why most people do not," UC San Diego's Diana Deutsch says. "Everyone has an implicit form of perfect pitch, even though we aren't all able to put a label to notes..They can recognize the note but can't label it. What's learned as a child is the ability to label."
Also, contrary to public assumption, AP is not an all-or-nothing skill. Many have AP in varying degrees, explain Bischoff and University of Rochester's Elizabeth West Marvin.
Is AP a critical ingredient in musical talent?
No. While AP can sometimes be a useful tool for musicians, it is far from essential in helping musicians build the necessary skills or in expressing themselves magnificently. AP is more common among professional musicians than non-musicians, but research shows very clearly that this is not cause-and-effect. Rather, the correlation exists because both are so frequently a product of early (prior to age 6) musical training.
Neither Wagner nor Stravinsky had AP, to name just two. McGill University's Daniel Levitin (author of This Is Your Brain on Music ) does not think AP helps musicians much. What musicians thrive on and must develop to a fine degree, he points out, is relative pitch -- the ability to distinguish between tones. Such relative pitch is available to almost everyone, to be developed to whatever individual degree desired.
"The average person is able to carry a tune almost as proficiently as professional singers. This result is consistent with the idea that singing is a basic skill that develops in the majority of individuals, enabling them to engage in musical activities. In short, singing appears to be as natural as speaking." (Dalla Bella et al, 2007.)
What about "tone deaf" people who can't carry a tune?
So-called "tone deafness" is a little-studied and much misunderstood subject now getting closer attention. Four percent of the general population has tone-deafness (Kalmus and Fry, 1980), which until recently was thought to be mainly a perceptual deficit -- affected individuals supposedly could not hear the difference in tones; they did not have and could not develop relative pitch, and therefore could not appreciate or produce music.
New evidence has forced an entirely new conclusion. Studies now show that virtually everyone can distinguish tonal differences and appreciate music (Dalla Bella et al, 2007). And while a tiny percentage of people truly cannot hear tonal differences due to some specific brain damage, "present findings suggest that tone-deafness may emerge as a pure output disorder....that poor singing may occur in the presence of normal perception. This possibility finds support in a recent study conducted with poor singers who exhibited pitch production deficits but normal pitch discrimination (Bradshaw & McHenry, 2005)."
In other words, the vast majority of people who call themselves tone deaf (or who are mocked as such by friends and spouses) actually hear and perceive music perfectly well, and simply have a problem generating with their vocal chords the tones they hear in their brain.
(Thanks to Jim Berman for asking some great questions and turning me on to some extraordinary music.)