“absolute Ear”: Natural Geniuses For Music

We explain in detail the nature of this gift for understanding musical language.

The Absolute Ear , also known as perfect ear , refers to the ability to identify the frequency of an isolated auditory stimulus without the help of a referential auditory stimulus (Moulton, 2014), thus, it could be defined informally as the ability to read sounds.

An example of absolute pitch can be observed in great musical geniuses such  as Mozart, Bach and Tchaikovski or through contemporaries such as Stevie Wonder.

What abilities do people with Absolute Hearing possess?

It can be affirmed that the Absolute Ear is a skill that modifies the cerebral functioning of those who possess it (Veloso and Guimaraes, 2013), consequently, these people have shown various abilities, such as:

  • Identify the note / s in isolation or simultaneously with other notes.
  • Perfectly reproduce a melody heard for the first time without the need for a sheet music.
  • Name the key of a piece of music.
  • Sing or inton a certain note without an external reference.
  • Name the notes of ambient sounds, such as a horn or the sound of an ambulance

What is the estimated prevalence of people with Absolute Ear?

The occurrence of people with Absolute Ear is rare, it is calculated that the estimated prevalence is 1 subject per 10,000 people, in addition to being more commonly observed in musicians with formal training (Veloso and Guimaraes, 2013).

It may seem much more common to have Absolute Ear than the statistics show, but it may probably be due to the fact that it tends to be confused with Relative Ear, as there are people who are capable of playing a song just having heard it once, but If to play such a melody they need a first reference tone of that same instrument, it is no longer the Absolute Ear but the Relative Ear.

The Relative Ear is the ability to identify sounds with the help of a reference, a previous note in the case of music, on the other hand, people with Absolute Hearing are capable of “capturing” that note in a vacuum (Moulton, 2014) . An example of this is the following: Let’s imagine that a person plays the musical note “D” with any instrument; the person with Absolute Hearing will identify that auditory frequency and will identify it as a “D” without any previous reference note, but the person with Relative Ear will probably not hit it because they will need a second musical note to establish the first tone .

To what factors is the Absolute Ear due? Are we born with it or, on the contrary, can it be acquired?

Currently this issue generates a lot of controversy, since its origin is not known for sure. Certain studies believe that this ability is due to an innate talent based on genetics, while others believe that the acquisition of Absolute Hearing requires early preparation during a critical period of development (between 2-5 years) associated with language development. and without taking into account genetic predisposition (Veloso and Guimaraes, 2013).

According to this approach, an influence of both aspects can be considered , that is, a confluence of genetic factors in the development of the human brain together with environmental factors and early exposure.

Currently, cognitive neuroscience continues to investigate brain functions related to musical perception and production, trying to locate new neural substrates and genetic correlations. Likewise, thanks to the support of neuroimaging technologies, such investigations are increasing, however, this fact, for the moment, is an open question.

Bibliographic references:

  • Moulton, C. (2014). Perfect pitch reconsidered. Clinical Medicine, 14 (5), 517-519.
  • Veloso, F., and Guimaraes, MA (2013). O Ouvido Absolute: neurocognitive bases and perspectives. Psycho-USF, 18 (3), 357-362.

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