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Absolute pitch: effects of timbre on note-naming ability

PatrĂ­cia Vanzella, E Glenn Schellenberg
PloS One 2010 November 11, 5 (11): e15449
21085598

BACKGROUND: Absolute pitch (AP) is the ability to identify or produce isolated musical tones. It is evident primarily among individuals who started music lessons in early childhood. Because AP requires memory for specific pitches as well as learned associations with verbal labels (i.e., note names), it represents a unique opportunity to study interactions in memory between linguistic and nonlinguistic information. One untested hypothesis is that the pitch of voices may be difficult for AP possessors to identify. A musician's first instrument may also affect performance and extend the sensitive period for acquiring accurate AP.

METHODS/PRINCIPAL FINDINGS: A large sample of AP possessors was recruited on-line. Participants were required to identity test tones presented in four different timbres: piano, pure tone, natural (sung) voice, and synthesized voice. Note-naming accuracy was better for non-vocal (piano and pure tones) than for vocal (natural and synthesized voices) test tones. This difference could not be attributed solely to vibrato (pitch variation), which was more pronounced in the natural voice than in the synthesized voice. Although starting music lessons by age 7 was associated with enhanced note-naming accuracy, equivalent abilities were evident among listeners who started music lessons on piano at a later age.

CONCLUSIONS/SIGNIFICANCE: Because the human voice is inextricably linked to language and meaning, it may be processed automatically by voice-specific mechanisms that interfere with note naming among AP possessors. Lessons on piano or other fixed-pitch instruments appear to enhance AP abilities and to extend the sensitive period for exposure to music in order to develop accurate AP.

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