Absolute Pitch Recognition, Interval Discernment, Synesthesia
When I was young, I’d often paint while listening to music. I remember enjoying opportunities when I didn’t have an image in mind, just colors to swirl about on a canvas.
Sometime around the age of 15, I recall having the realization that I’d pick certain music to listen to, given my mood, and even without labeling, I could easily associate a painting with a certain album or song, or melodic sequence. At the time, I think just assumed my ability to correlate was due to my having created the swirls of color and simply remembering what I was listening to while doing so. However, I came across those paintings years later, and after laying them all out, noticed a pattern emerging. I decided to set them out in groupings by color (dominant color, sequence of color, or whatever else stuck out to me as a consistency). I was curious why there seemed to be such obvious common threads and so decided, as I’d written on some of them what music had inspired them, to find that music once again and study the canvases while listening.
Half way through the second song and I realized what had been happening, all those years ago-I was painting based on a synesthetic color perception of the tones. This awareness inspired a journey of research that culminated in not only a solid understanding of what was going on in my own head, but an awareness of what others experience as well.
When I met my partner, I discovered that while I could easily match pitch either vocally or with an instrument, with little effort seeking, he could not only match it without seeking, he could identify the note without any point of reference, and he could produce the pitch vocally, with excellent accuracy and no reference pitch. I was absolutely intrigued, and had much to learn!
Turns out, absolute pitch is hereditary. We’ve seen it in our older kids, and now our littlest (3 years) is developing her special memory space for sound and pitch.
Synesthesia and Absolute Pitch: Connected?
[ ] People who have “absolute pitch” can identify notes immediately without relying on a reference tone. Intensive research is being conducted into the neuronal basis of this extraordinary ability at the University of Zurich’s Department of Neuropsychology. The researchers have now detected a close functional link between the auditory cortex in the brain and the frontal lobe in these extraordinary people — a discovery that is not only important in theory, but also in practice.
Mozart, Bach and Beethoven are all supposed to have had it: “absolute pitch” — the ability to identify and categorize a note without having to rely on any reference tones. While, with a prevalence of one percent in the normal population, the remarkable ability is relatively rare, it is observed twenty percent more frequently in professional musicians. It is often suspected that this special hearing skill is a key aspect of extraordinary musical talent.
“Our study shows how two brain regions, namely the auditory cortex and the dorsal frontal lobe, work together for absolute pitch. In the process, we combine two essentially conflicting explanatory approaches for the phenomenon.”
Two theories on absolute pitch
One explanation assumes that people with absolute pitch already categorize the notes at a very early stage of sound processing. In other words, they process tones in the same way as speech sounds and assign them to particular categories, which is referred to as the categorical perception of tones. This theory assumes that the tones are already processed in the primary and secondary auditory cortex in the brain in people with absolute pitch.
Another theory suggests that people with absolute pitch only process the notes later on and associate them with memory information. People with this gift supposedly master the subconscious allocation of the tones to memory information particularly well. These allocations primarily take place in the upper frontal lobe, in the dorsal frontal cortex. “Therefore, both theories make completely different statements regarding the moment and the anatomical location of the special processing and there is evidence to support both theories,” explains Jäncke.
As someone who experiences the phenomenon of synesthesia, married to someone who experiences absolute/perfect pitch, I would offer that these two theories do an excellent job of explaining our worlds; both theories are accurate from our perspective.
Connected brain regions explain the phenomenon
In his study, Stefan Elmer is now able to show that functionally the left-hand auditory cortex and the left-hand dorsal frontal cortex are already strongly linked in a dormant state — in other words, when there are no tasks to be performed. This functional coupling could be estimated based on a mathematical technique, which uses surface electroencephalography to extrapolate the brain activity inside the brain. In people with absolute pitch, the neurophysiological activity in the frontal and auditory cortex are synchronized, which suggests a close functional connection.
This means that the brain regions that control early perception functions (auditory cortex) or late memory functions (dorsal frontal cortex) are already tightly interwoven in a dormant state. “This coupling enables an especially efficient exchange of information between the auditory cortex and the dorsal frontal cortex in people with absolute pitch, which means that the perception and memory information can be exchanged quickly and efficiently,” explains Elmer.
- S. Elmer, L. Rogenmoser, J. Kuhnis, L. Jancke. Bridging the Gap between Perceptual and Cognitive Perspectives on Absolute Pitch. Journal of Neuroscience, 2015; 35 (1): 366 DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.3009-14.2015
“People with Absolute Pitch can categorize musical pitches without a reference, whereas people with tone-color synesthesia can see colors when hearing music. Both of these special populations perceive music in an above-normal manner. In this study we asked whether AP possessors and tone-color synesthetes might recruit specialized neural mechanisms during music listening. Furthermore, we tested the degree to which neural substrates recruited for music listening may be shared between these special populations. AP possessors, tone-color synesthetes, and matched controls rated the perceived arousal levels of musical excerpts in a sparse-sampled fMRI study. Both APs and synesthetes showed enhanced superior temporal gyrus (STG, secondary auditory cortex) activation relative to controls during music listening, with left-lateralized enhancement in the APs and right-lateralized enhancement in the synesthetes. When listening to highly arousing excerpts, AP possessors showed additional activation in the left STG whereas synesthetes showed enhanced activity in the bilateral lingual gyrus and inferior temporal gyrus (late visual areas). Results support both shared and distinct neural enhancements in AP and synesthesia: common enhancements in early cortical mechanisms of perceptual analysis, followed by relative specialization in later association and categorization processes that support the unique behaviors of these special populations during music listening.” – Loui P, Zamm A, Schlaug G. Absolute Pitch and Synesthesia: Two Sides of the Same Coin? Shared and Distinct Neural Substrates of Music Listening. ICMPC. 2012;618-623.