Two brain regions join forces for absolute pitch

January 7, 2015, University of Zurich
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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. People with absolute pitch perceive a note and can identify it accurately as C sharp, A or F sharp, for instance. Most other people are only able to distinguish between notes relatively. 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.    

A team headed by Professor Lutz Jäncke has already been conducting intensive research into this phenomenon in the Music Lab at UZH's Department of Neuropsychology for many years. In a current study involving musicians with absolute pitch, there is now evidence that, according to first author Stefan Elmer, opens up a new view on the underlying psychological and neurophysiological processes involved in absolute pitch: "Our study shows how two brain regions, namely the 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 , 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.   

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 in people with absolute pitch, which means that the perception and memory information can be exchanged quickly and efficiently," explains Elmer. 

Training auditory perception

The results are not only important to understand , but also efficient auditory processing: "Auditory perception doesn't only depend on the integrity of the auditory cortex, but also especially on the linking of the auditory cortex with superordinate brain structures that process memory information," sums up Jäncke. Based on these results, it might be possible to develop training measures, which would improve the auditory skills in old age, but also in connection with different hearing impairments. 

Explore further: Musical memory deficits start in auditory cortex

More information: Stefan Elmer, Lars Rogenmoser, Jürg Kühnis und Lutz Jäncke. "Bridging the gap between perceptual and cognitive perspectives on absolute pitch." The Journal of Neuroscience, 6. Januar, 2015. DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.3009-14.2015

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not rated yet Jan 07, 2015
"Absolute pitch" as commonly understood should be regarded with extreme skepticism - the categorical paradigm is oxymoronic as there's nothing intrinsically distinguishing about any given frequency beyond its web of subjective associations.

Those purportedly possessing the ability are undoubtedly just better endowed with such associations - ie. it can only be mnemonic in nature.

A definitive test - which i've never seen posited or applied anywhere - would involve attempting to skew the supposed ability in test subjects by means of subtle transpositions, tonal modulation tricks and long-term potentiation of de-tuned but otherwise familiar melodies and tonal structures. For instance, exposure to a set of incorrectly-tuned but self-consistent scales and modes; run a complete set of maj & min diatonic and pentatonic sequences covering the full spectrum, multiple times over an hour or more, then re-test the claimant. Any subsequent drift disproves the catagorical model.
not rated yet Jan 07, 2015
NB just to underline that point - A4 @ 440 Hz is but a modern convention, and so on for all other tones. There can be no physiological basis for such specific categorizations.

While there are clear correlations between tonal intervals and optical colour differentiations, the same comparison for discrete pure-tone stimuli is non-sensical - any allusion to the "C#-ness of C#" as some kind of objective "qualia" akin to the 'redness' of red, is errant nonsense. Our tonotopic maps, whether cortical or thalmic, remain plastic and entirely relative. Any cell or nuclei that can accurately count say 440 CPS and identify it as 'A' would be at odds with all other octaves of 'A' at 220, 110, 55, 880 & 1760 CPS etc., and their enharmonic equivalents.

The whole concept of 'absolute pitch' is just so much self-contradictory pseudoscience...
not rated yet Jan 07, 2015
Sorry to prattle on - one final, important point here - it seems highly likely that the proprtion of people who would pass current definitions of possessing 'absolute' pitch is much higher than presently estimated.

Most people who've had no express music or theory training, but who have nonetheless had a normal exposure to music, probably remember familiar tunes at close to perfect pitch.

Consider for example the song "Happy Birthday" - when a group of family and friends spontaneously break out in a rendition together, most will settle at the same 'correct' pitch within a few short moments - and the same goes for any popular nursery rhyme, hymn or national anthem. As such, if most people also knew music theory and which note such reference songs began on, they'd have the ability to name any subsequent note.

There is only relative pitch. Granted, some may be better than others, and clearly a few are much better trained than most, but 'absolute pitch' is absolute bunkum..
not rated yet Jan 07, 2015
To dispel an extraordinary claim you need extraordinary evidence to debunk the evidence supporting the claim.

For fun let us call the gifted possessing the extraordinary claim of 'absolute pitch' 'absolutionists' and put them to the test.

What test?
Have the absolutionists tell you the pitch of a tuning fork.
Of course all the absolutionists will pass with flying colors - pardon the expression.

And? Is that it?
Not quite.

Change the temperature of the tuning fork ever-so-slightly until all the absolutionists all agree that the pitch is no longer the pitch they first heard.

Did all the absoutionists agreeing that there was a change in the pitch heard have the same recorded temperature of the fork?

Ironically, in the future heat will be used to replicate or duplicate all acoustical tunings of all pianos and grands ever built.

Further reading

I recommend that the Swiss colleagues contact this German colleague:

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