Absolute tone consciousness and music.

Originally published in Sammelbände des Internationalen Musikgesellschaft, Volume 8, pages 486-91, 1907

Otto Abraham, Berlin.

Translated by Christopher Aruffo

In the next-to-last issue of this magazine [1] Professor Felix Auerbach attacks my paper of five years ago [2]; he exclusively polemicized against the last two chapters of my work, in which I examined the practical value of absolute tone consciousness in music.  I had pointed out that absolute tone consciousness is not for the sensory benefit when hearing music-- it is an indispensable asset for musical production and reproduction, necessary for the full intellectual benefit of musical works and for some forms of musical manipulation.  I further discussed the relationship between absolute tone consciousness and interval sense; I showed that interval sense is mostly stronger than absolute, but that there are numerous cases in which interval sense is suppressed by absolute which causes substantial difficulties for transposition.  Auerbach admits that absolute tone consciousness exists, and that it is more rarely found that interval consciousness; but he doubts that the ability is original and elementary and he doubts that it provides special meaning to music.  He particularly attacks the aforementioned influence of absolute tone consciousness on transposition.

To prove his statements, he finds it necessary to make the ability of absolute tone consciousness look ridiculous by a satirical analogy:  an architect has a trained sense for the height above sea level, an "absolute altitude consciousness", perhaps due to the circumstances linked with altitude (air pressure, etc).  The architect is to build a mansion in Dresden, but the structural drawing was sketched for Munich.  The architect fails, because he has to sketch completely new plans, because his absolute altitude consciousness makes it impossible for him to transpose the structural drawing to a new level.

Auerbach thus compares absolute tone consciousness with absolute altitude consciousness, musical composing to the sketching of a structural drawing, pitch transposition with transposition in space.

While there actually is an absolute tone consciousness, an absolute altitude consciousness does not exist.  Air pressure and temperature, from which altitude would be measurable, are so subject to strong weather fluctuations that the differences of pressure which would allow the judgment of a building's altitude would, comparatively, be far too small.

Additionally, in building houses, only a drastic difference in altitude would have any influence on the mechanical and aesthetic characteristics of its construction-- one could not build on the Montblanc in the same way as in Jena.  But in music, any pitch transposition is concordant with a significant change in the character of the piece.  Auerbach only considers the difficulty in large transpositions to be natural; for finely differentiated ears, it is far more annoying and crude to transpose a piece by a whole tone than it is for a bright soprano to sing slightly flat.  One may remember how strenuously composers argue against the transposition of their works.  The influence of absolute pitch and its accompanying key characteristic exists today as it ever has, to which the changing of standard tuning over the years is irrelevant.  Although the points of Auerbach's simile are already precariously lacking, I would like to continue further with it.

Let us assume that there are humans who would have the talent to detect extremely small differences of pressure with an absolute air-pressure consciousness.  Even if meteorological influences were not a factor, then the simile would still be inapplicable, because such humans would deduce altitude from these signals.  Actual absolute tone consciousness is, as I proved in a specific chapter of my work, completely independent of all indirect criteria.  Auerbach would have to presuppose not only a feeling of air pressure, but almost a direct feeling of altitude, to make the cases comparable.

He has completely misunderstood the nature of absolute pitch estimation if he considers it to be the same as spatial dimensional provisions.  These latter judgments take place via a yardstick with a zero point; the distance from the zero point is the so-called absolute size.  Auerbach considers the pitch scale to be identical to this in that one may understand each point by its relation to the ends of the scale.  This, however, cannot be the case.  One hears the pitch and recognizes by its inherent nature that it is d3, in entirely the same way that one sees and by its quality recognizes a color that is emerald green.

In the end regions of the pitch scale, beyond the contra-octave on the low end and the fifth octave on the high end, absolute tone consciousness malfunctions completely, but in the middle octaves it can be finely developed.  According to Auerbach's examples, the exact opposite would have to be the case.  Furthermore, if Auerbach's definition of absolute tone consciousness were correct, mistakes would be less likely the further apart the notes became.  But I have proved in my paper that musicians with absolute tone consciousness who will never mistake a C for a D will, sometimes, mistake a C for another C that is fully an octave higher or lower.

The second aid which Auerbach indicates for absolute pitch judgment exists in indirect criteria.  He says that aside from the distance between the borders, the "pitch line" is full of all kinds of different variations (the deficiencies and critical points of musical instruments and so forth) which orient the listener.  To this end, he compares the pitch line to a poorly drawn straight line, with all kinds of bulges and small interruptions, and I have discussed in detail influences of this nature.  But I must again point out that there is actually an absolute tone consciousness which functions without such aids, to produce a finer and more secure judgment than these aids make possible.  Thus, also, this optical analogy is void.  In this same section, Auerbach mentions the auditory ossicles, fibers, and nerves; although these structures are not unknown to me, they have nothing to do with the purely psychological state of affairs.

Physically, the tones can be arranged by frequency into their scales, but each pitch is nevertheless understood as a psychological point of the scale.  Here, also, it makes no difference that our hearing is imperfect and cannot fix in memory every individual absolute pitch frequency; a "pitch" psychologically is more or less a large category.  A certain linguistic boundary exists around each semitonal range.  The actual psychological process of perceiving pitch, apart from its association with the name of the pitch, recognizes these borders from either direction.  Even the designation of pitches as "high" or "low" is not by any means from comparison to a zero point or zenith.  One calls a pitch high, not because it stands in comparison to a low pitch, but because it possesses the well-known absolute characteristics of the high tones [3].

Auerbach, the physicist, has interpreted the term "absolute" in a physical way and transferred his interpretation to psychological conditions.  He differentiates between two definitions of absolute:  absolutely measured, i.e. in proportional factors which he claims are are irrelevant; and actually absolute, i.e. on a scale with a zero point and defined sizes, which he claims to be equivalent to absolute pitch measurement.

Physically, each pitch of the musical scale can be measured in either of these ways, either directly by the metric system or by estimation from an arbitrary zero point.  Psychologically, however, we measure pitch by neither system, because we do not measure at all.  We do not count the pitch oscillations either consciously or unconsciously, but have absolute feelings which are the basis for the judgments.

What is the actual motivation for Auerbach's polemic?

Since Auerbach cannot deny the existence of absolute tone consciousness, he delivers his judgment of its value.  He says that "a sense of interval which can be thrown off by the minor issue of transposition" is "eminently unmusical".

The whole force of this dictum hangs on the expression "minor issue".  Musically, transposition is not a minor issue.  Furthermore, being "thrown off" by transposition happens only under thoroughly unusual circumstances; my survey of numerous musically gifted persons (p. 78) shows this as fact.

If Auerbach insists that music is based entirely on the interval sense, I will concede the point; but I did not say that the interval sense is missing in the musician who has absolute tone consciousness.  Just the opposite-- I stressed that in such musicians, "usually the interval consciousness is still more strongly pronounced than the absolute." (p. 77).  The feeling for the consonance of intervals, the feeling of fusion, and the evaluation and designation of an interval is not difficult despite the co-existing pitch judgments.  Absolute pitch and interval concepts in most cases support each other and reinforce an otherwise uncertain judgment.  Only when singing transposed music or playing detuned instruments do the two musical concepts disturb each other; this incommodity, however, is gladly accepted by those with absolute tone consciousness as a small price to pay for the tremendous advantages they receive from their absolute hearing.

I do not consider it a coincidence that on my questionnaire, without exception, everyone with absolute tone consciousness (whose number has now increased to 109) also possess further outstanding musical abilities.  They all improvise, and they all compose, to the extent that I would regard absolute tone consciousness as a symptom of musical giftedness.  Since Auerbach is of the opposite opinion, to prove his point he would need merely to solve the question of whether there can be absolute tone consciousness without other musical characteristics.  All of my selected subjects are trained in music.  A great number of people completely unfamiliar with music (perhaps shoemaker boys, to fit Auerbach's views) would have to be trained to recognize and name absolute pitches.  Those who achieved absolute tone consciousness-- in my opinion, you might find one out of every thousand-- would receive a crash course in musical instruction.  Then, finally, you would have to compare the progress of these individuals to that of an equivalent sample who did not have absolute tone consciousness... this might become quite time-consuming, and expensive, and hardly worth the trouble.

It seems to me that forming or offering a general opinion of absolute tone consciousness is far less important than investigating its value to specific musical skills.  In this respect I reiterate my position, described in my first paper, that absolute tone consciousness is extremely important to music; it is indispensable for singing even the most complicated pitch sequences accurately (naturally, excepting transposed music) and for securely identifying the direction of modulation when hearing complicated compositions.  Which brings to mind the musical rule-- why would it be important that the initial and final pitches of a composition should be identical if one did not attach value to the absolute pitch!  One can probably judge simple modulation correctly by comparing intervals, without absolute tone consciousness; but by carrying out this analytical judgment the benefit of the music itself is lost.  Given the difficult harmonies of the pitch sequences in today's modern music, a person with absolute tone consciousness is already more able to recognize whether one has departed from the main pitch (and by how much) even if that person never heard the initial pitch of the piece.  Absolute tone consciousness is also essential to the composer who wishes to write away from the piano and who attaches some importance to the characteristics of key signature.

In any case, it can be seen that absolute tone consciousness exerts an influence on the most important musical characteristics-- memory, production, and reproduction-- and therefore I maintain that this category of musicians is its own special type.

One may naturally have their own opinions regarding the overall psychological value of these types of abilities, but the reasons for these opinions should be clearly stated.  Regardless, absolute tone consciousness is much too complex an issue to condescendingly dismiss with a satirical analogy.

[1] Jahrg. VIII Heft 1.

[2] Sammelbd. d. IMG. III, 1.

[3] S. Stumpf, Tonpsychologie Bd. I § 1.