Absolute tone consciousness and music.

Originally published in Sammelbände des Internationalen Musikgesellschaft, Volume 8, pages 105-12, 1906

Felix von Auerbach, Jena.

Translated by Christopher Aruffo

The following brief remarks about so-called "absolute tone consciousness" arrive rather late, four years after a previous issue (Volume III, 1) published Otto Abraham's paper, because I have only just now become a member of the International Music Association and read the paper at my local university library.  In the meantime, this essay has, as I assume and have also experienced, caused lively internal debate, but a public expression of that debate seems not to have appeared (not even among those working in the field).  Therefore I am writing now to air some of this debate.  They are brief, partly to avoid being overburdened with details and partly because my immediate studies are in different areas and do not permit lengthy interruption.  Perhaps later I will be able to revisit specific problems and illuminate them in greater detail.

I should specify that I am going to write solely about the last chapter of Abraham's treatise.  Abraham's investigations into absolute tone consciousness are certainly most valuable, especially to those who are working in these areas; in those experiments one may accept the author's data and even share his opinions.  I intend to write solely about Abraham's statement of absolute tone consciousness as practically applied to music, with which-- and certainly there are many who agree with me-- I cannot disagree strongly enough.  Because this topic concerns personal feelings and opinions, there is danger of deviating from it; Abraham does not stray into personal, irrelevant motives which are easily misconstrued.  It is therefore essential that the following points are expressed clearly and concisely, and I specifically want to note that I am exclusively concerned with the matter at hand, and therefore ask Abraham and other readers to ignore any questionable statements.


Everything in the world is relative.  Without closer examination, this utterance is merely a cliche.  It is, however, not difficult to express here what the statement means, most simply as an ex contrario argument in how we define absolute measures.  Regrettably, there are two different kinds of absolute sizes in the pure sciences, and the distinction between the two is not always clear.  Some measures of "absolute" value are proportionality factors expressed in absolute units, which do not concern us; and then there are actual absolutes, e.g. on a scale with a zero point and designated sizes, such as the height of sea level, room temperature, and many others.  Absolute pitch obviously belongs in this latter category, standing in stark contrast to the concept of the sound ratio, or interval, which is a completely relative size.

Now, it is well-known that humans are equipped with an extraordinarily fine sense for the relative, in some senses finer than others, but praiseworthy in all categories.  Whether two lines are parallel or not, which of two surfaces is rougher, whether a road rises or proceeds evenly, a human has-- as does a horse or donkey, for that matter-- an extreme sensitivity.  The sensitivity is especially precise in the hearing organ, regarding the tonal intervals, i.e. the relationships of the frequencies and/or pitches.  It does not make much of a difference whether the tones occur simultaneously or in a series, as long as the speed of the series is as fast as the slowest musical arpeggio.  Based on these conditions, we have been able so far to appreciate and hopefully in the future will continue to appreciate, the nature of all music with its two main factors:  harmony and melody.

Absolute sense is completely different.  In most areas, humans are completely oblivious to absolute value and helpless to judge it.  For the direction toward the north pole (or even the magnetic pole), for the height above sea level, for the absolute temperature, we have no feeling; to determine these values we must look at the sky, the compass, the barometer, the thermometer.  Hardly a year passes in which we do not see some article describing some amazing absolute ability demonstrated in a human being-- usually written in a completely unprofessional manner, but occasionally with a pretense of scientific interest.  We are skeptical of these announcements, as careful scientists do not crow about the possibility that any one of us may possess these mysterious absolute abilities.


Here now is the following consideration, which consists of two components of general interest.  We may think of an infinite area and ask ourselves, where is its center?  Obviously, any point will do, provided that we imagine only a single point; one cannot accurately define the location of one point in an unlimited area.  Now, let's imagine a finite area or (to make it simpler) a finite straight line which is nonetheless very long.  Then, we can define any one point on it by that point's relation to one of the ends; and this definition will already be substantially more exact at the ends than in the center because the ends are conveniently near.  One sees how absolute values become relative ones as soon as its encompassing area has borders; and to these borders the reference is made.

The second part of this perspective is as important as the first.  Think about this:  in the previous example, the straight line was imagined as a perfectly-formed, completely homogeneous object, perhaps carefully drafted with ruler, feather, and India ink.  Now, however, we want to draw a line with rough chalk on an uneven impromptu chalkboard.  Now we will instinctively identify points on the line from other criteria:  it lies to the right of a small break, it is at that small curve, it is where the line becomes broader.  It is easy to see how, by small distortions, we gain reference points in order to grasp the apparently absolute as a relative.

In sum:  The absolute is actually inaccessible to us.  If we are able to judge it consistently it is because of the finite nature of the range, and because of the qualitative gradation within the range which provides various subtle criteria.


Human abilities can be divided into two distinct classes.  One class of abilities are those which are normally found in humans and whose absence is considered a defect; into this class, like the sense of color, the sense of numbers, and many others, the sense of pitch intervals unquestionably belongs; perhaps among ten shoemaker boys you may find one who lacks it.  The other class of abilities are those which humans possess only in exception, and whose possession is a special distinction; such as, just to give some random colorful examples, the medium's gift of second sight, or a blind chess player, either of which we usually pay an admission fee to see.  To this class belongs absolute tone consciousness.  The fact that this skill exists is not to be doubted.  However, I would remain skeptical that it is an original and elementary ability-- based on the previous arguments, I believe it may be regarded as a product of several factors, among which our finite pitch scale and its unequal divisions will play the main role.  Also, a closer examination shows that the border between possessor and non-possessor-- even taking into account the narrow scope of the ability-- is not at all sharp.  I, for example, certainly do not have absolute tone consciousness, but nevertheless when I sing I am regularly never more than a semitone off, or a whole step at most, while the range of error for an absolute musician may be a quarter step.  These boundaries are not presented for analysis, but merely to illustrate in a very small way that the ability of absolute tone consciousness does in fact exist and that it-- as scarce as it is among the population-- among ten shoemaker boys may be found in one.


What does all this have to do with music?

From the three answers, read briefly, one could answer:  nothing at all.  This answer would indeed be the only correct one, if the musical range had an unlimited span and it resembled that perfect machine-drawn line.  But music behaves like everything else in nature and in life:  incomplete, imbalanced, discontinuous, etc.  In a thing's imperfections lie its individual attractions.  This well applies to the musical range in the characteristics of key signature as well as pitch feeling; in either, the most diverse factors cooperate in deviating from the ideal reality.  The shapes and mechanics of musical instruments which produce their unique sounds; the adaptable and flexible mouth resonator with its singular places and critical transitions; a keyboard which consists of upper and lower keys; and above all a specific hearing apparatus with an individualized drum skin, bone structure, and a special system of fibers; the central nervous system knows how to use these materials to develop associations which may be similar to others within a range, but which are surely not homogeneous and probably not always consistent.  There are thus a large number of bridges to the empire of the allegedly absolute, which could cause someone to give this second answer instead of the first:  sometimes absolute tone consciousness and the sense for it can play a certain role in music, for production and reception in playing.  But this element cannot be of special importance, one would add, because absolute perception does not allow an acceptable range for transposition, and also because pitch was and is not a fixed thing.  Most pieces of the 17th and 18th century and, to some extent, those of the 19th century, were not written for the standard tuning tone of today.  To put it briefly:  the role of the absolute in music is either natural, to prevent a bright soprano from singing flat; or it is useless as far as it concerns the recognition of up to a semitone, which is neither historically nor psychologically defined, but which varies by taste, tendency, physical arrangement, and other factors.

Abraham offers a third answer, according to which the sense of interval and absolute sense of pitch are supposed to be coordinated in playing music.  According to his view, there are two types of music-- production and reception-- one whose basis is interval consciousness, the other's absolute tone consciousness, and everyone has special peculiarities in both which we will now have to eagerly study and analyze!  Difficile est satiram non scribere.  [it is difficult not to write satire.]  And like that it is written!


We can imagine such a thing as a trained sense for the height above sea level, and we could call this "absolute sea-level consciousness"; it is improbable, but regarding the circumstances associated with altitude (air pressure, etc) it is not entirely inconceivable that there are such humans.  Let's say that this person exists, and that he is an architect-- I select this profession because architecture is well known to be frozen music, and is thus suitable for a simile of this nature.  I give this architect the order to build me a mansion in Munich.  He sense me his plan-- the cellar is marked "520", the ground floor "523", the upper floor "527", etc.  All the measurements are in meters, certainly; however, the man is counting not from ground level, but from sea level, because he has a direct perception of these alone.  I care nothing for these heights; as I examine the plan, what concerns me is solely that the plan is actually good.  I the meantime, I decide that I would also like a residence in Dresden, and I ask my architect to begin the new building immediately.  He gives me a strange answer:  he cannot do it.  He must make a completely new plan, because Dresden is at a much lower altitude.  If he wanted to build from the old plans, it would drive him crazy constantly, and he would make so many errors that he would have a nervous breakdown.  Most architects could easily transpose a plan to another "level"; this fellow belongs, however, to the other type.

Now I ask:  would anyone be surprised if, being given this response, and not wanting to incur the double cost of redrawing the same plans, I would prefer to engage a different artist who belongs to the other type-- whose relative sense is not disturbed by an absolute sea-level consciousness?


Practical application to music.  The person who has absolute tone consciousness may enjoy and use it depending on their inclination and occupation:  the scholar for his scientific experiments, the musician who does not need a pitch pipe, the chief of a large railyard who knows each train by its whistle.  If he is unable to discard the ability while playing, a musician may appreciate it for whatever little services it would provide, as long as it does not interfere with his musical production.  If, on the other hand, he is accompanied by a transposed instrument or is asked to produce transposed notes, he sings either wrongly or uncertainly, even if the first correct pitch has been given to him; or if he uses differently-tuned instruments such as organ or woodwinds and fails to play familiar pieces, then this musician-- one must say it bluntly-- is eminently unmusical, despite an absolute tone consciousness so fine that he could probably demonstrate the ability with amazing success before an international meeting of psychologists.  The complete definition of the term "musical" is extraordinarily difficult, as was correctly noted by Abraham; and I have addressed that issue on occasion in my lectures about the scientific bases of music which I held over the past winter.  Here, however, the issue is not the completeness of the definition; it rests solely on the fact that the musician described above may have very high marks in all other categories, but because of his total deficiency in this skill he may not receive the descriptor of "musical".  The sense of interval is simply the conditio sine qua non, and a sense of interval which can be thrown off by the minor issue of transposition is no sense at all.

Works of musical art are created from a numberless variety of factors; such a great variety provides on the one hand a tremendous aesthetic benefit and on the other hand a powerful impediment to categorization and analysis.  To this variety must be added the contrast of the absolute and relative types of composer, with which the beauty and intricacy of the entire system will be further enhanced.  In the books and magazines I had available to me I was unable to find any contributions toward the studies encouraged by Abraham, although by then four years had already passed.  I do not believe that attempting to work out the types of absolute and relative perception, and studying their classification into other categories, will pay out any benefit; such a researcher would soon discover that the two skills are near and separate relatives without gaining any new knowledge about musical ability.  And then the researcher will understand what they are pursuing:  a mere phantom.