A study of "absolute pitch" ability.

Unpublished master's thesis, 1925.

Wilmer T. Bartholomew, George Washington University


The ability to determine the position of pianoforte notes without seeing them played is one which we find to at least some extent in nearly all people with normal hearing and some degree of familiarity with the piano keyboard. But it is quite rare to find an individual in whom this ability approaches perfection. Such individuals are said to possess that peculiar gift called absolute pitch. This paper is the result of an attempt to discover something about this ability by testing a group, of individuals in it and in certain other musical abilities, and noting any resulting correlations, The reason the words "absolute pitch" have been quoted in the title, is that although all the individuals tested showed some ability in estimating the position of the notes heard, only one could really be said to have absolute pitch. The paper might perhaps more properly be called A Study of Pitch Estimation Ability on the Piano.


Little has been gained from a review of the literature on the subject, which as a matter of fact was found to be surprisingly sparse, and more or less contradictory besides.

There is a difference of opinion on the question of whether or not the ability of absolute pitch can be cultivated. C. Whitaker Wilson, writing in Musical Opinion, London, August, 1911; says that the true absolute pitch is birth-given, and cannot be cultivated:

In the case of a child whose gift of absolute pitch is born in him, he will at the age of five, that is as soon as he has learnt his notes, be able to tell each note as he hears them played even though he be in another room.

Later he will learn about key signatures, he says, and will be able to tell what key a piece is played in. Another writer disagrees:

"What is called the sense of absolute pitch is the power of determining by ear the pitch of tones with more or less precision. This power is often inborn (sometimes in those who are not specially musical), but it is also susceptible of cultivation. It is common among highly-trained musicians, especially orchestral players and conductors."

Another striking inconsistency, though not as to absolute pitch ability, is the following:

"The men surpass the women in discrimination of pitch at every level in the register." (Vance) (See bibliography in appendix.)

"Pitch discrimination does not vary with sex to any significant extent." (Smith)

Absolute pitch has been spoken of already as a "gift". Wilson says that it may be more of a curse than a blessing. He propounds a conundrum, "That is it which some people want when they haven't it and yet which others find a nuisance when they have it? Absolute pitch". He says that it is often useful and entertaining to its possessor, but it can be a great nuisance, and. proves his point thus:

I was once asked to sing a few simple little things to illustrate a lecture given by one of our University professors, under whom I was studying at the time. An extra example of what he happened to be discoursing upon being required, the lecturer handed over a short and simple thing, saying in an undertone, "That key is too high; but I have it a fourth lower, so you will be all right."  My key was C, his was G. He struck the chord of G to start with and for the life of me I could scarcely refrain from singing C.  I was reduced to mentally transposing a fourth and to sight singing at the same time. Fortunately the thing was fairly simple and all passed off well; but it might have been otherwise. This will show that it is not "all jam" to be gifted with absolute pitch.

However, Wilson does admit the advantages of a sense of absolute pitch, and mentions among them that of being, able to fit an "amen" in the proper key to the priest's intoning; or if so be that the priest is between two keys, to recognize the fact, and select the one nearest to him, making the "amen" as euphonious as possible!

The literature is full of examples of remarkable and even phenomenal memories for absolute pitch. Wilson says that ‘the man who has absolute pitch can retain the pitch of his piano in mind and tell whether another one is flat or sharp an hour later. One example of this sort of memory for music and for pitch will suffice as illustrative of many more. This is taken from "Historic Musical Memories", in the Etude for January, 1923:

The late Professor of Music at Oxford, the Rev. Sir Frederick Gore Ouseley, was always remarkable for his general power of musical memory as well as for his exceptional power of retaining definite pitches. The Rev. J. Hampton, warden of St. Michael's College, Tenbury, has contributed the following passage, illustrative of these gifts, to Mr. Havergal's Memorials of Sir Frederick: "At Cambridge., in the year 1861, I heard Beethoven's Septett for the first time, and on my return mentioned the fact to Sir Frederick, who immediately went to the piano and commenced the work, pointing out each instrument that had any prominent part. He played on for twenty minutes and then only stopped from fatigue. I told him, that I wondered that I bad never heard him play it before. He said that he had never done so-- had not seen it in print, and only heard it once in his life, ten years before in Rome. When living in London it was his delight to visit the organ lofts of St. Paul's and Westminster Abbey. After an absence of several months in Spain, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, and Paris, where he had tried every organ of any size, he returned to England and soon visited his friend Sir John Goss at St. Paul's. Sir John asked him to sound C, which he did, and then Sir John put down B, which was in perfect tune, whereupon Sir Frederick immediately smiled and said, "You have had all the pipes cut down since I was last here."  Sir John assured me that the pitch of the organ had been raised a semitone.

The following extract from the discussion which followed the reading of a paper "On the Sensitiveness of the Ear to Pitch and Change of Pitch in Music" by Alexander J. Ellis, is given here as presenting another viewpoint; i e., that absolute pitch cannot be detected by the ear. This is taken from the Proceedings of the Musical Association, London, 1876-77:

DISCUSSION.  He had always contended that absolute pitch could not be detected by the ear. ...One of the tuning forks was much thinner in metal than the other and produced a thinner quality of tone, which to the ear sounded sharper. In the same way Mr. Hipkins told him he had two grand pianos absolutely in tune together, but one, which was somewhat softer in tone than the other, was always pronounced by musicians to be the flatter. There was a reason for this effect because the thinner fork being of thinner metal was more thrown into irregular vibrations on account of its shape, and produced a sharper effect on the hearer.  ...He knew a gentleman, a very good. violoncello player, who always tuned a unison decidedly sharp. This was easily accounted for if the tympanum were a little thicker than ordinary, as was the case when one had a bad cold, for this condition affected the sensation of pitch very much. If then they were changing from day to day and from moment to moment, .and some persons absolutely could not tell which was the sharper or flatter of two notes, that was a strong physiological argument against there being an absolute sense of. pitch in the organs of sense.

For an extended review of the literature in the field of absolute pitch the reader is referred to a Doctor's thesis by Evelyn Gough (Bacon) entitled, "The Effects of Practice on Judgments of Absolute Pitch."  The introduction gives an excellent "historical survey", and this when coupled with the experiments described in the latter part of her thesis give us much information about absolute pitch ability.

Passing over all of this, then, let us see what Dr. Carl E. Seashore, the recognized authority on matters of the psychology of music, has to say about absolute pitch:

NATURE OF ABSOLUTE PITCH. Many musical people today speak of having "absolute pitch." But when we come to inquire what is meant by absolute pitch, we find that it varies through all sorts of degrees, from the ability to name a note when struck on the piano without reference to any other note to the ability to tell when the violin is tuned one-tenth vibration too high.

This lack of a standardized terminology explains some of the contradictions between different writers. For instance, in the quotation beginning on the bottom of page 3, the writer is probably speaking about a very highly "absolute" pitch, a sense of keener discrimination that is sometimes meant when other writers use the term "absolute pitch". Seashore goes on to say:

The ability to name notes of a familiar keyed instrument on hearing a single note is rather common among trained musicians and may show itself very early in childhood, even during the first year of acquaintance with the instrument. No thorough experimental work has been done on the subject, but there are indications to show that it is not absolute pitch which is kept as a standard in memory, but rather the timbre of the note. If we run through four or five scales on the piano it will at once be apparent that, regardless of pitch,. no two notes sound alike. The timbre of the low notes is entirely different from that of the higher notes, and the evidence seems to show that it is easier to remember a characteristic timbre than pure pitch in itself.  (The Psychology of Musical Talent", p. 248).

(It is supposed that the piano is one of the easiest instruments to remember absolute pitch with, as it has so many overtones-- is so rich in timbre.) Seashore goes on to describe a method of testing absolute pitch with pure tones (tuning forks with resonator), thus eliminating timbre and testing only pitch. It was this statement of his that absolute pitch is probably a memory of timbre that inspired the tests to be described.


Seashore analyzes timbre as follows:  "For most practical purposes we stall have a correct index to the sense of timbre in terms of the sense of pitch and the sense of intensity, together with auditory imagery." Thus the experiment took form as follows:  To measure a group of people in their abilities of absolute pitch and also in their abilities of pitch discrimination, intensity discrimination, and auditory imagery, and see if there resulted any correlations between the first test and each of the other three. Next it was thought that there might exist correlations between other basic musical abilities and that of absolute pitch, and since Seashore's phonograph records furnished a standardized means of testing, two others were added to the pitch and intensity discrimination tests; i.e., the tests of the sense of consonance and of tonal memory. The two remaining Seashore tests, those of the senses of time and rhythm, were omitted as it was thought most unlikely that they would correlate in any way with the sense of absolute pitch.

The complete test then, in its final form, comprised the four Seashore phonograph tests of the senses of pitch, intensity, consonance, and tonal memory; a test of keyboard determination (absolute pitch when perfect or nearly so), and a questionnaire adapted from Bacon's questionnaire, containing an introspective test of auditory imagery together with certain other questions.

Certain sources of error were discovered as the experiment progressed which, it is feared, make the results quite unreliable for basing conclusions thereon. These will be pointed out later. There was not time to repeat the experiment, eliminating those errors, but it is hoped that It may still be of some value in pointing the way and suggesting the method for future experimenters in the field of absolute pitch.

It is unnecessary to go into the technique of giving the Seashore tests, as they are familiar to the psychologist.  Of course an attempt was made to approach the proximate physiological limit in the one trial given. A typical test paper is presented in the appendix, and is self-explanatory. However, it is necessary to explain the fifth test, that of "Keyboard Determination". This was based on Dr. Bacon's test, although it will, be noted that she was testing primarily the effects of practice on absolute pitch judgments while the present experiment attempted to correlate initial absolute pitch ability with the other above-mentioned abilities. The observer was seated with his back to the piano, facing a facsimile of the keyboard, With the keys named according to the standard notation where middle C is c1. The middle sixty notes of the piano, from B1 to a3 sharp inclusive, had been selected as constituting a. fair test, and also as reducing the possibility of the "end-error" described by Bacon on page 50 of her thesis, which occurred by using all eighty-eight notes. These sixty notes were arranged in random order avoiding all octave sequences and all but five of the less-than-octave sequences, as an attempt to prevent the observers from using relative pitch. The notes were played on the piano, repeated if desired, and. the observer, with the aid of the facsimile keyboard before him, wrote down what he thought. the note was. The average "plus-variation" and average "minus-variation" were calculated, meaning by these the over- and under-estimations of pitch; and the test was scored by "average error in semitones"; (all 60 notes averaged, regardless of whether a plus or minus error, or no error at all for some notes.) (See appendix)

The first question in the questionnaire was the introspective test of auditory imagery, following very closely those of Bacon and Seashore. The other questions are self-explanatory. A typical questionnaire is shown in the appendix.

Data and discussion.

The tests were given to 21 persons in all, 7 men and 14 women. All had some familiarity with music, and with the piano keyboard. The table in the appendix gives the results which were found with one trial of each test. (Table I..)


The correlations of the test of keyboard determination with the other four tests given and with the introspective test of auditory imagery are as follows:

  Keyboard determination  
R r
With pitch -.009 -.016 21 individuals
With intensity +.127 +.221
With consonance +.209 +.352
With tonal memory +.011 +.020
With auditory imagery +.141 +.244 16 individuals

(R calculated by the "foot-rule" method, and converted into r by table. The low number of cases gives a rather high probable error which should be borne in mind through-out the discussion.

It is at once apparent that there are no striking correlations present here, as might perhaps have been suspected. In fact a curious result is that the thing which correlates least of all, and that negatively, with the test of keyboard determination ("absolute pitch") , is the test of the sense of pitch discrimination.  Judging from the results of this experiment, the two are very little related. However, one of the sources of error to which these results are liable, is that the results are based on only one trial of each test, whereas several trials are often necessary to arrive at the proximate physiological limit with the Seashore tests. Smith, in his thesis "The Effect of Training in Pitch Discrimination", gives a striking example of this:

A similar test of the effect of instruction was made in a class of 200 adults. After two preliminary tests, one heterogeneous and one homogeneous, the poorest one-fourth of the group were taken and instructed individually as to the actual nature of pitch hearing. An effort was made to find out what particular difficulties they were encountering, and explanation and illustration were based progressively upon this information. As, a class these had made but little improvement in the second preliminary test, both the first and the second having been given "without instruction". But as a result of this personal instruction all but 7, i.e. 47 out of the 54 made rapid improvement. ...The fact that, these were adults familiar with the class room and, trained in many psychological experiments, yet made such marked response to the instruction and individual help, doubly emphasizes the importance of thoroughness and individual attention in the instructions if the records are to be entirely reliable.

He explains that one of the most striking and yet perplexing facts about pitch discrimination is that there is often no relation between the feeling of certainty, and the correctness of the judgment. The judgment is often based on a clear illusion of hearing. He says that anticipatory judging is a fruitful source of errors. Still another troublesome source of error he mentions is that of the confusion of pitch and intensity, particularly with unpracticed observers. Making the tones actually objectively equal in intensity does not always allay the difficulty as disturbing associations may tend to create confusion. High tones are intrinsically louder than low tones. A slight difference in intensity is often interpreted as a difference in pitch.

From all of this it is clear that if the experiment were to be done over again, the Seashore tests should be given several times so as more nearly to approach the physiological limit.

This brings up the second source of error, i.e. that the ability of keyboard determination is itself probably capable of considerable improvement with practice, either conscious practice as in the experiments of Dr. Bacon, or that unconscious practice which comes from playing, singing, or even hearing music. Thus the results given above must be considered with the further condition that we have no way of telling the relative amounts of practice the observers had had in the matter of absolute pitch. If this were known, we could correlate the Seashore results with the ability to improve in keyboard determination and perhaps find something of interest. This would undoubtedly give different factors from what have been found above, which represent the correlations with an initial ability in various stages of use (unconscious practice) in different individuals. The first chapter of Bacon's "Summary and Conclusions" recapitulates on the subject of practice:

EFFECTS OF PRACTICE. Practice has a. marked effect on an individual's ability to identify musical notes, that is distinct from the initial capacity of the individual, or from the type of instrument used in producing the notes. The observers in these tests improved irregularly from trial to trial in identifying piano notes, violin notes and the fundamental notes in tonic chords. A short period of practice covering an interval of about eight weeks with two ten-minute practice periods a week brings an increase in the number of correct identifications and a corresponding decrease in the size of the errors made. Longer periods show continued improvement more or less irregular in its progress. Little sign of fixed plateaus is apparent in any of the results. The amount retained after the lapse of a year without practice is in some measure proportional to the degree of ability acquired through practice. In most cases some of the ability is lost over this period, although in a few cases progress rather than forgetting seems to have taken place.

Thus we should remember that the abilities we are attempting to correlate will likely change their measurements with practice, and quite possibly unequally.

Incidentally, Bacon compared a. group of her observers in pitch discrimination and average error in pitch determination (the latter probably over several trials), and found a correlation of r = +.376 p.e. .073. Boggs, in the same connection, in her "Studies in Absolute Pitch", says: "All observers have had. a particularly good hearing for overtones, so far as reported. Their pitch discrimination has not been reported to be extraordinarily fine."

The correlation obtained with the test of intensity discrimination is a little higher, but not high enough to become significant The observations given above under the discussion of pitch apply at least in part to this and the other tests also.

The correlation of the sense of consonance with keyboard determination gives r = + .352, which perhaps is the only correlation high enough to be said to be significant, if further experiments should verify it. This would seem rather curious, also, for consonance is not one of those mentioned by Seashore as aiding in the determination of timbre, which he says is the principal component of absolute pitch ability on an instrument.

It was thought that tonal memory might give a negative correlation with absolute pitch, because Abraham in "Das absolute Tonbewusstein" (cited by Bacon) , finds that a memory for absolute pitch "frequently accompanies imperfect melody memory, which he explains on the theory that the association paths within the auditory area from tone to tone are more numerous or more closely knit together than the paths from tones to other sensory areas, as to a word, a visual image, etc." This was not borne out, however, an extremely small positive correlation resulting.

The test of auditory imagery will be discussed later.

Distribution of Scores.

Although there is nothing striking about the correlations of the keyboard determination test with the others, there are several interesting facts worth noticing about the former. Fig . I in the appendix shows the distribution of scores in this test. At each end of the curve will be noticed a hump. These correspond to two individuals, one unusually poor (Q), and one unusually good (D). Considering the small number of cases, the remainder of the curve approaches a normal distribution curve with the mode around the 7 semitone average error. The median is 6.29.

Frequency of errors.

Table II in the appendix gives the total frequency of all the errors on which the calculations were based. In several cases, the full 60 notes were not used, due to various reasons. However, no individual's record is based on less than 52 notes. The distribution of these frequencies of interval errors is shown to advantage in the graph of Fig. II. The red line indicates the frequency of errors from the greatest negative to the greatest positive. It shows a more or less normal distribution of errors such as is found by Bacon, who says:  "The larger the interval error the less frequently it occurred." However, there is not a continuous gradation as she found with a larger number of observers. There are in fact several pronounced zig-zags which may have a significance. (It will be noted that her results are based on several trials separated by practice periods.)

For purposes of comparison the black line has been drawn on the left hand side representing the red line of the right hand side when folded over, giving a visual comparison of the positive and negative error frequency. Starting at the left we see a slight bunching of negative errors around the two-octave point and again at the minor 14th. The zig-zags of both curves are somewhat parallel from the major 13th to the minor 10th, where the negative errors drop at the major 9th. The negative errors show a. drop from the octave to the major 7th which is not repeated in the positive errors. The curves are fairly parallel from there on. Because of the fact that the high peak at the no-error point was largely due to individual D, who made the exceptionally good score of 56 correct judgments, whereas the next below him made only 12, (see table), it was thought well to show what the curve would be without his influence in raising the no-error mark. This is done by the dotted line, which would eliminate the shaded portion. His 4 errors would not change the rest of the curve significantly, so they are not considered in this change. Three of them are octave errors, two negative and one positive, and the fourth is a negative error of one semitone.

The positive error ‘line is for most of its length above the negative error line, bearing out what Bacon has said, that "underestimations of pitch are fairly consistently less than overestimations."

The two curves both show a rise to the major 3rd, followed by a drop to the minor 3rd and a subsequent rise again. This would seem to be readily understandable, as the major 3rd is one of the primary harmonics and is closer related to the fundamental than the minor 3rd is. However, this same reasoning should hold for the interval of the perfect 5th, which is even more closely related harmonically to the fundamental than is the major 3rd, although it is further away in the number of semitones. The 5th is the next harmonic after the octave, but we find the positive errors still increasing from the perfect 5th to the augmented 4th line, although a trifle slower than from the minor 6th to the perfect 5th; while the negative errors actually show a decrease at the perfect 5th point.

One of the curious facts which presented itself was that of the rise of both curves at the 10-semitone error line. This represents the minor 7th, classified by Goetschius in his "Material used in Musical Harmony" as a dissonance, and surely much more remote harmonically from the fundamental than the perfect 5th as well, as more remote in number of semitones. Yet each curve is higher at this point than at the 7-semitone point (perfect 5th) . As before mentioned, the negative error line shows an increase of octave errors over those on either side, but the positive line shows no peak at this point.

Frequency of notes correct.

The following table shows the number of times each of the twelve notes was judged correct, without considering their octaves. Individual D was omitted from this calculation.

c 17
g 12
f-sharp (g-flat) 11
a 9
e 8
d 8
f 6
g-sharp (a-flat) 5
b 5
a-sharp (b-flat) 2
d-sharp (e-flat) 2
c-sharp (d-flat) 1



(All observers were instructed to call all black notes as sharps of the preceding notes, even though they did think of them first as flats; in the interest of simplicity. If the experiment were to be repeated, it would be well to instruct them to call them all as flats, in view of the fact that they are all the keynotes of flat keys. This fact was not recognized at the beginning of the experiment.)

The results tend to show the white notes to be more easily judged, though f sharp (g flat) is a conspicuous exception. Bacon's order is as follows:  c, a, b, g, d, f, e, a-sharp (b-flat), g-sharp (a-flat) and d-sharp (e-flat), c-sharp (d-flat), and f-sharp (g-flat).

Speaking as regards all the individuals who made the 86 correct judgments listed above, and riot considering special cases, no tendency was found for either sex making a greater number of correct judgments on either the low or the high notes. Of the men, 48.28% of the correct judgments were among the lower half of the 60 notes given, while 49.12% of the women's correct judgments were in this half.

Sex differences.

The following table shows the differences between the sexes in the matter of errors of keyboard determination. Individuals D and Q are omitted from this calculation).

  Men Women
Average amount of positive errors (% of all notes tried) 45.87% 55.24%
Average amount of negative errors (% of all notes tried) 45.87 37.57
Average positive error in semitones 6.55 6.49
Average positive error in semitones 7.88 5.75

This shows a tendency of the women toward more and larger overestimations of pitch than underestimations. The men appear to have about the same number of each in this experiment but their negative errors are larger. The difference between 100% and the sum of the percentages of positive and negative errors above represents of course the percentage of correct judgments for either sex.

Analysis of questionnaires (of 16 observers).

The correlation of the test of auditory imagery with the keyboard determination test has already been given as 4.244, Which is too small to be significant. Even if it were larger, it should not be trusted too much, for it has been found quite difficult to get people unused to psychological methods to understand what is wanted in an introspective test of this sort. What one person will call "5" another will call "3", and similarly.

With regard to the other questions, several interesting facts are brought out. A tendency for those with more musical training to make better keyboard determination scores is observed.  Also, a greater amount of "ear training and harmony courses" are found among the better scores. However, it should be noted that these may possibly be effects of greater absolute pitch ability rather than causes, for those with the ability drift into musical atmospheres where they take such courses.

The next question brings a diversity of answers. The mental processes involved in the test include among others placing the tone In the vocal register, comparison with preceding tones, attempted comparison with middle c, or a (violinist), visualization of the keyboard, and immediate recognition. The following answers are of interest:

B:  "I partly determined by humming the tone, and if out of my range, by estimating how much; then I tried to keep in mind the general tone quality of each octave and to fit the tone into its proper place; and I also judged by comparison with the preceding note if within two octaves of the one under consideration."

U:  "Using the Star Spangled Banner as the basis of sound I tried to place the tone by comparison."

K:. "In trying to locate the pianoforte tones I relied largely on a sub-vocal attempt to place the tone in relation to middle c as I remembered it from my vocal practice. If the note played seemed to be in the octave above middle c, for instance, I would quickly locate the c above and then run up the scale by half tones till I seemed to get the right tone."

The observer with the lowest score gave this answer:  "When the note is struck, the tone immediately brought up a vision of the octave on the piano. I then judged the note by comparing it with preceding ones."

The majority of the subjects report that they determined the octave first, then the note.

The question concerning images and associations brings many answers also. Among them are "the piano keyboard", "middle c", "a note in a familiar composition", "the tune of the Star Spangled Banner", "practicing on chimes and in Glee Club", "my own range of voice", "the difficulty or ease with which I reach a certain tone in singing". One says:  "None that I remember of, except the remembered tones D, A, C, and 2nd E above middle C and the first G below." (The violin strings plus middle c) . "Also I did associate the note played with the syllables do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti, do."

N says:  "A piece of popular music which I know almost completely by note", while a third makes the facetious remark, "I was totally unconscious."

Some affirmative answers are given to the next question, "Did recognition ever come instantly?" Two of these are worth repeating:

F:  "It seemed to at times, especially when you struck a note that sounded like the violin strings, E, A, D, G."

B:  "Once or twice-- and those were among the few correct answers I gave, as I saw by comparison after the test with your chart."

This bears out what Boggs says:  "An immediateness of recognition and sureness of judgment is to be observed in all when the judgment is correct."

The majority of the observers noticed at least some degree of perseveration of preceding tones. Two of them: "Most always, I judged pitch of one tone by preceding one."  "I couldn't help doing this although I think it mixed me up more."

One individual gives the following:

C:  "So far as I could tell all of the intervals within the octave were disconsonant and gave no assistance in placing the tones. I could not preserve the preceding tone for this reason."

This would seem to indicate that this individual is confused by dissonant intervals to such an extent that he was unable to preserve the preceding tone. Perhaps this is explained in part by the fact that he is exceedingly fond of simple harmony. He has had many arguments with the author on what harmony really is. Musically, he is most satisfied in a male glee club where the four part major chord is ever prominent, and quite ill at ease when hearing piano or other music with more involved harmony. In fact it is not harmony to him.

The next question, concerning the characteristic tone quality of the 12 notes, brought results which seemed surprising to the author. The great majority said there was not any such characteristic tone-quality. It was thought this would be more noticeable. The answers however are consistent with the results of the test, where relatively few notes are judged absolutely correct. Individual D, the "star pupil", gives a curious answer, "Only in intensity". It would ‘surely seem that with his remarkable score of 93% perfect judgments, he would have had to recognize a "characteristic tone-quality" even though he does seem to use "immediate recognition". It is probable that he misunderstood this question. Another observer said:

N:  "All c's do (so much so that I thought everything was c)."

H:  "The c's did I think. Otherwise, no."

There seems to be a tendency for some people to call things c, perhaps because this is the standard and simplest key of the pianoforte. The test of keyboard determination started out with b1, the next b above middle c. It was noted that this was often called the next c, (c2),or even middle c, (c1). The opinion of many of them was summed up by C: "They all sound alike to me on the piano".

Nearly all recorded no differences in the ease of determination of black and white notes. Among the answers given were these:

N:  "Yes, they have an unfinished sound to me."

"I could not tell the black notes regularly but the ones I did were determined by its relative sharper pitch."

H:  "The black keys seemed more clearly visualized."

With regard to the last question, some of the observers reported confidence in their judgments of certain tones.

Q:  "I had some confidence in judging middle c and g above it." However, this observer got only two correct judgments, and they were both d's.

H:  "Middle c, low g below middle c, high b and c above middle c." This individual got three correct judgments, two of which were middle c and the next below it, while the third was the 2nd g above middle c.

F, a violinist, gave middle c and the four open violin string notes; g, d1, a1, and e2. He had four correct judgments, but no one of these five notes were among them. G says the "2nd octave was easier as a rule". B feels special confidence in "C and A". However, in his five correct judgments no c's are found, and only one a. Another observer says she felt special confidence in the notes which were recognized instantly. Another names "middle c and its octave" . She has two correct judgments, one is middle c and the other is the 2nd e above middle c. Of two girls who sing, one is most confident in judging "the tones that I can sing", while the other is most confident in "the tones in the capital letter octave" (2nd octave below middle c1) Lastly we have that peculiar individual "D" again, who calmly gives as an answer the single word, "all."

In fact this individual's answers all through have often been radically different from the general run, and in view of the fact that he has been referred to repeatedly as having a phenomenal score, (56 perfect, 2 negative errors of an octave, 1 positive error of an octave, and one negative error of one semi torte) , his answers are given here. He is one of the foremost young musicians of Washington, in charge of the choir and organ of one of its largest churches, 30 years of age, and a graduate of Peabody Conservatory:

II . State briefly the amount of musical training or practice you have had, such as instruments studied, vocal training, the amount of time on each, etc.

"Violin 2 years, piano 15 years, organ 10 years, choir training 12 years."

III. Have you taken ear training or harmony courses?


IV. Describe, as accurately as possible, the mental processes involved in your determination of pianoforte tones:

"I don't determine - I have absolute pitch - It's a process I can't describe, it just comes natural to me."

V. Did you determine the octave first and then the note, or first the note and then its octave?

"Note ."

VI. What images or associations were you conscious of?

"Only the tone."

VII. Did recognition ever come instantly, without intervening images or associations?


VIII. Did you notice perseveration of preceding tones? Did you judge the pitch of one tone in reference to the pitch of the preceding tone?


IX. Do all the c's have a characteristic tone-quality for you, and so also all the c-sharps, all the d's, etc.?

"Only in intensity."

X. Were there any differences in the ease of determination of black and white notes, and if so, what?


XI. Did you feel special confidence in judging any tone or tones? ‘Which ones?


REMARKS:  In the case of mine I have never tried to find out the "why" of anything connected with music in respect to any of the above. It seems to be a natural process with me.

Miscellaneous observations.

The tests brought to light the individual differences of various observers. There are all types; slow, steady, quick, and all the rest.

There appeared to be a tendency for certain individuals to judge certain notes correctly. Q has 2 correct, both d's. L has 6 correct, and 3 f-sharps. S has 7 correct, and. 3 of them g's. N has 6 correct, and 3 of them c's. H has 3 correct, 2 of them g's, and so on.

E is characterized by being erratic. He ranks no. 2, next to the best, in the number of his correct judgments, but makes such large errors that his rank on average error is 20, or next to the poorest. In one place his errors run like this:  No error, -25, -25, -24, -12, No error, -13.

It is very curious how he could. jump from a correct judgment to one of more than two octaves off, repeat that error, and another slightly less, than halve it , then give another correct judgment, followed by one of over an octave off. This same individual also makes the greatest negative error recorded in the experiment and the next to the greatest positive error:  -27, and +25.

Certain individuals show tendencies toward. certain errors, among those noted being +1, +11, -11, and. +12. The 11 errors, as well as 13 errors, may easily happen by being only one semitone away from the note, but miscalculating the octave. This is well illustrated by L, who it seemed used relative pitch, though perhaps unconsciously, as she says in her questionnaire that most of the time she did not. It seems rather evident that she did however. The following is a consecutive series of 16 of her judgments:  +1, +1, -11, +1, +1, +1, +1, +1., +13, +1, +1, +1, +1, +1, +1, +1. Disregarding the two octave errors, we have 1.6 notes without a break all of which are judged one semitone too high. In another place, she has 3 +11 errors with +1 errors before and after them. These are not so easy to explain as the -11 and +13 errors above. Further on is another column of 9 +1 errors. Whenever the same error is noted several times in succession, it is fairly certain that relative pitch is being used, though perhaps unconsciously.

Another curious fact is that the four poorest scores show more and larger negative errors than positive:

  # of - errors Avg. - error # of + errors Avg. + error
C (male) 34 10.59 25 4.00
J (female) 30 8.57 27 7.93
E (male) 29 12.55 19 6.68
Q (female) 48 11.79 10 5.10

It is not known what significance this might have, if any.  Q presents the following series at one place: +1 , -24, +1, -24; which is most curious. At another place:  -22, no error, -21, -22, -10, -22!


Seashore claims that "absolute pitch" is a memory of timbre, which he analyzes into pitch, intensity, and auditory imagery. Therefore a group of more or less musical people were tested in the sense of absolute pitch, and also in the senses of pitch discrimination, intensity discrimination, consonance, tonal memory, and auditory imagery. The first test was correlated with the others, but the only one to give an appreciable correlation was the test of consonance, (r = +.352) . Considering the small number of cases, the keyboard. determination (absolute pitch) scores, were distributed fairly normally. The graph of the frequency of errors shows also a rather normal distribution from the smallest negative to the smallest positive error, with the greatest number around the no-error and one-semitone points. A general tendency was noted for white notes to be judged correctly more often than black notes. The women showed a tendency toward more and larger overestimations of pitch (positive errors) than underestimations (negative errors). The men appeared to have about the same number of each, but their negative errors were larger. The four poorest scores in Keyboard Determination (two men and two women), were found to show more and larger negative errors than positive. A tendency was noted for certain individuals to judge certain notes correctly. Other striking individual characteristics were brought to light. Many interesting replies were received to the questions of the questionnaire, some of which throw light on the nature. of absolute pitch ability.

Due to several sources of error pointed out in the paper, it is unsafe to draw conclusions on the data obtained.



A - Typical test paper of four Seashore tests.

B - Typical test paper of Keyboard Determination test.

C - Typical questionnaire.

D - Table I, giving complete results with one trial of each test given to twenty-one observers.

E - Figure I, showing distribution of Keyboard Determination scores.

F - Table II, giving lists of frequency of positive and negative errors.

G- Figure II, showing distribution of positive and negative errors given in Table II.

H - Bibliography.



"The Effects of Practice on Judgments of Absolute Pitch", Evelyn Gough (Bacon).

"Variation in Pitch Discrimination Within the Tonal Range", Thomas F. Vance.

"The Effect of Training in Pitch Discrimination", Franklin O. Smith

"Studies in Absolute Pitch", Lucinda Pearl Boggs, American Journal of Psychology, April, 1907.

"On the Sensitiveness of the Ear to Pitch and Change of Pitch in Music", Alexander J. Ellis, Proceedings of the Musical Association, London, 1876-77.

"The Gift of Absolute Pitch", C. Whitaker Wilson, Musical Opinion, London, August 1911.

"Historic Musical Memories", The Etude, January, 1923.

"The Psychology of Musical Talent", Carl Emil Seashore.

and also the Manual of Instructions for the use of the Seashore phonograph record tests.