Absolute pitch and musicality.

Originally published in Psychotechnische Zeitschrift, Volume 3, pages 108-11, 1928

By C. Maltzew.

Translated by Christopher Aruffo

The question about the relationship between absolute tone consciousness and musicality is often disputed.  In academic circles, as well as among practicing musicians, it is debated whether absolute tone consciousness is a characteristic of musical giftedness.

Close scrutiny of this ability gives some doubt as to the value of this ability in music.

It has been shown-- not least in the psychological investigations of v. Kries [1] and Abraham [2]-- that the ability, designated as "absolute tone consciousness", is not "absolute" in that it shows great dependence on the tone quality, and encompasses two particular abilities:  1.  Recognizing and naming tones; 2. Producing specified tones.

Furthermore, G. Révész [3] claimed that it was inaccurate to sort people into groups of individuals, "one of which is accepted to have absolute hearing, and the other not."  Absolute hearing can be very differently developed.  Révész differentiates two kinds, depending on the two elements of pitch that he defines in absolute tone consciousness:  Quality and Height.  The first ability seems to be innate, according to Révész, while the second may be acquired.  In general, however, the ability to perceive these characteristics is differently developed in different humans.

W. Köhler [4] stated, "the tone height gives the tone body" and "rather, tone body is it," which are recognized easily on familiar instruments, but remain unknown on strange instruments.  W. Köhler actually made the attempt to acquire an absolute tone consciousness which led to a positive result.

The investigation of an author in the State Institute for Music Science in Moscow [5] analyzed the process of acquiring absolute tone consciousness.  This author identified different phases of the training process:

a)  The first phase is a progressive orientation in terms of the tonal brightness, which is characterized by a reduction of incorrect judgments, and gradual amassment of the latter around an ideal curve (the correct judgments).

b)  In the second phase, the tones (and tone bodies) acquire a certain individual characteristic, such that consonant tones are often confused for one another (such as Köhler's fourths and fifths).  Likewise, tones which fulfill a similar function within a tonal orientation can be confused, e.g. in C-major, B and D are disonnant while C and E are stable, etc. [6].  The results of these attempts are also positive, although with large fluctuations in the length of the acquisition period with different subjects.

Some of the test series from this work, conducted with children at the Moscow Conservatory, can be extended for consideration with musicality and its elements.  These are the attempts to determine absolute tone consciousness for brightness, according to the method of G. Révész [7].

The experimental assembly was unchanged.  After the brightness differences of the different registers were made clear, eight tones from different regions (G, F, E, D#1, F1, D2, C3, A3) were demonstrated and the children were asked to indicate the same tones at the piano.  The results of these attempts failed somewhat more badly than with Révész, which is perhaps due to an unsatisfactory knowledge of the instrument.  The present investigation, however, does not depend on absolute numerical values, but only upon conditions.  It is nonetheless necessary to mention: the treatment of results in the three trials of each pitch (that is, in cases where the first and second responses were incorrect) is different from Révész in that the results of the three trials were taken individually and, for our purposes, we will consider only the first response; because in the second and third responses, relative hearing comes into play, and the children may be assumed to have made their guesses from an orienting point from which they arrived at the correct pitch.

The trials were conducted with 33 children, and the children were ranked as follows:  first the children who had exhibited the greatest number of correct responses in the initial response; then those whose responses were no more than a semitone in error; then those who had erred by a minor second, major second, minor third, etc. from the trial tone.  In this way, we were able to measure absolute tone consciousness and correlate this ability with the criteria established by K. Starkow (for musical aptitude, musical achievement, and aptitude for specific musical abilities) and with academic giftedness (assessed by Hrabar-Passek for the same children).

The computation of the dependent coefficients resulted in the following:

Absolute hearing and musicality = 0.06
Absolute hearing and musical achievement = 0.06
Absolute hearing and academic giftedness = 0.30

Thus the absolute hearing correlates neither with musicality, musical achievement, or academic giftedness.  The data is hardly different when correlated with individual musical skills.

Absolute hearing and rhythm = -0.12
Absolute hearing and musical reading = 0.00
Absolute hearing and musical listening = 0.06

Absolute hearing and rhythm = -0.12
Absolute hearing and musical reading = -0.12
Absolute hearing and musical listening = 0.06

It can be noticed immediately that the conditions are completely different than with G. Révész, who determined the coefficient of correlation

Absolute hearing and musicality = 0.68

The author of the present work was compelled to repeat the same trials using Révész's procedure, according to which all three responses are considered.

The following data resulted:

Absolute hearing and musicality = 0.59
Absolute hearing and musical achievement = 0.84
Absolute hearing and academic giftedness = 0.51

The numerical table shows that the dependent coefficients approximate those achieved by Révész.

If Révész's calculations are actually measuring relative hearing, then this supports the assumption already expressed, that relative hearing has a strong effect on the second and third responses.

In the results communicated by K. Starkow we also find a rather high dependent coefficient between the musical reading, which requires a good relative hearing, and musicality.

Thus, we remain convinced of the first treatment of results, which show no relationship between absolute tone consciousness and musicality.

These trials are too small in number to provide a compelling judgment of the relationship between absolute tone consciousness and musicality.  Other experiments would have to be conducted-- easier methods, for untrained listeners.

In a sense, the result of these trials is not completely unexpected.  Révész states how absolute tone consciousness perceives brightness as a general characteristic; thus already there is a blurred distinction between "in music" and "musical", and it is to be expected that with children, before they become familiarized with music, a positive correlation should be missing.  This can be discussed with specific examples.  The tests prepared at the Institute for examination of absolute tone consciousness were conducted on 21 children aged between 10 and 14 years (see the work of M. Serejski and C. Maltzew in tests II, 1a & 1b and II, 2a).  The test in which the quality of the given tone was to be identified yielded two variants 15+ and 27-; the test with recognizing the brightness resulted in 40+ and 2-, where almost all children were successful.  The 21 children were therefore not ranked into categories since they all performed equally well.  Accordingly, the result cannot be from a correlation with musicality.

Perhaps the situation becomes different once musical practice begins.  It is very probable that the acquisition process occurs more quickly in those with musically gifted subjects, so that a second examination-- after a certain period-- would have generated completely different results.  The author's experiments conducted with adults support this possibility.

There is still another consideration:  it is extremely difficult, by a few specific tests, to grasp the most substantial features of musicality.  In musical production, pure tones rarely occur; and as soon as a musical structures are present, new reference points are added which contribute to the determination of absolute pitch:  the timbre, the overtones, the scale degree, etc.  I have provided examples of the latter; the first is common in musical practice, because it is not uncommon for musicians to recognize pitches in familiar timbres.  Ambiguous sounds become oriented and this creates a list of new problems.

[1] v. Kries, Zeitschrift f. Psychologie, Bd. 3.

[2] O. Abraham, Das absolute Tonbewußtsein. Sammelbände d. Intern. Musikges. 3. 1901.

[3] G. Révész, Zur Grundlegung der Tonpsychologie, Leipzig 1913, S. 90 ff.

[4] W. Köhler, Akustische Untersuchungen III. Zeitschrift fur Psychologie v.72, p.165.

[5] C. Maltzew, Absolutes Tonbewußtsein und die Methoden seiner Entwicklung. Moskau 1925 (Russ, Sbornik Gimu, Nr. 1.)

[6] Es seien einige Beispiele angeführt: Vp. K.: »Es kann h oder d sein, nicht aber c.« Vp. B.: »h und d sind einander ähnlich; sie klingen unruhig, aufregend; c ist entschieden, resolut.«

[7] G. Révész, Prüfung der Musikalität. Ztschr. f. Psych. Bd. 85, 1920. S. 179.