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Music Perception: Absolute Pitch and Synaesthesia


There have been a few published research articles in the recent years on the subject of Absolute Pitch (also called Perfect Pitch) and Synaesthesia. Both Absolute Pitch (AP) and Synaesthesia are relatively rare traits. However, a significant proportion of synesthetes also report having AP and vice versa (Cytowic & Eagleman, 2009).

In “Absolute Pitch and Synesthesia: Two Sides of the Same Coin? Shared and Distinct Neural Substrates of Music Listening” (Psyche Loui, Anna Zamm, Gottfried Schlaug. 2012), it drew an interesting conclusion as follows:

Taken together, fMRI results from music listening suggest that AP and tone-color synesthesia may be two sides of the same coin: the same general mechanism of enhanced sensory activation feeds into auditory experience in AP and visual experience in synesthetes. We expect that the same biological and/or experiential prerequisites may be in place early on in development for a single overall group of individuals to develop heightened abilities of perceptual association. This heightened perceptual association may give rise to AP as well as tone-color synesthesia depending on attentional processes that play a role in the conscious evaluation of unconsciously processed triggers such as letters, timbres, and musical pitch (Rich & Mattingley, 2003, 2009). These findings have strong implications for individual differences in the experience of music, and are applicable towards other special populations who may perceive music differently, such as highly trained musicians, highly creative people, and individuals with autistic spectrum disorders.

Both my husband’s family and my family have a number of highly musical individuals. I am not one of them though I love music. I can see a significant difference between how each of us perceives music. Skye and his dad live and breath in music. Skye has both Absolute Pitch and Music -> Colour/Flavour/Touch/Spatial Location Synaesthesia. He hasn’t had much formal training, and he knew his tunes before he had learnt any technique. I had to force myself to get him a piano teacher at the beginning of this year as he was playing a lot of complex tunes, such as Spring from the Four Seasons, with two fingers on the keyboard fluently, three months after he got interested in the iPad piano lessons. That horrified a friend of ours. He urged us to get Skye a piano teacher before he went too far with his incorrect technique.

By then, I had already known Skye had Absolute Pitch. He watched an iPad music lesson, and could go to his own keyboard to repeat the tune without reading any notes. He didn’t have any music notes at the time as he taught himself piano by watching everything on iPad visually. Last few months, he has learnt some useful techniques and is certainly becoming more professional.

Recently, my niece who is only a bit elder than Skye, was admitted by Chinese Musicians’ Association. Both my niece and Skye are very mathematical. I believe there is a strong connection between music and Maths. Historically, there were quite a few excellent mathematicians and scientists who were also great musicians, e.g., Max Born and Max Planck.

My husband has provided me a few of his favourite quotes about music perception. Coincidentally, some of these individuals have/had Absolute Pitch or Relative Pitch, some have/had Synaesthesia, and some have/had both. I hope you will enjoy the quotes as much as I do.

“If I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician. I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music.”
- Albert Einstein

“Without music, life would be a mistake.”
- Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols

“One good thing about music, when it hits you, you feel no pain.”
- Bob Marley

“Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible.”
- Frank Zappa

“Music is … A higher revelation than all Wisdom & Philosophy”
- Ludwig van Beethoven

“I used to think anyone doing anything weird was weird. Now I know that it is the people that call others weird that are weird.”
- Paul McCartney

“Information is not knowledge.
Knowledge is not wisdom.
Wisdom is not truth.
Truth is not beauty.
Beauty is not love.
Love is not music.
Music is THE BEST.”
- Frank Zappa

“Music touches us emotionally, where words alone can’t.”
- Johnny Depp

“The music is not in the notes,
but in the silence between.”
- Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

“Music doesn’t lie. If there is something to be changed in this world, then it can only happen through music.”
- Jimi Hendrix

“Imagination is the key to my lyrics. The rest is painted with a little science fiction.”
- Jimi Hendrix

“My kids are starting to notice I’m a little different from the other dads. “Why don’t you have a straight job like everyone else?” they asked me the other day.

I told them this story:
In the forest, there was a crooked tree and a straight tree. Every day, the straight tree would say to the crooked tree, “Look at me…I’m tall, and I’m straight, and I’m handsome. Look at you…you’re all crooked and bent over. No one wants to look at you.” And they grew up in that forest together. And then one day the loggers came, and they saw the crooked tree and the straight tree, and they said, “Just cut the straight trees and leave the rest.” So the loggers turned all the straight trees into lumber and toothpicks and paper. And the crooked tree is still there, growing stronger and stranger every day.”
- Tom Waits

(Re-post for RSS readers due to the failed feed.)

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