Category Archives: Absolute pitch

Test yourself for absolute pitch and synaesthesia

Hello dear reader

Open UniversityIt has been a crazy long week for me as I have been teaching for the Open University (OU), the main correspondence based University in the UK.  The OU runs summer schools for its psychology degree and every year I attend one of these residential schools to spend a week living on campus (this year at the University of Sussex) tutoring a lovely group of students who are running their very first experiments.

The week is really intense as most of these students have never met each other before coming to the school and it is part of my job to coordinate their getting together in groups and working on their designs, building stimuli, testing people and then, finally, the joys of ‘analysis day’! On the last day (today) the students all make posters to present their work. I never ceased to be amazed at how much work the students manage to get through in a week.

Teaching phraseThe OU residential summer schools are one of my favourite teaching experiences;I have some  good friends who are tutors (I have done the schools for 6 years now) and I am teaching a great group of adults who are always so motivated to learn.

Anyway, enough about me and on to the subject of this week’s blog – one of my wonderful masters students!! I have loved tutoring on the MSc in Music, Mind and Brain for the last 5 years and one of the best things is supervising the students for their thesis project.

Supervising on the MMB is very different to the OU as the work is more advance (postgrad vs. undergrad) and extended over a longer period of time. It can cover far more techniques (e.g. brain stimulation) and populations (e.g. musicians, amusics). But like with the OU I have always been blessed with amazing students. One of my previous MMB students, Nora, is currently really close to having her project published and I can’t wait to blog about it! There are many other projects that have given fantastic results and inspiration over the years.

Guang YiAnother one of my current MMB students, Guang Yi, is working on a project looking at the relationship between absolute pitch and synaesthesia. He is  looking for participants to take his online tests so I asked him to introduce his project for you here.

Please read of his ideas and, if you have a few minutes, have a go at his pitch and colour tests!! We would alsi be really gratefull if you could pass around the link.

Thank you dear reader. I will be back soon with some early blogs in advance of the big SMPC conference that is coming up in a few weeks.

The hyper-connected brain – by Guang Yi Chua

Piano colourDo you know someone who says that they see different colours when they hear sounds, especially musical tones? This is a variety of synaesthesia, where two traditionally distinct sensory experiences are combined.

What about someone who can correctly name any note without the assistance of a reference? We call this ‘absolute’ or ‘perfect pitch’

Researchers have traditionally investigated these two phenomena independently, and information about them is well-documented within music psychology. Seem interesting? Then I need your help in completing an online study that will help me investigate possible links between these conditions. Read on for more information!

Studies show that people with either of these conditions* have a higher density of neuronal connections between similar regions of the brain; Ramachandran and Hubbard (2001) refer to these high density regions as hyperconnectivity within the brain’s neuronal networks. Recent evidence suggests a possible relationship between individuals with tone-colour synaesthesia and absolute pitch (AP) due to this hyper-connectivity.

MusicLet us first explore AP. Most people with musical training can identify a pitch if you play them a first note, tell them what it is, and then play a second pitch to identify. The ability to do this is called relative pitch. Absolute pitch is the ability to name a musical pitch without an external reference, meaning they do not need the first step of the example I just mentioned – they just know what pitch it is. Absolute pitch abilities vary on a spectrum, but for the purpose of this article, I will not go into more detail than this.

silkNow let’s talk about synaesthesia; many different kinds exist. I have a friend who does not enjoy listening to Bach because it feels like someone rubbing sandpaper all over his body, but he loves Debussy because it feels like he is rolling around in the softest silk; some people have strong colour associations with different days of the week. The list of possible synaesthetic experiences is enormous, and even though researchers have extensively documented these experiences, the list is by no means complete.

Tone-colour synaesthesia is a subset of synaesthesia. Put simply, synaesthesia is a condition where an external stimulus elicits concurrent involuntary responses in two senses –the intended and an unexpected one. In the case of individuals with tone-colour synaesthesia, in addition to hearing tones like the normal population does, they perceive colours simultaneously.

The most common thing between people with AP and tone-colour synaesthesia is that they have these experiences almost instantaneously. People with AP have the name of every musical pitch pop instantly and without effort – it is not something they can turn off; similarly, people with tone-colour synaesthesia experience colour without having to think about it.

The next most common thing these people have? They are not aware that these experiences are unusual because they think everyone else sees the world the same way they do! This is where the online study comes in – I am looking at the rate of incidence in absolute pitch and tone-colour synaesthesia. You do not have to have either of these conditions to help in this study. I just need as many people as possible to take it.

The study takes approximately half an hour, and you will need headphones or speakers in order to take it. At the end we can give you a good idea of whether or not you have AP or tone colour synaesthesia.

Here is the web address:

If you have any questions, please email me at

Thank you so much!

*Disclaimer: I should emphasize that even though I use the word “condition” to describe AP and synaesthesia, neither of these conditions is detrimental to people’s daily functioning. 


Autism traits in absolute pitch musicians

Hello and a happy November to you all!

Here in the UK November marks the start of ‘Mo-vember’, a really nice charity campaign to raise money and awareness into male health, specifically prostate cancer and testicular cancer. The idea is that men, Mo Bros, can take part by growing a moustache for the month and hopefully by getting some sponsorship along the way.

Each Mo Bro must begin the 1st of Movember with a clean shaven face. For the entire month each Mo Bro must grow and groom a moustache.

Whilst I can’t take part in this excellent campaign I count myself as a Mo Sista, supporting beloved Mo Bros among my family and friends who are diving in. It is a bit of fun really but with a real great cause in mind so please spread the word if you can and help make Mo-vember a big success!

Right, on to the subject at hand; absolute pitch, musicians and autistic traits.

A new paper out recently in PLoS One (free access!) studied the prevalence of sub-clinical autistic traits in musicians who possess absolute pitch as compared to musicians who do not (like me) and nonmusicians. Why, you may ask?

Absolute pitch is the ability to name a note correctly in the absence of an external reference. Just play one note and a person with AP should be able to say whether it was an A or an F, for example. This ability is thought to exist in about 1 in every 10,000 people although the prevalence may be higher in East Asian populations.

Research has so far identified early musical training and some genetic factors as predictive of AP. Those two factors can’t be the whole story however, as there are plenty of musicians who begin their training early but who show no reliable AP ability. The present paper, by Anders Dohn and colleagues, aimed to investigate a promising factor from within individual differences.

Why chose autism traits? AP is likely to be higher in individuals who have sensory and developmental difficulties, and one such predictor is autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Previous findings had suggested that pitch information may be encoded with increased specificity in these individuals – we have the beginnings of a theoretical link here.

ASD is a neurodevelopmental disorder but there is increasing recognition that aspects of ASD can be found at sub-clinical level in the normal population. The same is true in OCD, for example.  ASD in the general population can be measured using the Autism-spectrum Quotient (AQ) questionnaire which measures social skills, communication, imagination, attention to detail and attention switching. 

The present study used the AQ to determine whether or not musicians with AP show increased levels of sub-clinical autism traits compared to non-AP musicians and nonmusicians.

Method: Questionnaires were taken by 16 APs, 18 non-AP musicians, and 16 nonmusicians, matched for age and preferred style of music, and in the case of the musicians for age of onset of musical training. The authors confirmed the presence or absence of AP using a simple pitch identification task, as is commonly used in the AP literature.

Results: In line with the hypothesis the AP musicians showed higher AQ scores compared the other two groups, who did not differ from each other. There was also a significant correlation between performance on the AP test and score on the AQ test.

The AQ is composed of many factors of course, such as social and communicative inclination and ability as well as attention to detail and more. So which of these if any was individually more predicatively powerful?

The biggest difference between AP possessors and everyone else was not attention to detail, communication or social skills but rather imagination  and attention switching; both were lower in the AP group.

This last finding was a little unexpected as previous findings have reported that AP possessors are more likely to have impairments in social behaviours (Brown et al. 2003). The authors point out that these results have not always been replicated successfully and more papers have supported a difference in areas associated with cognitive flexibility (i.e. attention switching).

Importantly all but one of the AP musicians had AQ scores that were well below the cut-off for potential diagnosis of high functioning autism, and that one individual was right on the border with no prima facie evidence to suggest the presence of the condition.

Overall, the researchers have challenged previous findings that AP musicians show lower social and communicative skills and instead suggest that a degree of cognitive inflexibility, expressed in lower imagination and attention switching ability, may be a more useful source of future investigations into the links between AP, autism traits and musicianship.

Brown WA, Cammuso K, Sachs H, Winklosky B, Mullane J, et al. (2003) Autism-related language, personality, and cognition in people with absolute pitch: results of a preliminary study. J Autism Dev Disord 33: 163–167. FIND THIS ARTICLE ONLINE