Absolute and relative pitch: Global versus local processing of chords

Adv Cogn Psychol. 2014 Feb 20;10(1):15-25. doi: 10.2478/v10053-008-0152-7. eCollection 2014.


Absolute pitch (AP) is the ability to identify or produce notes without any reference note. An ongoing debate exists regarding the benefits or disadvantages of AP in processing music. One of the main issues in this context is whether the categorical perception of pitch in AP possessors may interfere in processing tasks requiring relative pitch (RP). Previous studies, focusing mainly on melodic and interval perception, have obtained inconsistent results. The aim of the present study was to examine the effect of AP and RP separately, using isolated chords. Seventy-three musicians were categorized into four groups of high and low AP and RP, and were tested on two tasks: identifying chord types (Task 1), and identifying a single note within a chord (Task 2). A main effect of RP on Task 1 and an interaction between AP and RP in reaction times were found. On Task 2 main effects of AP and RP, and an interaction were found, with highest performance in participants with both high AP and RP. Results suggest that AP and RP should be regarded as two different abilities, and that AP may slow down reaction times for tasks requiring global processing.

Keywords: absolute pitch; global processing; local processing; relative pitch.