Absolute pitch judgments of familiar melodies generalize across timbre and octave

Mem Cognit. 2023 Nov;51(8):1898-1910. doi: 10.3758/s13421-023-01429-z. Epub 2023 May 10.


Most listeners can determine when a familiar recording of music has been shifted in musical key by as little as one semitone (e.g., from B to C major). These findings appear to suggest that absolute pitch memory is widespread in the general population. However, the use of familiar recordings makes it unclear whether these findings genuinely reflect absolute melody-key associations for at least two reasons. First, listeners may be able to use spectral cues from the familiar instrumentation of the recordings to determine when a familiar recording has been shifted in pitch. Second, listeners may be able to rely solely on pitch height cues (e.g., relying on a feeling that an incorrect recording sounds "too high" or "too low"). Neither of these strategies would require an understanding of pitch chroma or musical key. The present experiments thus assessed whether listeners could make accurate absolute melody-key judgments when listening to novel versions of these melodies, differing from the iconic recording in timbre (Experiment 1) or timbre and octave (Experiment 2). Listeners in both experiments were able to select the correct-key version of the familiar melody at rates that were well above chance. These results fit within a growing body of research supporting the idea that most listeners, regardless of formal musical training, have robust representations of absolute pitch - based on pitch chroma - that generalize to novel listening situations. Implications for theories of auditory pitch memory are discussed.

Keywords: Absolute pitch; Generalization; Memory; Music cognition.

MeSH terms

  • Auditory Perception*
  • Cues
  • Emotions
  • Humans
  • Judgment
  • Music*
  • Pitch Perception