Why can we identify colours but not notes?

Why can we identify colours but not notes?


norman lebrecht

September 04, 2021

A study at the University of Chicago attempts to understand the basis of perfect pitch.

oth light and sound travel as waves, with characteristics that allow people with typical vision and hearing to perceive and categorize them when they reach their eyes and ears: “That’s a small red dog barking,” someone might say.

But while people can easily name most colors in different groups—distinguishing the specific frequencies and wavelengths of light—few can do the same for musical notes, which represent sounds with distinct, unchanging pitches. Hearing a musical note and naming it is beyond the listening expertise of most people.

In fact, this ability is rare enough that society celebrates people who can label musical notes heard spontaneously: They are said to have “perfect pitch,” or “absolute pitch” as scientists who study the science of auditory perception call the ability. More common among musicians is “relative pitch,” the ability to name musical notes in relation to one another on a scale (“do, re, mi”) but not without a reference note.

For psychologists and neuroscientists at the University of Chicago who have studied perfect pitch for years, this raised an interesting question about the relationship between sensory processing and cognition: What makes some musicians so good at identifying musical sounds? Is it the way their brains process sounds, their musical training, or both?…

Read on here.



  • debuschubertussy says:

    I have perfect pitch, but never thought of it as anything special until I was told in college that it was. I just figured that hearing a pitch and identifying it was the same as hearing any sound like a car horn or a baby crying and identifying what it was, and I thought anyone could do it. It would be seem so strange to me, to hear a pitch and not know what it was.

  • Nijinsky says:

    To begin with, people who don’t see color, can’t make color schemes, can’t decide which colors go with which colors, can’t decide whether they want to wear blue shoes or another color to go with their green whatever. And yet anyone that hears pitches (whether they have perfect pitch of not) can decide whether they like different sounds that go together. You also can’t make colors directly out of your vocal chords, neither do your colors change with your environment like a chameleon. And yet that happens with our voice. There are so many variable that are over looked here. And just because a person can identify a set array of pitches within the well tempered system, doesn’t mean at all that they can identify pitch. This means they can identify a certain matrix taken on since man needed 12 keys on a keyboard instrument, and the compromised “tuning” standard which means EVERYTHING but the octaves are out of tune is what they “identify” and think is what pitch is. That ISN’T what pitch is. neither is it “perfect.” That would be a bit like saying the color blue is something originating in the Television rather than a robin’s egg or the sky.

    I also might add that since the advent of the well tempered system (and it’s “perfect” pitch), there don’t seem to be those able to hear the way the plates of a violin resonate with each other, and the violins that do have that ability, were put together before the well tempered system became the basis, and might point out that BEFORE “perfect” pitch regarding such a system people were better able to hear more sensitive relationships with vibrations, rather than we have these 12 fixed pitches, allowing a keyboard player to zip between all twelves major and minor keys, all a bit out of tune, but akin to being able to go to the store and just wipe stuff off of the shelves, regardless how it was produced. And music has become a stimulant, and……

    And I’m not even going to begin about Western harmony, the strange phenomenon of the raised fourth (something that’s needed in any composition to establish a major key, it being part of the secondary dominant), and how those who didn’t have such high learning, and probably were slaves who weren’t supposed to be playing on the instruments that helped them find a resonance that’s more scientific with the overtone series than Western “civilized” harmony, and how that became part of the basic chord structure in “Jazz.” With all of this scurrying around between different “keys,” and then even the “democracy” of serial music, and both sides fighting about it….. which is best at being “well tempered.”

    But DO put electrodes on people and measure what goes on, like some overly well known violinist’s father did to certain body parts.

  • sam says:

    How “absolute” is this “absolute” pitch?

    We begin with the problematic that a musical pitch is itself not “absolute”: a baroque A is 415 hz, while the modern concert A is 440 hz, so if in isolation, 440hz is coming at your ear, the pitch is either an A (for a modern orchestra), or A# (for a baroque orchestra).

    Let us assume that a trained musician will specify that. “Oh, it’s either an A or A# depending on your tuning system”.

    Now, what if the wave coming at your ear were 441hz or 439hz? What do those with absolute pitch identify? Can they identify the precise numerical frequency? Do they just say “it’s a modern A”? Do they say something more, “it’s a modern A but sharp or flat”?

    • Peter San Diego says:

      My understanding is that there are indeed people who can discriminate between different frequencies, so that one orchestra’s A (say, Vienna at 447, IIRC, or the 415 A of some — but, according to the latest research, not all baroque orchestras) sounds excruciating if they’ve been trained at A = 440.

    • John Borstlap says:

      I have absolutely no pitch whatsoever & I m still happy.

      When I listen to my beloved CD collection of Boulez, I hear he hadn’t any pitch as well, which gives me great validation. And the reassuring music of Xenakis hasn’t pitch as well, it’s great! Pitch has been greatly overestimated.


  • Sixtus Beckmesser says:

    The study suggests that absolute pitch may be acquired later in life. My experience doesn’t bear this out. I’ve known many professional musicians who have attempted to develop it as adults but none have ever succeeded. It really seems that if you don’t have absolute pitch as a child, you’ve missed your window of opportunity.

    That said, I’ve found that the most sensitive musicians have highly-developed relative pitch and are acutely aware of how tones function within the tonal system rather than simply being able to identify them.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Of course. It is not helpful at all to have ‘absolute pitch’ in performance, since pitch is constantly adjusted with strings and winds. And with keyboards it is useless anyway.

  • David K. Nelson says:

    Interesting article. But I’d say that what someone with perfect or relative pitch can do is not really comparable to the ability of any person (presumably without color blindness) to correctly identify blue when they see it.

    Very few people, perhaps nobody, can actually correctly state where on the pantone color spectrum chart a given blue is located. That talent, if it even exists, would to my mind be more comparable with what perfect pitch is. Stated another way if A=440 is blue, then G, G#, A flat, A#, B flat and B are likely all “blue” as well. The gradations in the blue are in the color wheel spectrum.

    My late violin teacher had a form of perfect pitch, and since his piano talents were confined to the mandatory semester or whatever at Indiana University decades earlier, it was not based on “piano memory.” He’d name the note, or the key I was playing in, if I happened to noodle out a song on the fiddle such as Take Me Out to the Ballgame if I caught him listening to a St Louis Cardinals game when I arrived for my lessons, or if we quickly improvised a version of Happy Birthday for a teaching colleague in a nearby studio. He also could immediately mention if my informal noodling was in harmonic minor or melodic minor.

    He’d also identify the note if there was a car horn outside, or electric tool, someone’s cell phone ring, or a vocalist warming up in the studio next door, so his ability was not tied to instrumental sounds.

    Oddly enough he retained this talent at naming the key even when his own violin playing started to suffer in intonation to, I suspect, to some mild hearing loss. (He took to screaming and swearing at my mistakes louder and louder, even as he himself played sharper and sharper. Now and then he would embarrass himself when he’d scream at me “Dave, that’s not C# G*d damn it! THIS is C#” and he’d bang on the piano key on the studio piano, only to have it agree exactly with what I just played. Rather than admit error he’d usually then attack my bow grip or claim the bow hair was too close to the bridge, correctly so perhaps. He definitely was a teacher of the scream and swear persuasion; I studied with him for 38 years.)

    One consequence of his form of perfect or relative pitch, however, was that he found period instrument recordings of pieces he was familiar with to be intolerable because they were wrong. Thus I could not induce him to give a full listen to Rachel Podger’s Bach even though I thought he’d find it interesting (and well played). If the piece was not particularly familiar to him then he’d happily listen to a period instrument recording at period pitch, although he was still troubled by knowing what key it was stated to be in versus what he was hearing.

    I do not have anything like perfect pitch, but if I hear a bird song I can usually replicate it on violin, and sometimes even on piano, without too much fumbling. But I doubt if I could NAME the notes I heard. It is more a tactile than an auditory memory,

  • Fred Funk says:

    Q. What’s the difference between a Viola section, and a Harley-Davidson?

    A. You can tune the Harley.

  • justsaying says:

    This study describes a new way of measuring the phenomenon – “frequency following response” as revealed by electrodes on the noggin – but really adds nothing to the age-old discussion, because the modes of acquiring high-level “FFR” are not addressed. It could be the same old thing most musicians assume and most studies find: that intense concentration on music in early youth tends to be associated with high levels of pitch-recognition ability. It could be “practice,” plain and simple. Or it could reflect a genetic predisposition. Or some of each. As we already knew.

  • Nijinsky says:

    Sorry, but to me this is a bit too much like monitoring whether someone’s brain activity to differentiate between colors is going on when looking at a painting, and then leave out whether they have any understanding of what the painting is about. Or in general anything involving colors, such as daily life.

    If music were just about notes, then a computer could generate music that had expression.

  • fflambeau says:

    I disagree with the findings and note the reasoning nebulous and term laden at best. I base my reasons on personal observation and determined that it is something you either have or don’t have. It is a gift just as is a high IQ.

    • John Borstlap says:

      When forced by my wife to have my IQ measured, the apparatus exploded, but when my pitch was tested it was so relative that both family and staff rejoiced.

  • justsaying says:

    Lots of confusion here
    a) about the term “relative pitch,” which simply means “knowing your intervals,” and is a skill acquired by everyone who learns proper solfège (i.e. if you haven’t acquired it, you can’t do sight-singing).
    b) about the different diapasons used throughout Western history, which really have nothing to do with this. _Of course_ people with “absolute” pitch are naming or singing pitches according to the tuning with which they are familiar; what else would they do? This is simple habituation. And yes, if you play them a note that is equidistant between the A they know and the B-flat they know, they will say it’s in the cracks. Anybody who works with period-instrument players (professional-grade orchestral players have absolute pitch more often than not, especially string players) knows that they develop the flexibility to “re-tune” their ears and name pitches in more than one context, as long as they know what context is intended.

  • Roman says:

    On the piano there are 88 notes. Most people can at least distinguish them without naming, you don’t have to have a perfect pitch for that.

    When I googled “88 colours”, I quickly realised that I cannot really even distinguish many of the colours. Especially if I look at two colours, call them A and B, close my eyes and then see only one of those again, I don’t know if it is A or B. With notes it wouldn’t be a challenge even for someone without basic education in music.

  • colour says:

    I don’t think there’s anyone who could identify absolute shades of colours, eg consistently recognise a blue always made from say 77.5% cyan, 0% magenta, 6.1% yellow and 16.5% black, in CMYK ‘notation’, as being that specific blue.

    Incidentally our recognition of colour comes from evolutionary advantage, eg we are much better at distinguishing different shades of green (to differentiate between plants) than any other colour.

  • piano lover says:

    When I was at music basic school,we had some DICTÉE MUSICALE which means the teacher played some notes at the piano and we were to write down what the names of the notes were.This was a good exercice to have some ..pitch or note-memory as I would rather call it.Now with the LPs turning next to the piano,I noticed that the note was some quarter tone higher than what was played on the piano,with the score.This because the LP was spinning slightly faster thant it should(or am I wrong?)Therefore it came to my mind that pitch was in your memory but could be different from one instrument.When the LP was played at 45RPM…pitch was a fourth(or slightly ) higher.45/33 is about 44/33 which is 4/3….Hence the fourth.
    Now with the modern electronic pianos frequency can be adjusted.I set mine to A=432 instead of 440 since the baroque,then the Mozart period started increasing the requency until it was standardized to what it is nowadays:440.
    TO my opinion pitch is a matter of memory but pianists have such a good memory,why don’t some have this gift?
    Richter said his ear heard notes higher than they were which is why he played from score.One day he started playing the Debussy “Bruyeres” a semi tone lower than written…until he stopped and played it as written.May be this was a sign of what was troubling him.