Absolute memory for pitch: A comparative replication of Levitin's 1994 study in six European labsby K. Frieler, T. Fischinger, K. Schlemmer, K. Lothwesen, K. Jakubowski, D. Mullensiefen

Musicae Scientiae


Experimental and Cognitive Psychology / Music


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Musicae Scientiae 17(3) 334 –349 © The Author(s) 2013

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DOI: 10.1177/1029864913493802 msx.sagepub.com 493802 MSX17310.1177/1029864913493802Musicae ScientiaeFrieler et al. 2013

Corresponding author:

Klaus Frieler, Department of Musicology, Hochschule für Musik Franz Liszt Weimar, Germany.

Email: klaus.frieler@hfm-weimar.de

Absolute memory for pitch: A comparative replication of Levitin’s 1994 study in six European labs

Klaus Frieler

Hochschule für Musik Franz Liszt Weimar, Germany

Timo Fischinger

Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Germany

Kathrin Schlemmer

Katholische Universität Eichstätt-Ingolstadt, Germany

Kai Lothwesen

Hochschule für Musik und Darstellende Kunst, Frankfurt/M., Germany

Kelly Jakubowski

Goldsmiths, University of London, UK

Daniel Müllensiefen

Goldsmiths, University of London, UK


In a widely cited study, Levitin (1994) suggested the existence of absolute pitch memory for music in the general population beyond the rare trait of genuine absolute pitch (AP). In his sample, a significant proportion of non-AP possessors were able to reproduce absolute pitch levels when asked to sing very familiar pop songs from memory. Forty-four percent of participants sang the correct pitch on at least one of two trials, and 12% were correct on both trials. However, until now, no replication of this study has ever been published. The current paper presents the results of a large replication endeavour across six different labs in Germany and the UK. All labs used the same methodology, carefully replicating Levitin’s original experiment. In each lab, between 40 and 50 participants were tested (N = 277). Participants were asked to sing two different pop songs of their choice. All sung productions were compared to the original songs. Twenty-five percent of the participants sang the exact pitch of at least one of the two chosen songs

Article at UNIV OF CONNECTICUT on April 11, 2015msx.sagepub.comDownloaded from

Frieler et al. 335 and 4% hit the right pitches for both songs. Our results generally confirm the findings of Levitin (1994).

However, the results differ considerably across laboratories, and the estimated overall effect using metaanalysis techniques was significantly smaller than Levitin’s original result. This illustrates the variability of empirical findings derived from small sample sizes and corroborates the need for replication and metaanalytical studies in music psychology in general.

Keywords absolute pitch, collaborative research, music listening, music memory, replication

Almost all humans have some degree of absolute pitch memory since they are able to classify a single tone as being “high” or “low” without further reference. In this sense, absolute pitch memory is a trivial fact, but the interesting questions are its resolution and precision.

Classical absolute pitch (AP) definitions typically use a one semitone resolution, i.e., if you are able to label or to produce a pitch within 1 semitone of the correct pitch you are deemed an AP possessor. Absolute pitch has been estimated to exist in less than .01% of the general population (Bachem, 1955; Profita & Bidder, 1988) and in about 15% of professional musicians (Baharloo, Johnston, Service, Gitschier, & Freimer, 1998). AP has often been regarded as an “all-or-none” phenomenon, with a bimodal distribution in the human population (Athos et al., 2007), but this might be partly due to the very restrictive definition. Furthermore, there exists some evidence that a more latent form of AP may be widespread in the population (Halpern, 1989; Levitin, 1994; Schellenberg & Trehub, 2003; Schlemmer, 2009; Smith & Schmuckler, 2008; Terhardt & Seewann, 1983; Terhardt & Ward, 1982). In most of these studies, non-AP participants successfully retrieved the absolute pitches of familiar pieces of music from memory, a phenomenon that has been termed “residual AP” (Takeuchi & Hulse, 1993) or, more recently, “implicit AP” (Deutsch, 2013). The description of implicit AP is concurrent with a trend in the literature suggesting the widespread retention of other absolute features of music, including tempo (Levitin & Cook, 1996) and timbre (Schellenberg, Iverson, & McKinnon, 1999).

In an early study on implicit AP, Terhardt and Seewann (1983) tested 135 musicians on their memory for the tonality of the major key preludes of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier.

Participants heard the opening of one of the preludes in either the original key or a transposed version and were asked to judge whether the performance was in the original key, a lower key, or a higher key than the original. Non-AP musicians performed significantly above chance on this task, even when the transposition was only by one semitone, suggesting that they were able to make inferences about the performed key of a well-known piece based on AP information.

The authors highlight the possibility for memory strategy differences between AP and non-AP possessors, speculating that “AP possessors primarily identify individual notes, while non-AP possessors unconsciously deduce from a series of notes a feeling of key” (Terhardt & Seewann, 1983, p. 63). This ability to deduce a feeling of key based on the overall pitch range of the piece, rather than labelling individual notes, has more recently been referred to as “global-relative pitch” (Creel & Tumlin, 2012).

The findings of Terhardt and Seewann (1983), which continued the work of Terhardt and

Ward (1982), were generalised to a non-musician sample by Schellenberg and Trehub (2003).

Forty-eight non-musician college students were asked to distinguish the original version of a familiar television theme song from a pitch-shifted version in a two-alternative forced choice paradigm. All pitch-shifted versions were 1 or 2 semitones above or below the original key.

Participants performed significantly above chance level in both conditions, while performing significantly better at the 2-semitone shifted than the 1-semitone shifted condition. These at UNIV OF CONNECTICUT on April 11, 2015msx.sagepub.comDownloaded from 336 Musicae Scientiae 17(3) findings provide evidence for implicit AP within a non-musician sample, while corresponding to the general AP literature in which it is noted that AP possessors make 1-semitone pitch judgement errors more commonly than larger interval errors (Miyazaki, 1988). However, the difficulty of dissociating AP from global-relative pitch cues is still present in the task used in this study.