Absolute Pitch Perception and the Pedagogy of Relative Pitch

Elizabeth West Marvin

While intuition suggests that aural skills pedagogy should be closely linked to findings in music-cognitive research, music theorists have only infrequently written about this relationship (Butler 1997, Butler and Lochstampfor 1993). Gary Karpinski's research is a notable exception (Karpinski 2007, 2000, 1990), as are occasional articles appearing in the Journal of Music Theory Pedagogy and elsewhere (Lake 1993, Larson 1993, Marvin 1995, Potter 1990). More recently, two experimental studies have empirically tested the effectiveness of various dictation and sight-singing strategies (Killam, Baczewski, and Hayslip 2003, Lorek and Pembrook 2002). Even so, researchers from other fields as disparate as developmental psychology, neurology, genetics, and cognitive science continue to investigate one aspect of musical cognition that both intrigues and inspires them to further research: the phenomenon of absolute pitch (AP). This essay draws upon that research to illuminate the abilities and challenges of AP musicians and to inform an effective aural skills pedagogy appropriate for both AP and non-AP listeners.