Do your friends call you tone-deaf? Chances are, they're wrong. While only one in 10,000 Americans have absolute pitch, most people can remember--and produce--specific pitches in special circumstances, says Daniel J. Levitin, PhD, an associate psychology professor at Canada's McGill University.
In an experiment published in Perception and Psychophysics (Vol. 56, No. 4), Levitin asked 46 college students to select and sing a song from a list of about 100 songs popular at the time of the experiment. Forty percent of the participants hit the right starting note on their first try, and an additional 4 percent got it right on the second.
"In the general population, we found something that has the flavor of absolute pitch," Levitin says.
And while laypeople may not know that the Eagles' "Hotel California," begins with an F-sharp, they have associated the first three words of the song, "on a dark," with that note, Levitin says. This suggests that the key ingredient of absolute pitch might be the ability to label pitches with their standard musical names, as many people can remember--and produce--specific pitches, he notes.
In fact, a study published in Music Perception (Vol. 31, No. 3) found speakers of Vietnamese and Mandarin--both tone languages--produce the words in their language using the same pitch from day to day. This suggests that almost all speakers of tone languages have the ability to remember and recall specific pitches, says Diana Deutsch, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of California, San Diego.
And this widespread musical ability may in part explain music's broad appeal, notes Andrea Halpern, PhD, a psychology professor at Pennsylvania's Bucknell University, and one of the first to observe absolute pitch memory in the general population.
Musical abilities, in general, may be quite common, Halpern notes. For example, many people can't produce pitch-perfect notes, but most can recognize a sour note in a musical piece, she says.
"We all know people who can't carry a tune at all, but they show up at concerts," says Halpern. "Music appeals to just about everyone."