The absolute ear : Asset or handicap ?

By seriniti , on 16 May 2022 - 8 minutes to read

The absolute ear is defined by the ability to immediately associate a sound with a note without any prior reference, unlike the relative ear which recognizes the note according to a referent note heard (the “A” for example). Very few individuals have an absolute ear : it is estimated that one person in 10,000 has it.

The beneficiary of an absolute ear thus possesses a sort of second language. That is to say that, in the same way that she understands (and can write) each of the words that she assimilated as a child and hears, she can naturally and immediately associate each perceived sound with a note. This is no small feat, considering that the ear can distinguish 3,000 shades of sound while the eye can only distinguish about 100 different tones.

The most beautiful example that can be cited, well known at least by the majority of music lovers and musicians, is the transcription of the “Miserere” by Allegri by Mozart.


Let’s briefly recall the story.

Gregorian Allegri, composer, priest at the Vatican, choirmaster, composes around 1638, for the pope Urban VIII a Gregorian chant which is a polyphony a cappella which gathers 9 singers, the latter singing several different melodies, without being accompanied by instruments. The whole chant, very melodious, lasts about 15 minutes. This score, kept secret and locked up in the Vatican, is played in the Sistine Chapel only two days a year during matins on Wednesday and Friday of the Holy Week and the Pope forbids any diffusion, any exit from the Vatican and any copy on pain of excommunication. In 1770, the young Mozart, 14 years old, accompanied by his father, attended this ceremony and on April 11 transcribed the piece from memory, rectifying certain details at the second ceremony without writing the embellishments and ornaments. The score escaped the Vatican and was sent to London the following year. The pope will summon the young Mozart and will congratulate him for his talent, authorizing from now on the exit of the partition of the Vatican.

Innate or acquired gift ?

It is thought that the gift of mathematics is an innate gift (genetic) as psychologists from John Hopkins University in the USA seem to have established. Can we say the same thing for this absolute ear which exists preferentially in the families of musicians, which was the case with Mozart ?

Nothing is less certain.

The absolute ear also exists in normal subjects who have never made music and who do not come from families of musicians. However Mendelssohn, in the 19th century, completed the work of the young Mozart. A musical prodigy, he came from a family of wealthy German bankers who were not musicians, but his sister Fanny was, like him, a brilliant musician and composer. Their mother, very early on, sought the best education for her children and it is likely that music was part of it. Johann Sebastian Bach, on the other hand, came from a very large family of musicians, all talented, if not famous.

The absolute ear : innate or acquired ?

What is it ?

The reality is certainly divided and it remains probable that there is, as in many similar cases (writing, painting, mathematics), a part of innate, therefore genetic, and a part of acquired. This may seem obvious, but to hope that an innate gift would be sufficient to become a recognized mathematician, a famous chess player, a talented painter, would obviously be very naive.

Man perceives sounds with a frequency ranging from 20 to 20,000 hertz (a sound with a frequency of 20 hertz, for example, is a sound that vibrates 20 times per second). This human ear remains below the animal performances. Above 20 000 hertz we speak about ultrasounds, below 20 hertz we speak about infrasounds. Our hearing acuity is excellent in an auditory spectrum oscillating between 100 and 3000 hertz which corresponds to the register of the human voice. The extremes remain less efficient. Thus, we can differentiate a sound of 256 hertz frequency from a sound of 257.5Hz. Below 64Hz our hearing acuity drops to 3 hertz and to 23Hz above 4096Hz.

In addition, as we age, our hearing perception decreases significantly for high frequencies (from 3000 Hz), this is called presbycusis which occurs around 55 years for men, later for women. Indeed, the high frequencies of hearing deteriorate very quickly for several reasons. The noisy environment in which we live is the very first cause of this early deterioration, especially since, as we have seen, the transmission of sound via the stapes on the oval window is located opposite the 4000 Hz zone on the cochlea (inner ear). This is the first frequency to be affected because of the proximity of the middle ear to the inner ear; the blows from the stapes (all the more so when there is a sound attack) damage the inner hair cells in the inner ear, which are limited in number and do not grow back once damaged.

This “integrity” of the sound spectrum in the youngest age group made it possible to propose, a few years ago, sound alarms in the very high frequencies, very unpleasant for young ears – already not perceptible for individuals of about thirty years old – to avoid groupings in public places, before they were prohibited. But an idea never remains lost, these “ultra-sounds” were taken up for the ringing of telephones of the young people of less than 25 years, elegantly baptized “teen buzz” and even “mosquitone” allowing these last ones to receive calls and texts on their mobiles that “the more than twenty years could not know” to paraphrase a famous song.

But where is the seat of the absolute ear ?

In other words, is the absolute ear different from a normal ear ?

We studied the anatomy of the ear and the propagation of the sound from the middle ear to the inner ear with transformation of the mechanical signal – via the ossicles and the oval window – into sound vibrations which are propagated in the endolymphatic liquid making the cilia of the hair cells bend; the mechanical energy being transformed into chemical energy then into nervous influx by 30 000 nerve fibres per ear towards the auditory nerve. The absolute ear does not differ in any way from the normal ear.

Many experiments have confirmed that it is in the brain that everything is played out.

And if the innate plays its role, it appears that this absolute ear is developed very early in childhood by a learning of the sounds even before the birth; the baby perceiving already the sounds in the belly of its mother but recognizing them only towards the age of 12 months. The education will then go through the learning of speech and the newborn will progressively learn to identify sounds and to vocalize them. It is certainly at this moment, before the third year of life, period when the newborn associates words and sounds, that the absolute ear can be formed which will prove to be a pure cerebral construction. We can therefore affirm, without too much risk of being mistaken, that the absolute ear is essentially acquired but the ancestry of a family of musicians certainly remains an additional asset by its genetic component which will be added to the musical environment in which the child will bathe.

What happens in the brain ?

The left cerebral hemisphere is involved in language. The right hemisphere is involved in emotion and the integration of harmonic sounds. But learning music theory and techniques is similar to language acquisition and analysis.

While in normal subjects, listening to a musical work solicits the right brain which will appreciate the melody, the absolute ear will listen with its left brain (right ear because of the crossing of the nerve fibers); the left brain analyzing relentlessly the pitches of each note. In case of tiredness or of boredom the owner of the absolute ear can “stall” and the right brain will take over. The analysis of the sounds disappears at once, the subject becoming possessor of a simple relative ear. Such a faculty, added to the preceding characteristics, is undeniably a real asset. Is it always the case?

Is the absolute ear always an asset ?

Such an ear does not always present only advantages, so much so :

• A badly tuned instrument is difficult to bear,

• A baroque tune played with the reference “A”, slightly different from the A of contemporary compositions, sounds wrong,

• Playing a transposing instrument (trumpet or horn for example) which produces a note different from the one written on the score will also prove very divisive for the wearer of the absolute ear,

• What to say finally about this aging ear and the difficulties to come the day when it will be perhaps necessary to equip it !

One sees it thus, a formidable working tool can become sometimes a very cumbersome organ of the senses.


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