Absolute Pitch: Genetics


Absolute pitch (AP) is a cognitive trait characterised by the ability to identify or name the pitch of a musical note or ambient sound without the use of a reference pitch. It is rare in the general population, and relatively uncommon even in musicians. AP displays familial aggregation and has recently been shown to be strongly associated with synaesthesia. Genetic linkage analysis has identified regions on several chromosomes that contain genes involved in both AP and synaesthesia.

Key Concepts:

  • Absolute pitch is an example of a discrete and easily measurable cognitive trait that has a strong genetic component.

  • Absolute pitch ability is not restricted to musicians.

  • Absolute pitch is associated with other distinctive cognitive traits such as synaesthesia.

  • The genes for absolute pitch are likely to be involved in brain development and cortical connectivity.

  • The elucidation of the genetic basis for absolute pitch will provide insight into general aspects of brain development and biology.

Keywords: music; perception; absolute pitch; synaesthesia; autism


Asher JE, Lamb JA, Brocklebank D et al. (2009) A whole‐genome scan and fine‐mapping linkage study of auditory‐visual synesthesia reveals evidence of linkage to chromosomes 2q24, 5q33, 6p12, and 12p12. American Journal of Human Genetics 84(2): 279–285.

Baharloo S, Johnston PA, Service SK, Gitschier J and Freimer NB (1998) Absolute pitch: an approach for identification of genetic and nongenetic components. American Journal of Human Genetics 62(2): 224–231.

Baharloo S, Service SK, Risch N, Gitschier J and Freimer NB (2000) Familial aggregation of absolute pitch. American Journal of Human Genetics 67(3): 755–758.

DePape AM, Hall GB, Tillmann B and Trainor LJ (2012) Auditory processing in high‐functioning adolescents with autism spectrum disorder. PLoS One 7(9): e44084.

Dohn A, Garza‐Villarreal EA, Heaton P and Vuust P (2012) Do musicians with perfect pitch have more autism traits than musicians without perfect pitch? An empirical study. PLoS One 7(5): e37961.

Gregersen PK (1998) Instant recognition: the genetics of pitch perception. American Journal of Human Genetics 62(2): 221–223.

Gregersen PK, Kowalsky E, Kohn N and Marvin EW (1999) Absolute pitch: prevalence, ethnic variation, and estimation of the genetic component. American Journal of Human Genetics 65(3): 911–913.

Gregersen PK, Kowalsky E, Kohn N and Marvin EW (2001) Early childhood music education and predisposition to absolute pitch: teasing apart genes and environment. American Journal of Medical Genetics 98(3): 280–282.

Gregersen PK, Kowalsky E, Lee A et al. (2013) Absolute pitch exhibits phenotypic and genetic overlap with synesthesia. Human Molecular Genetics 22(10): 2097–2104.

Loui P, Li HC, Hohmann A and Schlaug G (2011) Enhanced cortical connectivity in absolute pitch musicians: a model for local hyperconnectivity. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 23(4): 1015–1026.

Loui P, Zamm A and Schlaug G (2012) Enhanced functional networks in absolute pitch. Neuroimage 63(2): 632–640.

Miyazaki K (1988) Musical pitch identification by absolute pitch possessors. Perception and Psychophysics 44(6): 501–512.

Profita J and Bidder TG (1988) Perfect pitch. American Journal of Medical Genetics 29(4): 763–771.

Rasch RA and Plomp R (1982) The perception of musical tones. In: Deutsch D (ed.) The Psychology of Music, p. 1–24. New York: Academic Press.

Risset JC and Wessel DL (1982) Exploration of timbre by analysis and synthesis. In: Deutsch D (ed.) The Psychology of Music. p. 26–58. New York: Academic Press.

Ross DA and Marks LE (2009) Absolute pitch in children prior to the beginning of musical training. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1169: 199–204.

Ross DA, Olson IR, Marks LE and Gore JC (2004) A nonmusical paradigm for identifying absolute pitch possessors. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America 116(3): 1793–1799.

Theusch E, Basu A and Gitschier J (2009) Genome‐wide study of families with absolute pitch reveals linkage to 8q24.21 and locus heterogeneity. American Journal of Human Genetics 85(1): 112–119.

Theusch E and Gitschier J (2011) Absolute pitch twin study and segregation analysis. Twin Research and Human Genetics 14(2): 173–178.

Ward J (2013). Synesthesia. Annual Review of Psychology 64: 49–75.

Ward WD and Burns EM (1982) Absolute pitch. In Deutsch D (ed.) The Psychology of Music, p. 431–451. New York: Academic Press.

Zatorre RJ, Perry DW, Beckett CA, Westbury CF and Evans AC (1998) Functional anatomy of musical processing in listeners with absolute pitch and relative pitch. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA 95(6): 3172–3177.

Further Reading

Brang D and Ramachandran VS (2011) Survival of the Synesthesia gene: why do people hear colors and taste words? PLoS Biology 9(11): e1001205.

Loui P, Zamm A and Schlaug G (2012) Absolute pitch and synesthesia: two sides of the same coin? Shared and distinct neural substrates of music listening. International Conference of Music Perception and Cognition 618–623.

Contact Editor close
Submit a note to the editor about this article by filling in the form below.

* Required Field

How to Cite close
Gregersen, Peter K(Oct 2013) Absolute Pitch: Genetics. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. http://www.els.net [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0005991.pub2]