Memory & Cognition

, Volume 17, Issue 5, pp 582-589

First online:

Multiple coding strategies in the retention of musical tones by possessors of absolute pitch

  • Robert J. ZatorreAffiliated withNeuropsychology Department, Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital
  • , Christine BeckettAffiliated withMcGill University


Eighteen musicians with absolute pitch (AP) confirmed by screening tests participated in tonal and verbal short-term-retention tasks. In the tonal task, subjects identified three successive pi-ano tones by their letter names. Recall of these note names after 18 sec of counting backwards was near perfect. Recall after an 18-sec delay filled with random piano tones was also near per-fect. In contrast, the same subjects demonstrated significant forgetting when required to retain letter trigrams while counting backwards for 18 sec. These results were essentially replicated in a second experiment using longer (27 sec) retention intervals, a more demanding verbal inter-ference task, and an active musical interference task (singing a descending scale). We interpret these results as indicating that retention of note names by possessors of AP is not limited to ver-bal encoding; rather, multiple codes (e.g., auditory, kinesthetic, and visual imagery) are proba-bly used.