Is perfect pitch learnt or innate?

Edited: November 25, 2017, 4:58 PM · In another thread I failed to make myself clear and I'm sorry about that. My question concerns how one might demonstrate the presence of perfect pitch in an infant who is too young to name notes. It has been suggested (although I can't remember by whom) that perfect pitch isn't a faculty which is learnt from experience, but could be present from birth and is actually "unlearnt" by most of us. This is not as ridiculous as some may think. Most of us would probably agree that the absolute recognition of different colours across the light spectrum is likely to be innate so why not absolute pitch across the sound spectrum? To consistently recognize a colour or a pitch doesn't necessarily imply we must be able to put a name to it.

One way of testing this in infants might be by a form of Pavlovian conditioning. If a particular note, say A, is consistently followed by the appearance of the mother's face, the infant may soon come to anticipate the latter every time he or she hears the former, and make recognizable signs of pleasurable anticipation. If, on the other hand, a different note say D is consistently followed by no maternal face, a child who possesses perfect pitch will come to recognize D as being a "null" signal and not expect the reward of maternal contact. Widely separated notes will surely be distinguished after a sufficient number of repetitions, even by infants with non-perfect pitch, but how about small separations of a tone or less?

Replies (60)

Edited: November 25, 2017, 5:30 PM · What happened to that other thread? It completely disappeared(as well as the what violin we're playing thread, i think)? It was an interesting question until dogs were brought into it
November 25, 2017, 11:41 PM · It has been an ongoing debate, and I don't think that anyone can say for sure at this point. I can offer up my personal experience, which makes me lean a little toward the innate camp. I can basically say that for myself, I have absolutely no recollection of acquiring or practicing this skill. One day, my teacher, out of curiosity decided to test me, and much to my surprise, after around year of playing, I could accurately name the pitches she played without reference. If this was purely environmental, I feel like the process would have been more deliberate, and that more people would have it. Others I have spoken to about their experience say similar things, in that they have no idea where it came from, and cannot point to specific training episodes.
November 26, 2017, 12:47 AM · I wonder if one just has a good memory if eventually one can use the memorized reference points to identify pitches. But that is different than the people that can tell you the Hz of any sound they hear. I am the former, but not the latter. And it took several years.
Edited: November 26, 2017, 1:34 AM · Tammuz - would you prefer cats? I do think it's an interesting question and one which could be investigated experimentally, although perhaps more for zoologists than violinists.

Jason - of course, to be able to tell the frequency of a tone you first of all need to know what Hz are and how they relate to the musical scale - simple book learning. Then someone with perfect pitch who is able to identify the note names should in theory be able to cross-reference to the corresponding frequency.

Lieschen - another manifestation of this is the power some people have, not only to be able to identify a note but to produce it on demand. This seems not to require any conscious deliberation, but the note name would have to have been associated with the specific tone through musical training. I'm inclined to agree with you that the innate factor is all-important, but I suspect there are non-musicians out there with innately perfect pitch recognition who just don't know it. How could you test them? - just ask them to sing a well-known song that only exists in one recording!

November 26, 2017, 2:32 AM · Steve, even producing notes on command doesn't appear to require anymore practice. I developed the ability to produce notes on command roughly around the time I could identify them, I believe. There was still no conscious training involved. As for a test for non-musicians, that would be interesting, yet difficult to develop without using terminology learned through some training.

Perhaps one could do something such as having a person hear a note, and then ask them in 10 minutes, whether a new played note was the same or different. One could also track new students for the first couple of years and retest them at monthly intervals, perhaps to see whether some sort of flip in perception takes place, and where exactly.

Another thing I found that may point to innateness: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3364198/ This article is saying basically, that on average, those with perfect pitch posess higher levels of personality traits which are generally understood to be inborn. Of course, more research needs to be done.

Edited: November 26, 2017, 4:06 AM · I wonder if studies of this kind, looking for links between complex behavioural/psychological traits (and of course finding some; the studies that don't find links don't get published) are actually very helpful to anyone? The bare result may be valid, but the interpretation seems anything but clear-cut. The finding of differences between AP and non-AP musicians on a score supposedly measuring "imagination" isn't in fact due to a deficit in the AP group, but to "extraordinarily low" scores (actually meaning greater imagination) in the non-AP group! The link to autism is even more tenuous, since a slightly low "imagination" score is likely to occur in all sorts of subject groups and to be completely non-specific. Sometimes I'm inclined to think that less research needs to be done!
November 26, 2017, 4:14 AM · I would say definitely learned, why, because there is nothing special or innate about A440 pitch, its a completely arbitrary designation. If you were raised around A430 pitch then some people would develop(or learn) perfect A 430 pitch. Most of these people you talk about with the "gift" of perfect A440 pitch, cannot even play at other pitches, it completely throws them off, and they play terribly out of tune.
November 26, 2017, 5:05 AM · Yes, the specific association between 440Hz and the label "A" must be learned, but the label is actually irrelevant. The ability of some people to remember a note, any note, recognize its subsequent presentation and produce it on demand with less than about 5% error (often much less I think) could be in some way analogous to the innate predisposition of humans to learn a language, any language. But there doesn't seem to be any clinching evidence one way or the other. I often think I may be better off without it.
Edited: November 26, 2017, 5:53 AM · Yeah Lyndon, I think as well that you got it wrong. Perfect pitch is not knowing that A is 440. Perfect pitch means that you recognize, just like a face, all the notes. You don't have to know 440 is A, you simply recognize it. It's like knowing a person's face, you don't need to know the name of the person, but when you see the face you know exactly who that is.

What you learn is actually that, you learn that the pitch you recognize is called A.

November 26, 2017, 6:32 AM · As I said perfect pitch is a curse for early music performers. Who have to be prepared to play at different pitches.
Edited: November 26, 2017, 7:57 AM · I was sitting in the viola section of our chamber orchestra earlier this year when the oboist just behind me played his tuning A. I turned to him and said "It sounds like 441 to me." He checked his chromatic tuner and then replied - "It is, sorry about that, how can you tell?" And then I confessed that I had just tuned my viola to 440 and he was just a tad sharp. No I do not have perfect pitch - and since I have been playing the violin for 79 years, if I could learn it, I would have it. It seems to me that for musical purposes, a good sense of "relative pitch" is more useful.

I would think that people like me, who do not have "perfect pitch" are like color blind people - we can't really talk about something of which we have no experience.

I did have a dear friend, tone-master recording engineer; Stan Ricker ( http://www.rickermaster.com ) who died about a year ago was a part-time conductor and long-time bass player in our community orchestra after he left the recording industry (for health-insurance reasons). Stan had such perfect pitch that he could tell you not only the note name but also the frequency of A in the matching scale. I moved away from where we had both lived 22 years ago and the last time I saw Stan was on ABC TV news from Moscow when Leonard Slatkin had asked him to come out of retirement (from recording engineering) to supervise the recording of the St. Louis Symphony tour to Russia. A few members of the symphony were doing a bit of jazz and it was broadcast on the evening news program - they had asked Stan to pluck the bass for the "gig."

November 26, 2017, 8:35 AM · Perhaps it doesn't have to be "either/or"!
Cochlea or brain or mind?
Nature nor nurture?
10% one and 90% other?
....
Edited: November 26, 2017, 8:38 AM · Hmm - now I'm starting to have doubts. Lieschen may be able to tell us for how long can she remember a randomly presented note and reproduce it? Does she remember it by its sound (the image of which must eventually become confused with later-occurring sounds) or by giving it a label - e.g. a quarter tone above E? If the latter then after almost any lapse of time she should be able to reproduce it with less than 3% error (a semitone being 5.9% in frequency terms I think). Of course only a trained musician could do this. Has anyone actually reported and studied a case of perfect pitch in a non-musician, who would only have an image of the sound to go on?
Edited: November 26, 2017, 8:55 AM · Lyndon, I have natural perfect pitch, and I would like to note that perfect pitch is not about hearing A=440Hz, it’s about being able to immediately adapt to any surrounding harmonic landscape and being able to play or sing in tune within that landscape, no matter what Hz the A is at.

EDIT: Reread the whole thread.

Steve, I have perfect pitch, and yet the only Hz frequency of a note I know is the A. I have zero clue what Hz the other notes are, and yet I can name all the notes by their name, but certainly not recognize the Hz of a sound, though I know some people can do that.

I read in a science magazine a few years ago that there are 3 kinds of pitch: absolute, relative, and no-pitch.
Guys with absolute pitch can sing in tune, just like that, efortlessly. Those with relative pitch can reproduce with their voice or on an instrument something they have just heard, as is often the case with jazz players. No pitch guys have a very hard time singing in tune, even with help, and need a great deal of practice to be able to do what comes naturally for the absolute pitch guys.
I knew a singer, she had a great voice, she was a trained musician, but at concerts with piano accompaniment, her voice would keep going sharper and sharper until eventually she was singing completely out of tune with the piano, and yet she didn’t notice.

I still wonder though if absolute pitch can be taught to the same level that innate absolute pitch guys have naturally.

November 26, 2017, 9:18 AM · Is "perfect" pitch only useful for Western <12-tone based> music?
After all, other cultures recognize pitches existing between those 12 sounds and to an untutored westerner, sound out of tune.
November 26, 2017, 9:29 AM · There was a study on children (age 4-10) in a Japanese music school learning piano. (Google Miyazaki, "Learning absolute pitch by children"). Nearly all of them had developed absolute pitch by the age of ten, with most of the development happening in the age range 5-7.

To me it points to an innate capability of learning it, but there is a time window where the brain is receptive, just like for learning to speak.

November 26, 2017, 9:36 AM · ", it’s about being able to immediately adapt to any surrounding harmonic landscape and being able to play or sing in tune within that landscape, no matter what Hz the A is at."

Isn't that relative pitch?

Edited: November 26, 2017, 10:25 AM · Roman - you may not know the Hz of any note except A at present, but being able to identify the note names you could look them all up in a book and memorize the Hz for future reference. Nobody knows them instinctively.

The three kinds of pitch perception you list don't actually describe my kind which I think is probably the most common among musicians and non-musicians alike - not absolute for sure, but something somewhat different from relative pitch as you describe it. I agree with Tammuz, my understanding of relative pitch is the ability to create accurate harmony, simultaneous or sequential. I have seen it written that only trained musicians can do this, but most untrained people can sing a tune and get the intervals pretty accurately, even when they have no idea what they are called or what they represent in frequency ratio or percentage terms.

Edited: November 27, 2017, 2:14 AM · Tamuz, yes!

A friend noticed that the ping on my miscrowave is the same as the squeak on my front gate. He has no musical training or knowledge, but an absolute memory for pitch. I had to check, humming the squeak until I reached the kitchen. (The house was noisy!). So he hadinnate absolute pitch.

On the other hand, if all is quiet, I can summon the memory of my own violin's open A-string (which I tune often!) At one time I alternated classical A=440 with the bandoneon's 445Hz. Again, I could remember both pitches. I'm not sure I can still do it now as I no longer play tangos. So, acquired, but fragile absolute pitch?

I avoid the term Perfect Pitch, which people confuse with perfect intonation. Indeed, those with true absolute pitch don't always listen, and can be annoyingly oblivious to imperfect intonation.

November 26, 2017, 10:29 AM · Adrian - I understand your notion of acquired but fragile absolute pitch. If I decide to sing a few bars of a well-known piece like the New World Symphony I'll get it spot on a lot of the time, unless I stop to think!
Edited: November 26, 2017, 11:38 AM · Steve and tammuz, I’m talking about extreme abilities. For instance, if your accompanist goes crazy and starts the piece you have rehearsed in e Major instead of D, a guy with perfect pitch would still be able to sing or play the whole piece in E Major, even though he only sang or play d it in D Major.
That’s why I mean when I say an absolute ear makes automatic adjustment to any surrounding harmonic environment.
That’s also why certain top players can play in tune on out of tune violins, because their ears can automatically make the needed adjustments. I’m not saying these abilities cannot be trained, but for some folks they come naturally.

I’m sure there are people out there who can just hear a sound, and say what Hz it is at.

November 26, 2017, 2:43 PM · Wait, wait, wait...

"if your accompanist goes crazy and starts the piece you have rehearsed in e Major instead of D, a guy with perfect pitch would still be able to sing or play the whole piece in E Major, even though he only sang or play d it in D Major."

I think any musician can do that, unless is a terrible singer. May be I did not understand what you said, but say, I sing Jingle Bells in D major all day. If a pianist comes to my house and starts playing it in F sharp major, I can totally sing it along without going out of tune, effortlessly. Nevertheless, I don't have perfect pitch at all, you play a note and I don't know if it's G or A, or you tell me to sing A and I may be sing D.

So, unless you're not explaining it correctly, anybody can adjust its singing to a random new key effortlessly.

November 26, 2017, 3:42 PM · Tim,

Actually, in my experience, transposing is something that takes more effort for those with perfect pitch than those without, even for singing. had an aural skills professor who had us transpose our dictation and sight singing exercises on the spot, and it blew my mind how much effort it was for those with perfect pitch at first, and how effortlessly and seamlessly those without it could transpose the exercises. To me it felt like someone telling me to call blue yellow. and Of course, anyone with decent training should be able to pull transposition off.

Edited: November 26, 2017, 4:15 PM · Wait, we are talking about different things here.

What I can do (and any other random musician unless has terrible hearing and sings very bad) is exactly this: sing Jingle Bells or any other song or melody in any given key, and suddenly move the key a third minor up, for example. I'm sure any decent musician could adapt to the new key and sing along effortlessly, and specially violinists and string players, that have a more developed sense of pitch and tune. Obviously, unless we're talking about singers, we would all sing out of tune some notes, but due to our lack of singing technique (since I'm including all string players, wind, etc...), not because we're moving the key.

You're talking about sight reading, and that's another different thing. I'm not that good at sight reading and I can do the thing above explained effortlessly.

But hey, that's really interesting. So, you are saying that musicians with perfect pitch have trouble if you ask them to suddenly sing a melody sharper or flatter than the original?

November 26, 2017, 4:48 PM · Roman, I think that is relative pitch. Absolute pitch is the sonic equivalent to photographic memory.
November 27, 2017, 12:09 AM · From Wikipedia:

‘Absolute pitch (AP), widely referred to as perfect pitch, is a rare auditory phenomenon characterized by the ability of a person to identify or re-create a given musical note without the benefit of a reference tone.

Relative pitch is the ability of a person to identify or re-create a given musical note by comparing it to a reference note and identifying the interval between those two notes.

Unlike absolute pitch (sometimes called "perfect pitch"), relative pitch is quite common among musicians, especially musicians who are used to "playing by ear", and a precise relative pitch is a constant characteristic among good musicians.

We have established that Absolute Pitch has a strong genetic basis.
Study suggests adults can be trained to develop "perfect pitch" ... But being able to reliably identify or reproduce a pitch without error is rare. If you're not born with perfect pitch, prior studies suggest, your only hope of getting it is to receive musical training at a critical period in your childhood.’


Tim, musicians with perfect pitch have trouble if they start transposing the notes in their head. Unless they specifically trained in that area, it will take them some time to adjust their minds. But they can forget about the notes and just sing by ear like relative pitch guys, in which case they don’t have trouble.

Edited: November 27, 2017, 1:31 AM · Tim, maybe, maybe not in terms of the melody, and it probably depends on the person somewhat. For me, there was a bit of a learning curve learning how to transpose sung melodies on the spot, because my knee jerk reaction was to think of everything as a collection of discrete pitches, associated with various different colors. I have also experienced, on occasion, mild disgust upon hearing popular folk tunes in a different key from which I first heard them. It took time to learn how to turn off that kind of thinking, and just think about interval relationships.
Edited: November 27, 2017, 1:46 AM · These are very useful insights. My question for Roman and Lieschen is: for how long are you "accidentally" able to remember a randomly occurring tone, say of an unfamiliar doorbell, and accurately reproduce it? Does it stay in your brain as a sound image, or do you remember its note letter? In Lieschen's case, is it the associated colour you can use? I wonder how often AP is associated with this kind of synesthesia?

I'd have to say to Roman, I completely fail to see how anyone can hear middle C and identify its frequency as 261.625565 Hz (or even "about 260 Hz") without having once been told or read it from a table!

Edited: November 27, 2017, 2:11 AM · My violin A's (440 and 445, on the same violin) were pure sound images, doubtless a with slightly different timbres.

One evening, we had to run round the circular corridors of Radio France hunting for a studio with a 445Hz piano, just minutes before going on air! I could tell by playing a few chords - but I wouldn't have been able to say what notes were played without looking. Timbre memory of our pianist's home piano?

November 27, 2017, 2:07 AM · I say it depends. It’s the same with sight.
If I see a neon sign that’s a certain color, I probably won’t store it in my long-term memory because I don’t need to, so it will stay for a while in my short-term memory and I will be able to say what color the sound was, until the memory is replaced with something else.
Same with sounds. Usually I don’t listen intently to sound, so their exact height might not register in my brain, but if I remember the sound and play it back in my head, then I can name the note.

But if I hear a sound and then immediately find the corresponding note, then I might remember the sound longer, but it will be stored not as the name of a note, but as a sound+it’s corresponding note.

Actually I just realized how absolute pitch works for me. It’s just that I have a certain map of sounds in my head, and when I hear a sound, I can compare it to the scale of sounds I have in my head and determine what note the sound is.
So in a sense, absolute and relative pitch are the same, it’s just that relative pitch guys rely on external sources for note identification while absolute pitch guys can do it all in their heads.

November 27, 2017, 3:07 AM · Steve, I remember the pitches of doorbells, etc. the way I remember other features, such as the color of a particular car, or the shape of a piece of bread, and recall them with the same sort of ease. I have been able to notice that the pitches for certain appliances and ringtones are rather standardized, and notice when they have been transposed. I could say something such as, "Hmm...This restaurant must have gotten a different model of deep fryer, as it now beeps on G, and when I was here two weeks ago it was an F#", and then look over and see that there is indeed a different appliance in the kitchen. I would also notice that most fast food restaurants in said region have deep fryers beeping on F#. I can also tell when movies use inconsistent ring tones say 30 min. apart, even when they are the same exact rhythm and timbre, but just different pitches.

I don't just remember the letter name as the sound image. I hear the note in my head along with its associated color, and perhaps taste, and then retrieve the letter name. It is rarely the reverse. The process doesn't feel too different from declaring that the sky is blue. It is for the most part instantaneous, and it feels impossible to untangle any sort of mental steps behind it.

November 27, 2017, 4:28 AM · It's great to hear your two experiences so clearly articulated - similar in many ways although it sounds like Roman's recall is based on a map of pure sound while Lieschen's incorporates 3 further dimensions - verbal, colour and taste. I need hardly say this is completely strange for most of us!

My next question (if you're happy to play this game?!): is it only pitch information that you retain in this way or does your memory include rhythmic and unpitched sounds? I believe we all have a "echoic memory" that contains a detailed image of incoming sounds and decays over a period of a few seconds. My favourite illustration of this is when I'm reading the newspaper and suddenly receive a sharp blow to the head - "You haven't listened to a word I've been saying!"; "Yes I have, you said..." and I can usually repeat the last sentence that I ignored and was about to lose forever. Can Roman and Lieschen recall whole phrases of music heard only once, or sentences spoken minutes or hours ago?

November 27, 2017, 7:09 AM · Well I think that question has nothing to do with pitches anymore, and it is part of a different sphere, that of memory.
It’s like asking, can you recall the faces of people you passed by on the street, or what they were wearing, minutes or hours after seeing them?
Memory abilities vary from person to person.
I have the same thing as you described, sometimes I hear what someone says, but I don’t listen, and I can still know what they said by playing back the sound of their voice in my head.
But sometimes I am very focused on things, people say something while I’m not listening, I won’t even be able to play what they said back in my head, cause the sonic information didn’t even register.

It’s interesting, they way Lieschen perceives notes in terms of colors.

November 27, 2017, 12:00 PM · Steve,

I don't have the same sort of systematic memory for rhythm, or other dimensions of the music. I cannot spit out random metronome markings, and this type of ability seems much less common from what I understand. As far as recall, it's all about working memory capacity. I can probably keep track of about 10-12 random notes at any given time for transcription, unless I perceive a pattern, which then allowed more units of information to be stored.

November 27, 2017, 12:17 PM · That definitely seems to answer my question. Your absolute memory for pitch isn't like an extended echoic memory which might be regarded as resembling a decaying tape loop. I believe the echoic memory plays an important role in music, since musical phrases are often of the same order of a few seconds' duration. Working memory has a similar duration but is a conscious process with a finite informational capacity, while echoic memory is like an unprocessed image. I'd love to explore this with you further, but dinner calls!
November 27, 2017, 1:49 PM · No doubt the naming of the sound (e.g. the note name, my sqeaky gate etc) will help to recall it later?
Edited: November 27, 2017, 8:29 PM · Absolute pitch can somehow be classified and some variations of it are innate some can be trained.
The highest level is an adjustable perfect pitch, being able to recognize the frequency and be adaptive with different tunings. This is only possible with a innate predisposition and good training.
The second highest and most common absolute pitch level is the one that is kind of trained to an pitch like 440. Being less flexible with different tunings, some people say this is not good to have for an musician. It is an innate ability not trained to the max, or a very good trained but not overly sensitive ear.
The third highest is a absolute pitch bound to an instrument. The recognition of the notes goes in connection with the timbre or with singers over the feeling of the note. It is not a real absolute pitch, but a good trained ear. It can be more desirable than the second highest perfect pitch, since it is more like a relative hearing with a good sense for frequencies and overtones. Innate is a functioning and sensible ear, trained is everything else.

People who say that the highest kind of absolute pitch is trainable never experienced real innate absolute pitch in their life before. I used to think that it is 100% trainable but when I get my first student with absolute pitch but close to no musical training it was clear to me that it is an innate ability. It must be a totally different kind of hearing, they can learn the name of pitches in a matter of minutes and never forget them, because the knowing of the pitch was there already. Just the name was learned.

Edited: November 27, 2017, 9:56 PM · I have perfect pitch by birth. While I do not remember how I came to know A=440, A=441, A=442 or even A=444 at a young age, by observing and reading books about my 5-year-old autistic son, who also has perfect pitch, I can explain how perfect pitch people came to know the pitch of A.

First, I want to emphasize that note names are just a language representing the cognition.

And now, please read the story about my son, to proof to you that it is is innate.

As soon as my son could stand in his walker by about 12 months old, he started going to the piano and hammering all the notes at all registers. At that time, none of us were teaching him note names.

He was not talking at the time, nor would he sing or match to any note he hammered vocally.

By 2 years old, he was still not talking. And one day, I was playing with him in his room. All of a sudden, he heard the drilling sound from our upstairs neighbor. He paused for a moment and went to the piano in the living room. He stood in front of the piano, and without any hesitation, he solidly pressed down the G in the lowest register.

I was shocked! I know I have perfect pitch, while I could also match to the same sound on the piano, it would probably take me a try or two. But this kid did it so convincingly just like that.

After that, we started playing games of matching pitches: we would sing a note, and he would match the note on the piano.

THAT, is perfect pitch by birth. As soon as we found out he has perfect pitch, we started teaching him note names.

So, it is only after he learnt note names, he started having labels for the pitches/frequencies.

As for me, I grew up with A=442. When I moved to the US, everything moved down 2Hz to 440. For a long time, it really bothered me, because I had come to know A is a higher pitch than the "A" used in the US.

And after I got used to A=440, I could no longer stand any European recordings/orchestras performing at a higher pitch. A=442 and above just has too much tension to my ears.

SO, in conclusion, "perfect pitch" is innate. Note names are just labels for the learnt sound. HOWEVER, it is possible to acquire perfect pitch with practice, but I think I would call it "having a good sense of pitch", because a person with perfect pitch will hear pitches in all musical and non-musical things. This is not something a person without innate perfect pitch can learn to do easily.

November 28, 2017, 12:44 AM · That’s a fascinating story!
November 28, 2017, 1:57 AM · That is so convincing - thank you and also Simon. I just tried to spoil the discussion for myself by reading the Wikipedia article which supports the argument for an innate AP capacity and how difficult (or impossible) it is to teach AP to adults without it.

Going back to Lieschen, isn't a working memory capacity of 10-12 random notes rather impressive? I have no training in this and I don't know what the typical scores amongst various musician groups might be, but mine is surely much less. This leads me to suspect that your AP memory might be helping you in a similar way to the echoic memory, which some have suggested functions as a kind of buffer store in which the contents of working memory for auditory material is "rehearsed" (played back to oneself subvocally). I suppose the randomness must be constrained within certain limits, perhaps within an octave in which case a 12-note working memory capacity should be a big help when listening to Schoenberg! Did he himself have AP I wonder? It's surprisingly hard to discover which historical musicians possessed it, even as late as the 20th century.

November 28, 2017, 4:16 AM · Whether my perfect pitch relied on storing the pitch as a note name, I can't say, because we didn't know I had it until I had already learned the names of the notes. But there was certainly a strong association, because down the road, there were big problems with transposing written music, such as sightreading music when playing a B-flat instrument. With each note on the page, I had to go through the process of mentally adjusting the note by a whole step interval, and I basically had to do that every time until I had learned the music by ear.

Transposing without the music or the note names in front of me was no problem. I could easily play music I had heard, or learned by ear, in any key.

At one point, my perfect pitch was so accurate that they used me to tune the youth orchestra to 440, rather than the oboe. I could get it spot on, verified a number of times with a tuning fork.

Possibly, some of this could have been related to having been exposed to a lot of piano playing, even when I was in the womb. (My mother was a pianist who practiced a lot.) However, my sister, who was exposed to identical conditions did not have perfect pitch.

Edited: November 28, 2017, 4:29 AM · A question that arises to me is: Is it possible that absolute pitch and autism more than usual go hand in hand? I have heard and experienced several cases. And also I remember a music scientist saying, that absolute pitch like synesthesia is kind of a dysfunction in the brain. Having connections, where no connections "should" be.

I personally have a strong sense for tuning as well. I am very used to play 442 and can tune a violin by ear on 442 pretty much. And from that I can find other frequencies as well. But that only works with the instrument in hand. Still I instantly recognize when a recording is out of tune like 338 or too high and i have sometimes problems adjusting to a low A like 335-338, because it to me sounds already like a g-sharp. I guess it is more connected with the timbre though.
Some goes to transposing: When I transpose I don't hear the notes that I expect. So that is not a problem of absolute pitchers only! It can disturb relative hearing as well

Edited: November 28, 2017, 4:57 AM · Simon:

It is interesting you questioned whether there is a connection between autism and perfect pitch. I was not going to mention it, but sine you brought it up, I will point you to an interesting research.

There is a relatively new book available called "Perfect Pitch in the Key of Autism." The two authors are musicians, as well as research partners. One of them is on the spectrum, and she was actually taught how to read music by the other author.

In their research, they have found that around 85% of the children on the autism spectrum actually have perfect pitch. However, a lot times, it gets overlooked by parents, because parents themselves are not musically trained, and as a result, are not aware of such gift and it gets ignored. Furthermore, their research also shows that most of the time, these kids who have perfect pitch also have some kind of learning disability or dyslexia. As a result, sometimes they also have trouble learning to read music or play a musical instrument. For example, my son, while musically gifted, has an overall low muscle tone issue, and it affects both his gross and fine motor skills.

It troubled them to see these musically gifted children are not given a chance to learn to play an instrument. So the two partners work together to offer internet lessons to teach children on the spectrum how to play the piano and learn to read music by using their ears as the starting point. And the unique method which they employ apparently has helped a lot of children with dyslexia and physical challenges to play the piano with success.

And since you also talked about timbre, I will also add that while I have perfect pitch, a lot of times, I have trouble recognizing pitches sung by human voices. When in doubt, I tend to think it is just because it is a different timbre than I am used to (musical instruments), but other times I really have to admit that the singer might actually be at fault. :)

November 28, 2017, 5:10 AM · David:

You sound a lot like me.

I have a very hard time transposing by intervals. Fortunately, I learned to read all G, C, F clefs at a young age. So when I have to transpose, I just mentally replace the written clef to a clef that works with the transposition with the correct key signature.

Also, my husband is a genius, he can take anything and improvise at the piano up and down, left to right and not being in the right key. He, by the way, does not have perfect pitch, but he has an excellent ear for relative pitch.

So he will take any piece and play on the piano, but NOT in the right key, because most of the time, he doesn't remember what key it was originally written in, but he remembers the harmonic progression and the general melodic structure. When he does that, it drives me nuts! For example, he will take Beethoven's Emperor concerto and play it in any key other than the E-flat major, and it really hurts my ears. It is because I first learnt it and heard it in E-flat major, and the sound and the timbre just stick to my brain. Every time I hum it, it would be in the right key. So hearing it any other way is like noise to me.

November 28, 2017, 7:17 AM · ". I cannot spit out random metronome markings, and this type of ability seems much less common from what I understand.."

Interesting point. I'd even argue that "perfect time" is the more valuable skill.
I just think of all the conductors I've played under who could not summon the tempo before starting music. They'd give a vague motion and then take it from the musicians. Or conductors who couldn't mentally settle on a "best" tempo for their interpretation and thus each performance had a radically different tempo. One could argue that such performance practice is "spontaneous" or "exciting."
I don't agree.

The same is true for chamber groups: in a fine group, everyone has to "know" the tempo before starting. You can't just wait for the first violin to give a cue and then be dragged along.

But perfect pitch? Meh.
Classical musicians almost always collaborate. Instruments seldom have the same exact pitch, especially on a hot or cold stage. Relative pitch and the ability to triangulate between several other instruments or groups and have the group reach a pitch consensus is much more valuable.

And as I've always maintained, we find pitch on a violin (except for double stops or chords) mostly with timbre, not just pure fundamental.

November 28, 2017, 7:57 AM · With my own case as example I believe "perfect time" (or at least a pretty close approximation to it) is much more likely to be acquired through experience. That, however, fails to explain why some experienced musicians fail to acquire it!
November 28, 2017, 9:01 AM · Steve, it is indeed above average for working memory. The average person can remember 7 such units, usually tested with strings of numbers. My memory used to be a lot better, where I could remember roughly 16 digits in short term memory. Not sure what happened. Maybe its something fishy in the air. I can't find any conclusive information on Schönberg, but it is looking like he might not have.

David, mine probably did not. For me it was probably more like what was described with Y Cheng's son, but I was speaking long before I played an instrument.

Simon and Y, I do think exploring the connection is interesting. When I was younger, I actually used to have an autism diagnosis, but ended up losing the label as I got older.

Scott, I agree that being a human metronome would be a lot more useful. But in my experience, perfect pitch is more useful outside of the classical world, where people do not notate things as, or have the theory knowledge to dictate to you what they are doing. It was a godsend when I played in a rock band and the guys couldn't tell a bass clef from their elbow.

November 28, 2017, 11:34 AM · Another thing no one appears to have brought up is the increased prevalence of perfect pitch in the blind. I believe it is something on the order of 1/1500, versus 1/10,000 for the general population. I wonder how much effect the age of going blind has on the development of this skill.
Edited: November 28, 2017, 12:13 PM · It's clearly a rare phenomenon but would fit with the theory of neuronal plasticity in which areas of the brain normally associated with a sensory faculty that has become defunct can be co-opted by another sensory modality. I believe it has been demonstrated by functional imaging that visual regions can be recruited by the somatosensory (bodily sense) or auditory system in early-blind subjects. I suspect the age of the onset of blindness is critical but whether and how this can give rise to AP I can't imagine.
Edited: November 28, 2017, 2:12 PM · Y: "In their research, they have found that around 85% of the children on the autism spectrum actually have perfect pitch."
That actually doesn't surprise me at all, but it is good to have some scientific research on this topic. :)
Out of the 2 situations I had a student who had diagnosed autism plus 1 not diagnosed but some matching criteria in the character, there were 3 exceptional hearing abilities, which showed without much training. Far more "talented" then 97% of the average students! (Not scientific data)
I can imagine, that there are cases, where the parents just don't know about that connection and a musical talent stays hidden. In other cases I think, that some successful musicians have missed the diagnosis of autism in their past. Autism also to me seems to be quite an indifferent and difficult diagnosis and not an illness in the common sense. In the cases I encountered autism, it somehow grows out when the kids get older. It is great to see such talents unfold and learning to know the personas behind those specially gifted human beings, when they get older and more conscious. It fascinates me!
Maybe because I always wanted some of that special abilities for myself, but I had only a glimpse of it.

But I have to say, that it seems, that everything comes for a cost. It is still not easy to teach autistic children, they can sometimes really travel in time and space, while you are talking to them!

November 28, 2017, 4:00 PM · Lieschen — would love to see the source for your data of 1/1500 perfect pitch among the blind!

Simon — I haven't met anyone or read any literature about people in the autism spectrum "growing out of it"; I only know people who have found ways to managed to cope with their challenges in society better. But would welcome any literature that have document people "growing out of it..."!

I think this thread is still plagued by some people's confusion between perfect pitch and pitch memory.

Pitch memory, particularly on one's main instrument, comes along naturally with time, but to recognize pitch immediately without any reference is something that cannot be trained and is innate, as it was beautifully described by Y Cheng.

Edited: November 28, 2017, 8:56 PM · Dorian,

Upon closer inspection, it appears that there are some vastly differing estimates for the prevalence of perfect pitch in the blind. Yes, so many people, especially the untrained, don't know what it is. They think that is means things such as being able to memorize a piece after one listening, or never having to practice intonation.

Simon, If you "grow out of it", you probably never had it to begin with, and were misdiagnosed, as was the case with me. I have met people who truly warrant the label, and while they can work on compensatory methods, many of the traits still remain quite noticeable. It probably seems like something you can grow out of for some people, since the public perception has significantly watered down what constitutes the condition, so you are probably getting lots of incorrect diagnoses in the mix.

November 29, 2017, 1:26 AM · Given that I displayed it in my first violin lesson, there's no doubt it can be innate (unless I'd accidentally picked it up from listening to the odd piece of music before then?)

But I've also known quite a few people who after playing in orchestras every day, have come to remember the sound of A440 and other standard notes. Not sure if this is perfect pitch though.

November 29, 2017, 4:30 AM · "I only know people who have found ways to managed to cope with their challenges in society better."

That would describe it more correctly what I meant. I didn't mean they lose their autism, but it gets unnoticeable to some extend, because the persona and consciousness grows and they learn how to live with it. In small children it is more obvious, because the consciousness is not developed as well. I wouldn't call it a misdiagnosis if a autist later in life isn't noticed as one at first or second glance.

December 2, 2017, 7:08 AM · I was fascinated to read Y Cheng's story. Mine is a bit different and might muddy the waters of this discussion.

My family says that when I was a young child, I was completely "tone deaf." For instance, if we were at church and I was singing along, I would happily sing the songs completely off-key.

I later started taking violin lessons. A few years in I was learning the Bach A minor concerto. My parents bought a recording for me to listen to. After a few days, I decided it would be fun to learn the tempo/rhythm properly by playing along with the recording. You can imagine my surprise when I started playing along and every note I was playing was different from the recording--because it was a period recording and was about a half-step lower than my tuning! I had no idea of the difference until that time.

A couple years later I enrolled the school band (we had no orchestra). The conductor asked one of the students to play an A, the student played a note, I said, "That's not an A, that's a B-flat" (it was correct) and all the other students were surprised. And I had no idea that other people couldn't tell what notes were being played just by listening.

Edited: December 2, 2017, 8:40 AM · In my opinion, so-called "perfect" pitch is a misnomer. I would rather call it "rigid" or "matching" pitch and here is why:
1st: even a cursory study of tuning pitch will show that current "standard" 440Hz is arbitrary and was forced by piano and wind-instrument producers after or about WWII.
2nd: knowing the above: one can not bind A to 440Hz and claim any perfection whatsoever
3rd: derived from 1 & 2 : it may be a curse, not a blessing - I have met a few perftetti who could not play Baroque music @ 415Hz or tune to 432Hz; Some of them could not stand a piano recital if the instrumet is tuned to, say 442Hz.
December 2, 2017, 9:23 AM · "I think this thread is still plagued by some people's confusion between perfect pitch and pitch memory."

I'd say there is confusion between perfect pitch and musical talent.

December 2, 2017, 10:28 AM · I agree with Scott and Rocky. I think the name we give it leads to it being overrated. It just doesn't feel all that useful, especially in a Western classical setting. I have struggled to listen to baroque ensembles and have taken a long time to get used to them, as well as playing in different tunings. I wouldn't be really bothered by A442, and would hardly notice the difference. I have been turned off by some recordings that are at around 444 or 445. I would say that I haven't had to work any less hard on any of the skills that truly matter to musicianship.
December 2, 2017, 10:47 AM · "Absolute pitch" seems an OK term to me. "Rigid" has a negative connotation which seems just as slanted as "perfect" only in the opposite direction. The most inspiring orchestral leader (concertmaster) I ever had the privilege of turning pages for was proud of her AP and it clearly hadn't done her career any harm! In any case, the term isn't likely to change at our recommendation...
Edited: December 2, 2017, 11:20 AM · AP already clearly exists, especially in the scientific literature. Its also easy to use and understand by the relatively uneducated. Case in point: the term used in German is "absolutes Gehör", which literally translates to something like "absolute hearing", and is much less misleading. I just think it's a publicity issue, which may be solved either by a large mass of the not so famous converting slowly per the "charismatic toddler theory", or a huge name like Joshua Bell suddenly using it.

I also mainly think of the skill as a neutral thing. I don't mind having it, but I don't have excessive amounts of pride about it, nor would I give it up in a heartbeat, and only feel slightly sentimental about it.


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