V.com weekend vote: Do you have perfect pitch, relative pitch, or neither?

January 11, 2019, 1:10 PM · I'll confess: I cannot tell you the pitch of a beeping truck or doorbell, nor can I see a page of music and sing the precise notes that I see, unless I'm given a reference point. That's because I don't have perfect pitch!

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Perfect pitch, or absolute pitch, is the ability to accurately identify a pitch, with no reference point. Relative pitch is the ability to identify pitches, but with a reference point. Can perfect pitch and relative pitch be learned? I think so, at least to a degree. I do wonder how much having those pitches identified as a young person helps a person to have "perfect pitch." Until I was nearly nine and started learning to play the violin, I was fairly unaware of the fact that music notes even had names, much less could I name them!

It seems like it would be very useful to have perfect pitch, plus it would be fun at parties. I understand, from my friends with perfect pitch, that it gets difficult when playing with a piano or organ that is extremely flat, and it takes some adjustment to play at a different pitch, as in a Baroque orchestra. Still, all the musicians that I know with perfect pitch tend to play very well in tune in any situation, even if they are keenly aware of a discrepancy between their internal pitch and that of the ensemble.

I have found having relative pitch to be very useful in violin-playing, allowing me to play in tune, sing in tune, and transcribe music, as long as I have a reference note.

When it comes to being "tone deaf," a condition which both of my parents claim to have, I suspect this has more to do with nurture than with nature. Most people seem to be able to develop a sense of relative pitch, and some have claimed to be able to develop perfect pitch, as adults. For a very long time I thought this was an "inborn" trait, as so many people sing and play hopelessly out of tune. But one of my childhood friends, whom I'd written off as "tone deaf," went on to participate in an excellent choir program in college and suddenly was able to sing in tune, even when others were singing harmony. It really changed my thinking on the matter.

Do you have perfect pitch? If you do, does it help? What are your thoughts on perfect pitch vs. relative pitch? Do you think someone who is "tone deaf" can refine their sense of pitch to the point of having relative or even perfect pitch?

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January 11, 2019 at 07:37 PM · I have perfect pitch, and it's great. Playing from memory is extremely easy, even when the pieces are extremely long. Copying/transcribing music you've previously heard but don't have the scores to is also easy. Having special interest in baroque music was a struggle since period ensembles use various different tunings, but my ears have "adjusted" so that they can figure out which tuning is being played based on the timbre of the open strings [for example, if I hear something that has the timbre of a violin's open a-string but the pitch is a g-natural, I know that they're probably playing in a'=394 or a'=392].

January 11, 2019 at 07:54 PM · I also have perfect pitch and yes, it definitely helps when I’m playing my violin, I know immediately if I’m off tune /note. It also helps when I hear a piece of music and want to replicate it!

January 11, 2019 at 08:35 PM · When you "tune" me with a piece of music I know the key of, I can sing any pitch and any song in the correct key even hours later (just automatically without thinking about it). But if you asked me to sing you a perfect A first thing in the morning, I'd have to say no.

I said I have relative pitch.

January 11, 2019 at 09:01 PM · Right now--neither perfect nor relative. I sang in choirs, choruses, and musicals in grade school and high school and used to be able to identify pitches by imagining what it "would take" to sing it. If it was a note out of my vocal range, I would just think of the corresponding octave in my range and count up or down. I don't think my accuracy was ever greater than 1/2 step, though.

January 11, 2019 at 09:13 PM · "I have perfect pitch" -- although it's really a combination of perfect pitch and relative pitch. I can identify keys right away -- as easily as most people can tell colors apart; but I may need a few seconds to name individual tones.

I would say it definitely helps, although I haven't had to use it as a tuning device, since I've always had an A-440 tuning fork or electronic tuner available.

In my first year of high school, I heard the chorale perform the school loyalty song at an all-school assembly. The director told us that she didn't have her pitch-pipe with her to get the group started -- but also pointed to a singer in the ensemble and informed us that this singer had perfect pitch. It turned out that her pitch wasn't so perfect -- or maybe it was, and the rest of the chorale just didn't catch on. I already knew that the song was in the key of D -- I'd heard it before; but this time I heard it in E-flat. Close but not "perfect." The group did, at least, manage to hold the key of E-flat throughout.

My pitch sense isn't so absolute, though, that I can't adapt. I played several musical shows in high school, and it wasn't at all uncommon to transpose a song in the score down -- or up -- a half-step or whole-step to fit the singer's voice. You learn fast how to do this at sight, without having to write the music out again in the new key. Opera orchestras are used to this -- sometimes having to do it with little advance notice -- e.g., when a singer just doesn't feel well enough one night to hit the top G but can make it to F-sharp. So the aria in B-flat ends up performed that night in the key of A instead. I am an ear-witness to this.

I can listen to Baroque ensembles at A-415 without trouble. If the published key is A, I just think of the piece as transposed down a half-step to A-flat.

Side note: I consider relative pitch far more valuable to violin-playing than perfect pitch.

January 11, 2019 at 10:37 PM · I only have relative pitch, but thankfully it's good relative pitch. I can identify notes right away as long as I'm paying attention to the key in which I'm supposed to be playing. Having real perfect pitch sounds like it would be amazing, but what I have gets the job done.

January 11, 2019 at 10:55 PM · I can identify keys if it's string playing because you can tell E-flat from D major quite easily -- the organization of the ring tones are quite different. My family was very impressed when we were riding in the car and I said, "Oh this concerto must be in F." And it was, even with the crappy sound of our car stereo.

But I cannot do this with piano music. As an amateur I think relative pitch is more useful. It's adequate for transcribing and it doesn't drive you insane if someone decides to play Bach without calibrating their A string to a perfect 440 first. (Or should it be 441?)

January 12, 2019 at 02:16 AM · People say I have perfect pitch, but I don't know for sure.

January 12, 2019 at 04:11 AM · I have relative pitch but I don't have to be given the reference pitch. If you sing a note, I can identify it. However to do so, I have to find an A in my head and then figure out the interval from the A.

I was involved with a production of The Play of Daniel for a number of years and we tuned to A 439. Such a slight difference yet I could hear that it was under.

January 12, 2019 at 11:30 AM · I consider myself to have relative pitch, and usually can recall an "a" for tuning unless i took a significant break from violin

That said, my hearing ability is much weaker when im playing/singing, and initially when i started playing with earplugs

Three questions, how off can you be considered to have 'perfect pitch/relative pitch'?

What hertz a is your perfect pitch tuned to and is it flexible

is your pitch the 'real' pitch or the 'musical pitch' (on violin eg. The d string is flatter than a, and g flatter than d)

January 12, 2019 at 02:20 PM · Has a study ever been made to determine if any of the truly great violinists past and present DO NOT have perfect pitch?----Heifetz, Menuhin, Milstein, Oistracht , Perlman, Zuckerman, Rosand, Mutter, etc?

Matt Carone

January 12, 2019 at 03:11 PM · I have played in choirs, choruses, and as a professional sax player for over 40 years. My violin will sing with the best of them, and I am deaf in my right ear, 60 percent in my left, with a ringing that goes from a to e.

I can hear some of what I play, but I feel all of what I play. each note has a vibration, combined with rhythm you can feel when it is not right.

All those years with the saxophone made me a better fiddler, learning the feel of each note.

I would recommend everyone wearing heavy ear plugs when they play to get the full vibration of the notes they play.

And yes, even though I don't claim to have perfect pitch, I will take your money on the tone of a doorbell or ringing phone. Even the hum of your microwave.

January 12, 2019 at 03:33 PM · I only seem to have relative pitch, but it works very well for me. If I hear the initial pitch of any piece that I know, I can generally just play it. The key does not matter, except that some fingerings are harder on my hands. I like to play along with recordings that I have heard before and can join right in once I match a note.

January 12, 2019 at 05:44 PM · I used to have perfect pitch, but it's got a bit unreliable of late. It was only useful for A440, otherwise it was a bit of a pain.

Others have been able to develop two independent perfect pitches.

January 12, 2019 at 07:49 PM · In college, I conducted a controlled experiment, using a somewhat out-of-tune upright piano, to determine to what degree some of my subjects might exhibit perfect/absolute pitch. I asked for volunteers from the students inhabiting our rather small university music department, but made sure that the group included two music students purported to possess "perfect" pitch - a trombonist and a bassist/pianist, both male. Since the intent of the experiment was to measure perfect, or absolute, pitch, I confess that I had little interest in measuring or testing for "relative" pitch. (As a professional violinist for some decades, I can attest that I have, myself, a pretty good sense of relative pitch, but certainly not perfect/absolute pitch.

The other subjects - and there couldn't have been more than 6 or 7, total - represented a cross section of our small body of music students (mostly music Ed majors), both female and male. Truth be told, at that point in time I was more interested in how the two guys, alleged to exhibit perfect pitch, performed than how the others performed, so I didn't "score" their results so much as to simply note that those folks didn't get every note.

The most interesting/fascinating aspect of the results - the test consisted of me playing a series of random notes (in always the exact sequence for each subject) on the out-of-tune piano, with approximately the same time interval between tones - turned out to be the differences between the responses of the two subjects with "perfect" pitch. To wit, the string player/pianist got every note right, period, whereas the trombone player wasn't always ABSOLUTELY sure, stating that "that pitch could be either f# or g, or c-flat or b - but the piano is so out of tune that I can't decide".

In summary, I came to the conclusion that many/most of us serious musicians are possessed of a pretty good sense of relative pitch, while some (relatively few among us) are blessed (cursed?!!)

with a perfect sense of pitch, which may be "rigid" - in the case of the trombonist - or what I

would call "adjustable", as in the piano-playing bassist.

In any case, the subject of perfect vs. relative pitch is a fascinating one. My own opinion is that

a good sense of relative pitch can be fostered/nurtured, but that a sense of perfect/absolute pitch cannot be taught: you're either born with it or you're not.

January 12, 2019 at 09:51 PM · I have perfect pitch, which is more accurate when I have been playing a lot or listening a lot to music, because it's a kind of auditory memory.

It is best with the tones of a violin - takes a moment longer with a different instrument, especially if a lower register.

I find it super-helpful with teaching - I know what note my student should be playing and pick up very quickly when they are out of tune or playing the wrong note altogether.

As others have said, memorizing music just happens, and it's kind of fun in an ensemble to occasionaly pipe up with "surely that chord doesn't have a (insert note name) in it" or similar, because I can instantly name the note that sounds out of place.

January 12, 2019 at 10:09 PM · I think that among those of us who identify as having perfect pitch, there is still a range of innate abilities. Think of psychometric testing that identifies people with good memory for figures or for faces, or similar - the results will all be somewhere on a spectrum from very good to extreme savant-like abilities.

And people who are good at something, if they get the opportunities, will do that thing again and again becase it is easy and rewarding, so then they become even better at the skill.

January 13, 2019 at 03:42 AM · My violin teacher had perfect pitch. She once told me the story of how, when she was very young, sat down at the piano she was about to perform a recital with and found that it was slightly out of tune. She said that as a result, she was unable to play her prepared repertoire and instead had to run home for some music she'd be able to play with that piano as accompaniment. Not what I'd call "convenient"! But it didn't stop her from having a distinguished career as an orchestral violinist.

January 13, 2019 at 04:42 AM · It seems to me like everything except the most extreme and obvious examples of perfect pitch are more like combined abilities on a continuum. I also haven't seen a consensus on where exactly the line is between very good relative pitch and absolute. Even in my own case it's confusing -- I cannot reliably name notes in general, but I can if they're played on the violin. I can't name keys, but I can play back melodies and harmonize with little effort. I can't say what key a pop song is, but I can generally sing it back in the original key. I can tune my violin without a tuner, but it takes more concentration, rather than being automatic. I also don't completely trust myself to get it right, so I use the tuner.

I think many musicians experience pitch in a mixed way like this, but that some of them do consider themselves to have perfect pitch. I would categorize myself as having good relative pitch and pitch memory, but I'm nothing like a pitch-naming machine. If there was a "perfect relative pitch" or "imperfect pitch" category, many musicians would fit in there...

January 13, 2019 at 05:24 AM · Frankly - I don't believe in perfect pitch - try a different A and see what happens to those with "perfect pitch". If they don't have a beginning place, they can't have perfect pitch. Their "perfect pitch" is actually learned pitch with good pitch memory. And I believe that at least some notes of "relative pitch" are like "perfect pitch." I have noticed that sometimes if something is not in tune, I am very aware of it and other times the same thing does not bother me (piece specific). "Perfect pitch" as most people talk about it is phooey.

January 13, 2019 at 08:37 AM · Doesn't anyone who can sing a tune have relative pitch? We may lack the musical education to be able to name the intervals, but I suspect the vast majority of us can correctly produce the commonly occurring intervals across a wide range of pitches, as long as they form part of a tune.

January 13, 2019 at 10:40 AM · My dad, who was a concert pianist, had perfect pitch. He was also a yachtsman.

On nautical charts, foghorns on breakwaters and other fixed points such as lighthouses are indicated by the time frequency of their signal. For example, two blasts every 20 seconds. However being on a boat caught in the fog is disorienting and sounds do funny stuff.

My dad would annotate the note they would emit. If I recall correctly the L.A. Light (at the entrance to the Port of Los Angeles) was an F.

Edit: Grazie Francesca!

January 13, 2019 at 03:49 PM · I don't think I have either, but I do know when a note is out of tune and which way the note should "go" in order to be in tune. I'm told I have a good ear, but I don't know what that means other than I can play in tune and fix my playing when I get out of tune.

January 13, 2019 at 05:17 PM · Lovely story, Dimitri. I live on the San Francisco Bay and until maybe a decade ago, they had non-"on demand" foghorns all over the bay. You could stand on the Marin Headlands on the north side of the Golden Gate and be surrounded by all these foghorns at different pitches and frequencies (I just realized you meant time frequencies, not sound). I could also hear them from my house in the East Bay. Now I rarely hear them and they don't have the individuality that they used to.

January 14, 2019 at 12:40 AM · According to many people perfect pitch is supposed to be something you are born with and not something which can be learned. But logic tells me that it must have been learned somehow, for the simple reason that those pitches do not exist in nature. They are man-made.

How the perfect pitch was learned is another story. Probably very early in childhood or even before birth; like a child could be exposed to them already when the mother was pregnant, could be that the mother was playing a lot of piano. Anyway, I don't know how, but as I said above the pitches don't exist in nature.

But maybe a child can be born with a perfect sense of frequencies; then to label certain pitches as certain tone names could be built on that ability. Is it possible to learn perfect pitch later in life? Well, sometimes you hear about someone who learned it, but it doesn't seem to be a frequent matter. Most musicians probably regard it as very difficult thing to learn with no guarantee of success and would most likely prefer to spend practice time otherwise.

Anyway, to play in tune on a violin and other instruments where the pitches are not "stuck" is a matter of playing the right pitch relative to what else is going on. If the violin is tuned in perfect fifths then playing an E should ring with the E-string except when it should not, because it is a different E that relates to the G-string.

When playing a sustained major chord in an ensemble the third should be slightly lower than the third in a major chord played on a piano in order to get a well sounding sustained major chord. If you play a leading tone, like C# leading up to D you can play a slightly higher pitch than a C# on a piano.

If you are playing with a piano, like violin and piano, you might want to tune the violin to the piano which means not perfect fifths. The ringing tones on the violin, those octaves higher or lower than the open strings will still be ringing tones since the octaves are still octaves. But I think many violinists tune in perfect fifths also when playing with a piano. I have a tendency to tune in perfect fifths myself when playing with piano, but not always; it can depend a lot on what type of music you are playing.

I am playing both the violin and the piano by the way. I am thinking differently when I change instrument and I love both instruments. On the violin I both focus on intonation and tone production. On the piano the pitch is settled so it is about tone production. There is a lot you can do to the tone on a piano.

January 14, 2019 at 02:29 AM · Lars—I agree with your first point, this is the crux that really baffles me! The fact that the perfectly pitched ear is tuned to any one A over another is evidence that it’s not inborn-! Although they could also mean that the potential has to be activated by early musical training. If it is, green supposedly perfect pitch can be fashioned from it thru further training. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s true that extra sensitivity is possible if ear training begins early, I think my own experience bears this out actually.

another baffling thing to me is that people say, in defense of the PP ability, and also against perceived jealousy, is that thre ability is incredibly useful to musicians. But often when those advantages are listed, I think, can’t most serious musicians do that? Things like, hear a tune and play it back without guessing around. And EVEN if somebody couldn’t get the very first note without a hint, if they had good relative pitch they would need no more hints after the one! So what at that point is the difference?

I feel like we should do a poll like, if a D# on the A string was played, would you know it? What happens for me is, the most common fingering pops into my head. So hearing D# elicits, lol, a mental image of my disembodied third finger contacting the string, with a bit of lean for the #. I’m willing to bet this is true for a LOT of violinists. Any note with which you associate a fingering, basically.

January 14, 2019 at 10:01 AM · As a child I was continually thrown out of choirs for not being able to sing in tune. My mum, who played basic guitar chords in church and came from a musical family (I now play her grandmother's violin) and my sister had good pitch and constantly criticised my attempts to learn music.

As a teen I could hear semitones apart but couldn't tell which note was higher under a minor 3rd. I stuck worth music cause I loved it, learning flute and piano, singing in community chords (who eventually taught me to sing in tune) and taking up violin 3 times before I had good enough relative pitch for it to stick.

I still use a tuner to tune because it's hard to know which way to go when I'm almost on the note but just a fraction off. But I'll often sdjust it against own strings around me when playing with others.

So I can definitely say you can learn pitch. It's like learning to draw, which is far more about learning to see shapes and proportions than how to use your medium.

I strongly suspect that if I'd not grown up in a fundamentalist church that thought most music was satanic and didn't like anything with a strong rhythm let alone harmony, I'd have learned to hear much sooner. Certainly, I had a student with a very poor ear who learned to hear wore well after about 18 months.

As to tone deafness, I know one person who is genuinely tone deaf. He hears up and down without any form of intervals, despite trying hard to learn to sing. Sort of like seeing in 2D. You can tell things are in front of each other but have no way to judge the distance. Listening to someone sing a song he taught around a campfire is always interesting!

Having watched many teachers discouraging students who don't get pitch straight away, I think it's very important for teachers to work with students with poor relative pitch because it can almost always be learned,though it will take some students longer than others.

January 14, 2019 at 07:10 PM · If I try to sing an A I'm usually accurate within 50 cents. Last time I tuned my violin by ear to 10 cents after replacing strings.

In both cases, no exposure to an A or music for several hours before. Does that count as a rudimentary form of AP?

January 15, 2019 at 02:06 PM · Arrrgh....so much omitted from the above entries.....If pitch is absolute, playing a well-tempered piano must be a painful chore with notes squeezed flat to accommodate mean-tone-tuning....another bugaboo not mentioned is the transfer to transposing instruments.....that is, when a trumpet plays his C natural, does the perfect pitchee hear a C or B-flat...Does the alto sax player call his C an E-flat....etc ??

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