V.com weekend vote: Is Perfect Pitch a Blessing or a Curse?

July 1, 2023, 4:19 PM · Musicians - particularly those who play un-fretted stringed instruments like the viola, viola, cello or bass - tend to develop a very good sense of pitch so that they can play in tune and harmonize with one another.

listening for notes

But not all of us have perfect (or "absolute") pitch - that is, the ability to accurately identify a pitch, with no reference point. If you can hear a doorbell and identify "That's a B flat!" then probably you have perfect pitch. If you need a reference point, then you have relative pitch.

Personally, I have relative pitch, but I've always thought it would be wonderful to have perfect pitch, especially when sight-reading music or picking out notes high in the register, to truly be able to hear right on sight. It would also be fun to be able to tell people that that annoying truck that is backing up on the street is beeping to an F sharp, etc.

However, I'm told by my colleagues with perfect pitch that it can sometimes be painful - for example, if you are listening to a choir that is singing a quarter-step under pitch, there is literal cognitive dissonance for you, with perfect pitch.

In fact, my perfect-pitch friends are so vocal with their complaints - I can't really tell if they are telling me the glass-empty stories to make me feel better, or if it's truly some kind of liability to have perfect pitch. In other words, is perfect pitch is a blessing, or a curse?

I'm curious to hear other perspectives on the matter, specifically, yours. First, do you have perfect pitch or not? And secondly, do you see perfect pitch as a blessing, or as a curse? And once you have votes, please use the comment section to share your thoughts and experiences about perfect pitch and its ups and downs.

If you have an idea for the weekend vote, please e-mail Laurie!

* * *

Enjoying Violinist.com? Click here to sign up for our free, bi-weekly email newsletter. And if you've already signed up, please invite your friends! Thank you.


July 2, 2023 at 09:07 AM · I voted "I have perfect pitch - it's a blessing", but in reality, it's both.

The positive side of perfect pitch is obvious. One can yell at one's children "C Flat!" if they play a wrong note; if one's perfect pitch extends to trams (mine doesn't) one can name the tone of their brakes squeaking.

But there is a downside as well. I cannot switch fast between A440 and A415: I need at least a week to adapt. Perfect pitch can be rigid and tyrannical, and make it impossible to sing in a choir. It took me a while to become more civilized in this respect.

July 2, 2023 at 10:35 AM · I am sorry, I don't have perfect pitch but I still don't know if it would be a curse or otherwise if I had it. I suspect there are many like me. I would say that not having it has not been a curse nor a blessing.

Once in my teenage my violin teacher asked if I had perfect pitch. I had my violin tuned a little flat (I believe less than a quarter tone) and he observed that I played consistently sharp. My teacher said that many more people than we think have what it takes to have perfect pitch but they would need to be trained (and that's not worth the effort even if perfect pitch has its uses). I never heard or read that theory from anyone else so I don't know what it is worth.

July 2, 2023 at 10:48 AM · I think perfect (or absolute) pitch would be a curse. Particularly if you play with musicians from other traditions where pitch is a relative thing, such as the Indian or the Middle Eastern ones, where you have microtones as well, and changing from one mode to another (mode = raga or maqam) may involve changing the pitch of your tonic as well. (This may well have been the way they worked in Greek and Latin music and the Mediaeval musics that followed.) I'm happy with relative pitch - it tells me when a fifth or fourth is not perfect, and goads me into getting my fingers placed right.

July 2, 2023 at 05:06 PM · I voted that I don't have perfect pitch and it's a blessing, but I don't know how I'm supposed to know if something is a blessing or a curse without direct experience.

July 2, 2023 at 06:35 PM · I voted that I don't have perfect pitch and it's a curse. But that latter opinion isn't mine directly: it's what I've heard from both of the string players I know (in person) who have perfect pitch. One of them even has some difficulty switching between A=440 and A=442.

July 2, 2023 at 07:08 PM · I have perfect pitch, although my relative pitch is dominant - I do sometimes use reference points. More on that below. I’d consider perfect pitch a blessing in my case, because mine isn’t so absolute or rigid that I would get disoriented and be unable to play if I had to tune a few Hz above or below 440 - e.g., to match a piano that’s tuned a bit high or low.

An instance of perfect pitch being a curse: During my degree program, the Piano Department chairman, who had perfect pitch, told our class of having prepared a piece that was in the key of A-flat. But the piano, it turned out, was tuned a half-step too low. So the piece sounded in the key of G. The result: “I could not play!”

I can identify individual notes, but I’m quicker to identify keys. I work out 4 days a week, typically 45-60 minutes per session. About 80% of my attention is on the muscles; but with the remaining 20%, I have fun - in more ways than one - with the music playing, ad free, in the background over satellite radio. Song after song, I mentally identify the key of the piece. I can identify A, D, G, C, E in a snap, because these are the keys I play most often on my fiddles. I’m also quick to nail F, Bb, Eb, Ab. The remaining keys - B, Db, Gb, F# - come up less often. But I can get them, too, by what I’d call “mental triangulation” on the I/IV/V chords - tonic, subdominant, dominant. If the tonic is Db, then I can nail it by hearing that the subdominant, Gb, is too high to be an F chord and too low to be a G chord. A process of elimination - that’s the best way I can describe this.

The last personal trainer I had, who was also a guitarist, knew I could identify keys. He would test me on this, right out of the blue, during training sessions: “Push, push. Both hands. Try not to bounce [on negative resistance]. What key is that?” And I would tell him right away what key it was. He told me: “You’ve got an unfair advantage.” I get that he didn’t have perfect pitch but evidently considered it a blessing.

July 2, 2023 at 07:11 PM · Of course the answer has to be "it all depends". Perfect pitch seems to manifest itself in different forms and degrees, which is maybe why we shouldn't regard it as perfect or absolute. Wouldn't "memory for pitch" be a better term?

July 2, 2023 at 11:57 PM · Don't know if I have perfect pitch, serious question, how do I find out. Is there some kind of test?

I can tell if something is sharp or flat, or if I'm in tune.or more often out of tune.

Do I understand this correctly, is perfect pitch the ability to identify sound frequencies, as opposed to actually being in tune.

I mean you could be in tune with a group of musicians who are all flat, but it sounds correct.

July 3, 2023 at 06:38 AM · I do have perfect pitch, and it is a blessing. Long before I could play any instrument I would sing songs or theme tunes - and presumably 'think' the many classical music works I had listened to always in the correct key. My parents, where nowadays a child might be stuck in front of a TV, used to put me on the floor between the speakers of our old portable stereo record player with a stack of LPs which automatically played one after the other, all classical, and apparently I would be lost to the world for as long as they played.

I started the violin aged seven - my Mum played and my Dad had had ambitions to become a professional tenor until the war had intervened. Within a couple of weeks I was split out from the group of six children to have individual lessons as I couldn't cope with notes played out of tune.

I used to drive my Mini by the note of the engine, knowing exactly what speed I was doing. I can name any note or sound instantly no thought needed at all. Even when I don't think about it the 'what key is it in ?' is always working. I think I practise in my sleep, never remember dreams but difficulties in pieces I am learning seem to miraculously improve overnight. I can now switch fairly easily between A-440 and A-415, though the first time was a mental nightmare, doubly so as I was reading alto clef on a viola. Still can't play a piano that is a semitone out, and even worse if I have to read music. A-442 I find mildly annoying though I will play in tune wth the accompaniment. I can always sing or play an exact A-440.

If I look at music it plays at pitch in my head. If I think of a symphony I know, it isn't just my part but all of the harmonies that play in my head.

I memorise music without thought, if I can play it I know it, I recall an instance at RCM where my desk partner, who had taken the music away the previous week, didn't turn up. Sitting 2nd desk 1sts, and being a rather shy person I said nothing, just did the entire three hour rehearsal from memory and the odd long distance glance over the leader's shoulder.

July 3, 2023 at 07:17 AM · @Ron - not sound frequencies (that could be a party trick for complete nerds) but the letter names. The basic test is simply "can you sing an A?" or recognize one when it's played.

July 3, 2023 at 10:02 AM · Steve, I find it interesting because the frequency of A wasn't always classed as 440, so my thinking was that singing the note of A at one point in time wouldn't actually have been classed as A with the modern concert tuning.

I personally couldn't sing an A from memory, if I heard it a minute before I could, but not every time from memory. Would be very handy for tuning up though

July 3, 2023 at 06:35 PM · I have perfect pitch and voted that it is a blessing. When having it you want to define it as: “Being able to throw an off tune instrument into a garbage can without hitting the rim of the can!”. At first I would say that perfect pitch is a curse. Imagine playing with flat off tune instruments. Not to mention that a piano is actually off tune. The lower register is sharper and the higher register is flatter. This is called “ Tempered Tuning”. In an orchestra you have to adjust notes to fit the intervals. Also if playing in unison with a louder slightly off instrument, you match it. True intonation actually sounds off tune if not matching the ensemble. But at least with perfect pitch you have a better idea where to put your fingers instead of searching. After much practice you can learn how to adjust and shift your perfect pitch around. With time and listening you can learn what instruments play certain notes sharper or flatter. For example a C# will be higher on a flute 1 octave above middle C. The 2nd violins are always on the low side. The brass and woodwinds in general depends on the temperature and humidity of the room. Listening and adjusting are the answers. Also I must point out that school oriented players and teachers use A - 440 tuning. Some groups prefer A - 442 tuning. Others tune up to A - 445 (Europe etc.)

July 4, 2023 at 05:17 PM · I voted "perfect pitch - blessing". Perhaps that's because although I can call notes against a silent background, I can switch to relative pitch when others are playing.

My first instrument, at age 8, was the cornet. My teacher told my parents that I had perfect pitch. I didn't understand what they were talking about - I was just trying to hit the notes.

After high school, I didn't touch an instrument for 25 years. My first instrument after my Great Musical Hiatus was the guitar. I found I was fitting chords to music I was hearing on the radio, so my sister cleaned up an old guitar she had lying around and gave it to me that Christmas. Once I learned the basic chords, I found I could listen to people playing, slip a capo on the appropriate fret, and play with them in tune from the first note. And yes, I can do the parlour trick of telling what pitch sounds when someone blows his nose, etc.

Fortunately, as I mentioned earlier I can switch to relative pitch when playing with others. If the others aren't tuned to A-440 I adapt - by doing a slight shift of my hand position if necessary. I am doubly blessed.

July 4, 2023 at 08:05 PM · I voted that I don't have perfect pitch but consider it a blessing. Of course, I don't really know what I'm talking about. It's just that I can't consider a gift that can be used in good ways would ever be a 'curse' even if it does have some downsides. It must make you a sensitive person more attuned to sounds and maybe therefore more capable of composing or playing music or speaking tonal languages with greater facility than us ordinary mortals.

July 5, 2023 at 09:43 PM · I couldn't vote - I used to have a very precise and reliable perfect pitch, but it is no longer reliable, and I'm not sure that my relative pitch is as good either.

Jim Hastings's experience with that piano certainly rings a bell with me - I used to have a horrible time trying to play things on pianos that were not at concert pitch - I could pobably cope with that better now. But I'm not so sure about my ability to tune my violin that well now, either.

I did write on the subject on https://www.violinist.com/blog/laurie/201711/23524/, and so did others. It might be interesting, or not, to compare what people wrote then with what they write now.

July 8, 2023 at 02:59 PM · "Once I learned the basic chords, I found I could listen to people playing, slip a capo on the appropriate fret, and play with them in tune from the first note."

Charlie - its a guitar, as long as it was tuned correctly the frets would ensure you were in tune, no?

This article has been archived and is no longer accepting comments.

Facebook YouTube Instagram Email

Violinist.com is made possible by...

Shar Music
Shar Music

Pirastro Strings
Pirastro Strings

JR Judd Violins
JR Judd Violins

Los Angeles Philharmonic
Los Angeles Philharmonic

Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra
Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra

Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases
Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases

Anne Cole Violin Maker
Anne Cole Violin Maker

Violinist.com Shopping Guide
Violinist.com Shopping Guide

Metzler Violin Shop

Southwest Strings

Bobelock Cases

Johnson String Instrument/Carriage House Violins

Jargar Strings

Bay Fine Strings Violin Shop



Los Angeles Violin Shop


String Masters

Nazareth Gevorkian Violins

Laurie's Books

Discover the best of Violinist.com in these collections of editor Laurie Niles' exclusive interviews.

Violinist.com Interviews Volume 1
Violinist.com Interviews Volume 1, with introduction by Hilary Hahn

Violinist.com Interviews Volume 2
Violinist.com Interviews Volume 2, with introduction by Rachel Barton Pine