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The Weekend Vote weekend vote: Are some people born with better pitch than others, or is pitch something that is learned?

June 5, 2010 at 4:33 AM

Here we go, another nature or nurture question....

It's one I've pondered my whole life, though. When I was young, I puzzled over why some of my friends couldn't carry a tune, match pitches, etc. Why could I do those things and they couldn't? I figured I must have been born with a sense of pitch, while they weren't.

My views have changed quite a bit over many years of teaching. I suspect that my own pitch recognition came from early exposure to a lot of music (none of it classical, by the way!), and also an early urge to sing (which had me hiding under the bedcovers and singing all the songs from the "Sound of Music" every night before I fell asleep!)

I see that pitch recognition, the ability to match pitches and the ability to sing in tune are skills that come from a lot of listening, and they are helped by singing at an early age. Sometimes kids don't match pitches well in the beginning, but this can be because of a lack of practice, using the voice. It's also something that tends to improve over time.

This said, children are still given tests at a young age, to see their musical proclivities. Of course, stories abound, of kids who were tested at a very young age for a music program, cast aside for lack of musical talent and then later became famous musical artists!

Still, now and then I'll come across someone so talented, so young, I think they were just born "knowing."

What do you think? Are some people born with better pitch than others, or is pitch something that is learned?


From Dimitri Musafia
Posted on June 5, 2010 at 6:20 AM

My father, concert pianist Julien Musafia, has perfect pitch since he was young enough to realize it. You can play any note on any instrument, and he can say right away what note it is. As a sailor, he would annotate on nautical charts the pitch of the fog horns in his sailing grounds, so in lousy visiblity he could estimate his position more easily. The foghorn of the L.A. light was an F, if I recall correctly.

There is of course a drawback: any piece played with different pitch or intonation (think of baroque on period instruments) was torture, as was an LP played on a turntable that didn't go exactly at 33 1/3 rpm. (His turntable had a digital display for the rpms).

Worse yet, every time I tried to play something for him on the violin, it was ALWAYS "out of tune".

Cheers! Dimitri

From Royce Faina
Posted on June 5, 2010 at 1:20 PM


I have seen (and remember of) people seemingly being hardwired for pitch (whom could be called, "Naturals").  Some catch on readily and others having to really work at it.  I really hope that Sandy gives his input here.

From Marsha Weaver
Posted on June 5, 2010 at 2:25 PM

When I was a teenager, I used to babysit a younger cousin.  As I recall, Andy was less than two years old when I noticed that when I sang to him he'd match sustained notes EXACTLY!!  I figured he'd definitely go into music (with that kind of musical gift displayed so early), but was disappointed when he never showed any particular musical interest. 

From Ray Randall
Posted on June 5, 2010 at 4:45 PM

I think it's a little of both. A child might be born predispositioned to learn pitch easily, others,like me, have to learn it bit by bit.

From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on June 5, 2010 at 5:54 PM

(just my opinion)I think it can be learn to a certain extent but has to be mostly genetic... (How often do we see people with good ears in the same family... )  Kids of musicians are often good because of exposure but we must not forget all the genetic aspect too.  One would have to see if adopted kids in a musical family would do as well than the real kids of the family.  I'm not saying such a study would be ethic though... ; )  

I'm my family, I'm the only musician (amateur...) and I think I have a good ennough ear from how I did in theory lessons and the comments from my mom when I was little and the ear training teacher.  I also usually have a quite good musical memory. But how curious that my dad who knows absoluntly nothing about music always whisle and remember melodies he have heard just once...  At school, my brain also works in a similar way than my dad.  Perhaps there is something genetic there?

I agree though that it's mysterious and that no one can tell anything for sure!

Thanks for this interesting blog,



From Steve Reizes
Posted on June 5, 2010 at 9:35 PM

I think both poll options are correct - and from looking at the other comments it looks like many others also do.  My belief, with no data or research, is that we are born with a greater or lesser ability to hear and distinguish pitch differences, and that from that start we can learn do distinguish individual pitches and furhter to recognize and name them.

From Corwin Slack
Posted on June 5, 2010 at 10:49 PM

 I agree that it is both nature and nurture. 

From Dion Ackermann
Posted on June 5, 2010 at 10:34 PM

When studying jazz my music teacher use to transcribe jazz solos from the great saxophone players like Stan Getz. that he heard on the old LP's. I asked him how it is done he just shrugged his shoulders and said "oh thats easy". He also transcribed it in different keys. I think a talent like that, to recognize pitch immediately and put other peoples work that  is played at a furious pace on paper must be inborn.

The jazz world are filled with players with incredible auditory perception but they play on instruments with fixed notes. How they will fare on a violin where tiny millimeters can put you out of pitch I don't know. 

From Jim Hastings
Posted on June 5, 2010 at 11:39 PM

Based on my own experience, I add my voice to those who say it's both.

I have what we call perfect pitch; and my first violin teacher confirmed this -- although my pitch sense isn't so absolute that I can't play if my instrument's tuning is off 1-2 vibrations +/- from A-440.  And I check the strings frequently with the A-440 tuner during practice sessions.

I'd say, in my case, that it's a combination of so-called perfect pitch and a very strong sense of relative pitch.  I'm a bit quicker to identify keys than individual pitches.  I'm just as confident in telling keys apart and naming them as I am in telling colors apart.

During my freshman year of high school, the chorale presented the school loyalty song unaccompanied at a winter assembly.  The director didn't have her pitch pipe with her, and she told us that one soprano in the chorale had perfect pitch and would get the group started.  The song is in D -- I'd already heard it several times before -- and it's printed in D in the yearbook.  Well, this girl was a semitone too high.  The chorale ended up singing it in E-flat this time.

About period instruments -- I don't play on them, but I can listen to period performances that use A-415, even though I prefer A-440 and modern instruments.  At A-415, the published key of B-flat will sound like the key of A to me; so I just think of the piece as being in A.  As a listener, I can deal with it -- just don't ask me to play at the A-415 tuning; I'll leave the period performances to others.

From Lisa Van Sickle
Posted on June 6, 2010 at 1:37 AM

Here's another vote for some of both. 

A few years ago at a recital I watched a tiny kid get up to play his Twinkle variation.  Open A, no problem.  When he went to the open E, it had gone pretty flat.  He kind of wrinkled his nose, and actually compensated when he placed his first finger for the F#, hitting it in tune.  Other kids don't seem to notice something like that at all.  At that age, and just a few months into lessons, it has to be innate.

For anyone, practice and experience will help develop a sense of intonation, but it's a lot easier for some than for others.

From Yixi Zhang
Posted on June 6, 2010 at 4:26 AM

There were studies done a few years ago at Yale showing that perfect pitch is born, but since Laurie is asking about better pitch not perfect pitch and I think it is relative pitch, which is very much learnable, that really matters when it comes to violin.

From Pauline Lerner
Posted on June 6, 2010 at 7:13 AM

I agree that it's part nature and part nurture.

I've wondered whether some day I'll get a student who can not match my pitch, and I'll have to tell him to learn to play the piano or guitar with fixed places for different pitches.  So far, I've never had a student who couldn't learn to match my pitch..  Some learn it quickly and some learn it slowly, but I've never had a student who couldn't learn it at all.

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on June 6, 2010 at 12:55 PM

 I also believe it's both, based on my own experience and that of my family.  I think I was born with a relatively lousy sense of pitch.  I have many memories and experiences of not hearing things out of tune when other people did.  However, I also have seen my sense of pitch improve greatly with training and practice.  It is never going to be as good as someone with perfect pitch.  I don't know if it will ever be as good as that of someone who was born with better relative pitch, or as good as a professional violinist's.  

One aspect of this that I've become very curious about in recent years is whether different people will respond to different kinds of ear training.  I have been using an electronic tuner for about a year and a half, and I think it has made a big difference in my ability to recognize something as being out of tune and correct the problem.  The instant visual feedback, especially feedback that tells me whether I am sharp or flat, and gives me some idea of the degree of sharpness or flatness, has been eye- (and ear) opening.  

In the past, without the tuner, I could not tell what was wrong with my pitch just by listening.  It would be just a vague and frustrating sense of "that sounds bad."  I'm also finding that my ability to hear nuances of pitch when played by others has improved.  I never used to be able to tell when other people were out of tune, either, unless it was really egregious, like with kids/beginners.  

I've been playing the violin off and on over a span of 37 years, with about 22 years of active playing, and in most of those years I was actively discouraged from using a tuner or doing anything else to improve my sense of pitch other than "listening carefully."  My current teacher is the first one who not only allows a tuner but encourages its use.  I don't really understand why this is, given how poorly the "listen carefully" method seems to have worked for me, and how much better the tuner seems to be doing.

From Anne Horvath
Posted on June 6, 2010 at 1:10 PM

Ears can be developed and trained.  We all have to make the best with the hand we're dealt...


From Kylie Svenson
Posted on June 6, 2010 at 3:50 PM

When we are born, we can differentiate between any of the phonemes used in any human language in the world. By a very early age, however, the brain prunes down the number of sounds it can differentiate to those few that are applicable to the language and sounds that it is surrounded by; hence, a child surrounded by Chinese speakers will be unable to hear the 'r' sound, because, though born with ability to hear 'r', the brain has quickly discarded it as useless and appropriated that portion of the brain for other use.

Scientists studying speech impediments and learning disabilities have also found that early childhood ear infections, by limiting aural input during key developmental stages, can also affect which sounds children can later differentiate.

However, recent studies have shown that, by artificially slowing down, and then gradually speeding up the unfamiliar phonemes, people can be taught to distinguish non-native sounds. The Chinese speaker can, in fact, learn to distinguish the 'r' sound.

It should also be noted that the key to phoneme differentiation, and to neuroplasticity in general, is attention. If the child is exposed to a sound but ignores it, the brain will be as unaffected as if the child had not been exposed to the sound at all.

Could the same model be applicable to pitch differentiation? I think that children who are exposed to a lot of music at an early age, and who choose to pay attention to that music are the children who end up with good relative pitch.

And because we now know that neuroplasticity, though at a peak in early childhood and mid-adolescence, continues throughout our entire lives, it follows that we can always improve our sense of pitch by simply listening and paying attention.

From Alison Daurio
Posted on June 6, 2010 at 11:53 PM

Can't it be both? While I do believe that there are some people born with a better sense of pitch than others, I am sure one's sense of pitch is a learned skill as well. I had a terrible time with intonation, and with distinguishing pitch in general for many years, but I worked, and one day it just... clicked.

It's also important to point out that a person with very good, or even perfect, pitch is not necessarily destined to be a musician. I had a close friend for many years who had genuine perfect pitch... but the extent of his musical interest was to imitate video game tunes on a banged up old keyboard :)

From Kim Vawter
Posted on June 7, 2010 at 6:06 PM

 I think that relative pitch can be cultivated. The key ingredient is desire or passion. My art teacher used to say:  "You can teach a monkey to draw but you can't teach a monkey to care." true with learning the violin but the desire to improve is something that is intrinsic.  The desire to improve your pitch and anything else must come from a strong desire to do so.

From Kim Vawter
Posted on June 7, 2010 at 6:06 PM

 I think that relative pitch can be cultivated. The key ingredient is desire or passion. My art teacher used to say:  "You can teach a monkey to draw but you can't teach a monkey to care." true with learning the violin but the desire to improve is something that is intrinsic.  The desire to improve your pitch and anything else must come from a strong desire to do so.

From Joyce Lin
Posted on June 8, 2010 at 8:43 PM

Here is an anecdote: 15-year-old Taiwanese violinist Yu-Chien Tseng could not sing Happy Birthday like everyone else as a kindergartener - he sang in monotone - he could not tell pitch differences.  His teacher suggested to his parents to let him take music lessons to remedy that. He took up violin at 5, was invited to perform with Taipei Symphony Orchestra at 6, won 3rd place in the Junior Division of the Menuhin Competition at 11, got in Curtis at 13, and won the Sarasate Competition last year when he just turned 15...

I believe that the sense of pitch is inborn for most people, but it needs to be cultivated.

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