What Exactly is

October 30, 2008 at 05:33 AM · Often we hear the term “perfect pitch”(not to be confused with intonation) My students ask me often as to what it is. I can only give a theory but not an answer, as I believe it is a process of the brain that I cannot explain. We are amazed at someone who can name the note played on a piano. Would it really be more realistic to consider the talent not as a phenomenon of nature, but simply a keen understand of intervals? I am perplexed, for the fact that today’s standard of A’=440 MHz was not always the standard. It is only a reference point, and was instituted for logical reasons. What if on played an A’ on an early piano-forte, such as Mozart or even Beethoven would have known, that was tuned A’=415 MHz or slightly higher or lower, respectively, but not A’=440? Would that mean that someone who possesses perfect pitch would name the A’ as G#’? How could this happen, unless they have an established and recognized reference point within the brain?

Replies (23)

October 30, 2008 at 06:32 AM · You're right that an infant doesn't come out yelling A sharp! A sharp! when mommy shakes a rattle. However, some infants are born with a gift for memory. Some people are born with a photographic memory. Some people, if you tell them a date, can tell you the day of the week and insane details of the day. It's just a gift of memory retention. Some other children are born with the ability to recognize harmonic frequencies.

Perfect pitch is the ability of a human brain to recognize a sound. Sadly, most humans couldn't tell you if a note was spot on or if it was off. If 440hz is good, 415hz is good, then 425 is not, but most people wouldn't notice. Some of us cringe. Some people are so good they can hear 440 from anything and say "A".

As well, the gifts people have are different. If asked to sing any note, I can pluck it out of the air without a piano or reference at all. However, I've never been as good at telling you what note it is when someone else plays it. Is my pitch perfect? I don't care. I do care that I never go out of tune when I'm singing and that I had an entire soprano section insist I stand in the back middle so that they could reference to me.

It all has to do with the way our brains process the information our ears give us. Everyone is different, just that some of us are better at recognizing sound waves than others.

October 30, 2008 at 06:55 AM · The way I heard it wa perfect pitch is the ability to recognize a note; relative pitch is the ability to differentiate the range between notes. Someone can have relative pitch, and once they get in tune can get the rest of them. If they had perfect pitch, they start out in tune. and keep it.

... then there are people like me, with perfect dissonance... I can make anything sound like fingers on a chalkboard.

October 30, 2008 at 08:33 AM · I once heard a tram squeaking through its rails, and someone said: "C sharp".

As evidence that learning must be involved I can cite my own case: I can recognize pitch on the instruments that were in our household when I was young. Piano, violin and oboe, that is. But I'm nowhere with a flute or a clarinet.

October 30, 2008 at 09:44 AM · Erase the idea of perfect pitch from your mind. A better definition for this ability would be "pitch memory", or the ability to remember what a pitch sounds like. This can be as simple as remembering exactly what your alarm clock sounds like, or your microwave hum. For instance, when I think about the kitchen where I work, I remember the hum of the overhead fan exactly on pitch.

The ability to cite pitch names come from familiarity with music and instruments. One may be more able to recognise a pitch on an instrument they are most comfortable with. For instance, I first could recognise a C major scale on the piano, since it's one of the first things I learned. 440 A came next, since this is what I heard every day when we tuned for orchestra in 7th grade. You leave class, and the note gets stuck in your head and won't go away. The more I've worked with music, the more familiar I've become with different notes and what they sound like. If I want to remember F right away, I think of an F major piece, like a Haydn sonata. If I want to thing of B, I picture the guitar string. (For some reason, guitar B's get stuck in my head, probably because so many people tune them wrong.) I can also think of Bach's B minor sonata, since that's what I'm working on right now. I can hear every note of that piece in my head as I type these lines.

I can hear also note names in my head more quickly for instance, if I imagine playing them on the piano or violin. I pretend I'm playing, and the sounds come to mind. My pitch memory is linked to my tactile memory, I think.

Some people are born with an ability to instantly remember all of the pitches, and once they know the names, they have them all cataloged in their heads like a second language. I've never been one of those people, but I've grown more skilled with pitch memory the more I've worked with music. My pitch memory has always been linked to context, though.

So, looking at it that way, pitch can be relative and you can still remember what it sounds like. You don't need to get into the specific Hz to be able to hum your refrigerator on pitch. Assigning it a pitch name, such as B flat, requires some reference point, though.

October 30, 2008 at 11:14 AM · I once had a conversation with a mother of a high school viola player at a recital. I tried to encourage her to make sure that he continued his viola studies in college reguardless of major. His mothers response was, "Of course, he's talented; I have perfect pitch."

Ok, I thought to myself: He doesn't have dead on pitch, but better than average. Then I thought, what does that mean?

My question is: If one has perfect pitch (the ability of recognizing pitches and note names) does that mean that they also can find the pitch accurately (dead on) every time on the violin.

To hear it is one thing.. to produce it is another.. just curious.

October 30, 2008 at 11:42 AM · Interesting, Bart is so right that for the normal people, ear training is so efficient. At univesity level they play more than one note at the time on a piano and sometimes even atonical things and the student who is not looking can tell what it is. My sister and mom who don't know anything in music once wanted to make me a joke because they didn't think my ear training was serious or that it could really make a difference so they played what ever the pressed on the piano while I was not looking and I only had one bad note. My mom said wow, how great it is to have natural ear... I really explained her that I had no talent AT ALL but that it was simply hard work and that you can organize "sounds" in your memory the same way you would organize any other information and after they understand that ear training wasn't just doing tap tap and signing C D E ! However, children like Mozart could hear a concerto and memorize it the first time and that is really extraordinairy. How cool!

Interesting discussion!

October 30, 2008 at 06:05 PM · "... then there are people like me, with perfect dissonance... I can make anything sound like fingers on a chalkboard. "

That reminds me of my ex. He couldn't carry a tune in a bucket if you carefully filled it for him. No amount of ear training or music lessons his parents forced on him could ever change that.

October 30, 2008 at 07:55 PM · See my response to your blog entry on this subject.

October 30, 2008 at 08:25 PM · I'm supposed to have perfect pitch...how annoying.

I agree with the posts up there. Read them instead.

October 30, 2008 at 09:32 PM · Perfect pitch is as others have mentioned an issue of memory in large measure, and experience.

Some of us must hear a note such as middle C and decode a note by using comparison.

A good analogy would be matching colors. When we identify blue, we don't often need to see red to know that the color is blue. Yes but then you ask, "What specific blue?" Those with less experience must hear a starting note to identify a particular pitch. Imagine if you needed to reference yellow to name the color green.

The reason I draw the comparison is because I have exceptional color determination. I use to earn money in college by matching very specific color swatches on printing jobs in NY for advertisers. So I think the practice of listening to notes that are in tune helps certain individuals develop the ability to identify that note specifically. With practice and consistent references to say A you leanr to identify the note. My son has pretty near perfect pitch and he said it is rather distracting and you need to ignore it sometimes. For example, he can tell by the key I am speaking in what my mood is. He has to adjust if the piano is a tad out of tune. etc. It is a useful tool in composing however as he can name the notes as he sings them and writes them down and he is always correct. The difficult part is adjusting to those who are always out of tune in his orchestra etc. But, his good intonation helps those around him play in tune better. So based upon the original post, he has to establish a new A if the piano A for example is a half step sharp. He goes through a transposition of the whole piece in his mind and then plays it in tune 1/2 step down for the whole piece to match the piano. He is very good at this. Some people find this very difficult, but he has had some practice and does a pretty good job with one or two run throughs. When I was little I often played a piano that was slightly out of tune. It cost a lot to tune a piano so my parents let it get pretty bad. In contrast I tuned my childrens' violins etc. very precisely since they started and they have exceptional intonation due, I think, to this more disciplined approach to having what they read match what they played and heard. It has taken years for me to "fix" my intonation due to my early experience with an out of tune instrument but it can happen.

October 31, 2008 at 02:39 AM · I have so-called absolute pitch. There was a time when I did not. I developed it because I wanted to, plain and simple.

I think it's kind of funny that people are still so impressed by it now that it has been proven that individuals with little or no musical training can do it, if they aren't worried about jargon (in This Is Your Brain On Music, a book I highly recommend, the neuroscientist Daniel Levitin talks about study participants referring to notes as 'Fred' and 'Ethel').

October 31, 2008 at 03:09 AM · NPR has this wonderful show called Radiolab.

they did a show on "Musical Language" in 2006... it discussed perfect pitch and its higher degree of prominence in cultures which have tone languages. (Among other super interesting stuff)

check it out!

Radiolab - Musical Language

October 31, 2008 at 05:02 AM · Greetings,

I second the Levitin book. Not only a neuro scientist but a very experienced msucian,



October 31, 2008 at 05:26 AM · What I have never understood - and probably never will - is the hype that perfect pitch has attained, especially in non-musicians. I can't list the number of times in my life I've been asked by friends, coworkers, relatives... "So, do you have perfect pitch?" as if it is some prerequisite for being a musician.

Certainly, for the violin, I don't think it helps a hell of a lot. Knowing the note is sour doesn't place your finger. Perfect pitch doesn't fix your posture or perfect your bow stroke. As well, if you hit the note right on, the violin resonates and even someone without perfect pitch recognition can recognize that.

I just don't know what the big deal is, ya know?

October 31, 2008 at 05:39 AM · It's not a big deal. It just means you're smarter than everyone else, that's all.

I'm kidding.

November 1, 2008 at 01:25 AM · Many thanks to everybody for this very useful information. Now I can be more concise in how to answer my student's questions on the subject in the future. I posted this as a blog because I thought when I posted it in the discussion board that it did not go through for some Internet technical difficulty reasons. Special thanks to Tom Holzman for his information on the previous post concerning baroque pitch practice.

November 1, 2008 at 04:12 AM · "Perfect pitch" (notice the quotation marks) is not necessarily a desirable thing. About 20 years ago I worked with a jazz trumpeter who came as close as anyone I have ever met. He found it to be very irritating. He would tune the touch tone phones of the day. If a piano was slightly out of tune, he had a great deal of difficulty staying in the room. He wouldn't go to most musical venues because he found the room distortion irritating. He said he had this "talent" (or affliction) for as long as he could remember and he had started playing with his father's band when he was 7 yrs old.

November 1, 2008 at 02:59 PM · You are correct Jodi, it is a separate thing from muscle coordination. People tend to forget especially that the voice is controlled by muscles which, if not exercised, may not reproduce the pitch you want (to the eternal frustration of a friend of mine when we were in the freshman music theory classes). I think this contributes to the great tragedy of people being labeled 'tone deaf' by someone who has not truly invested the time to train them.

November 1, 2008 at 03:12 PM · A friend of mine (not seen by me for 13 years, except on ABC News as the recording engineer selected by Leonard Slatkin and the St. Louis Symph at their Moscow gig) has perfect pitch. Not only can he recognize any note anywhere, from anything, but he can tell you the base frequency of A for the scale containing that note at that frequency.

When he served a brief stint as our conductor, he was the only conductor I've ever played under who could (that had to do this - community orchestra) listen to the entire woodwind or brass section and correct the tuning each instrument while they played ensemble.

He could identify propeller airplanes by the sound (yeah - a kid during WW-II, like me) and he could tell the speed of a vehicle by the tire-on-the-road sound.

Quite remarkable to me!


December 8, 2008 at 02:42 PM ·

I believe I have perfect pitch- I can pitch a note when someone tells me to sing a note, and I can, most often at times, pitch a note that is played on the piano.

As for the 440Hz thing, I used to only use 440Hz, but then my new teachers used 442Hz, which kinda messed up the perfect pitch a little. (Just when I'm tuning and stuff, I think something is the right pitch when really it is a bit flat, etc).

As for excecuting the note, I hope that I can do it kind of in tune... but I often use vibrato to hide my insecurites, so I can't comment much, lol.

I think using the Suzuki method helped me obtain the perfect pitch, as well as hearing/listening to other people tune, which is kind of weird in a sense. But anyway, that's my 2cents about it.

December 8, 2008 at 03:22 PM ·

My 5 yr old "cheat" way of finding key signature of any key.

He will sing the root note, then sing the whole major scale, and pick out the accidentals from there. :(

He has not been exposed to a lot of non-440 stuff. We were listening to Andrew Manze, and he remarked,  why is it "out of tune"?

December 8, 2008 at 04:10 PM ·

Haha, nice freudian: 440MHz, hats off to you if you can hear that, it's about where the analog TV band starts :-)

December 9, 2008 at 06:09 AM ·

Dear Jerald:

I think you are right in your intuition that perfect pitch is more related to a keen understanding of intervals.I have -or at least am supposed to have :P -perfect pitch . I don't remember how I manifested it before I was about 13-14 years old , but I do remember that when I was 6 my teacher was surprised by the fact that if I would play a note out of tune I would manifest dezgust (at least that's what she told me , I don't remember these things accurately), and either move my finger on the string until I would hit the clean note, either put the violin down angry. I also had a good pitch when singing , as a child.


The central A was so much considered the fundamental of everything we learned regarding music in my old music school , that by 13-14 years old I had it pretty well settled in my memory.Than , once that happened , something clicked in my understanding of music. I became over night the best in the music theory class at solfege and dictation. I never practiced solfege or dictation at all, all my solfeges were sight-reading. When singing , or writing after dictation , I know that what I had to start with was a clear image of the "A" . The central A. From that point on , what others did not understand , was that everything was a fast calculation of intervals in my mind.It was almost like I would picture a scale in my mind and me going up and down on that scale with the intervals.

Now , it happens to me many times that I am listening to a piece and subconsciously recognize the notes played. I went Friday to the Kennedy Center and assisted to a performance of the 35th Symphony by Mozart in D .I was so carried away by the music , and I was listening to it focused, enjoying the melody. After a while , I realized that my mind is working , producing....words. Subconsciously I was repeating the names of the notes heard . I was almost saying in my mind the main melody of the Symphony by heart , but without realizing it. And again , there was the feeling of walking on a scale , up and down , with the intervals.


So , to conclude, if I try to define what perfect pitch means to me , and how it manifests in my brain : it starts with a strong understanding of the A , than of the central tonality , and than a following of the intervals involved.Like walking up and down on a scale.

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