What is perfect pitch?

August 17, 2014 at 04:17 AM ·

Replies (52)

August 17, 2014 at 05:32 AM · "Perfect pitch" isn't quite what you might think.

When a person with this "gift" hears a musical note, he/she can identify the note-name, (e.g. "D"), quick as a flash.

However, such folk often don't play "in tune" any better than the rest of us, and that observation isn't just sour grapes.

A "D" can be up a bit, down a bit, and be still within the limits of D-ness.

"Playing in tune" is a tricky subject. In tune with WHAT, exactly ?

Other threads have gone into this matter. Have a good day !

August 17, 2014 at 07:41 AM · Elise stanley has started a thread on this ("contextual intonation and....")

I prefer the term "absolute pitch" to "perfect pitch" as I am jealous!

And we may confuse "perfect pitch" with the "perfect fifths" and "true (just) thirds" used in certain temperaments, and in unaccomapnied choral singing.

Absolute Pitch is not accurate enough to fit in the various tuning systems, which are themselves far from perfect, but which need intense concentration.

August 17, 2014 at 07:57 AM · What is perfect pitch? (Good grass, even surface?)

It's also an imperfect persons idea of what the name of the note could be ...

August 17, 2014 at 08:03 AM ·

August 17, 2014 at 08:54 AM · It's both.

Some of my "absolute" friends can only recognise, others can produce as well.

August 17, 2014 at 09:36 AM · Here's a Wiki-link :-


Folk are likely to speak of perfect pitch when they mean absolute pitch, and vice-versa. Some confusion.

To have REAL absolute pitch, you'd need to be able to state the frequency of the sound, e.g. 440 cps (an easy one, that's the oboe "A" that everyone in the orchestra ignores .....)

Cause of the problem of temperaments :- 1.5 to the power of 12 isn't 128 but 129.746339 .........

i.e starting from a low C and ascending in perfect, consonant, fifths, the frequency ratio being 3/2, you arrive at B sharp, which as you will see from the figures above really IS is B sharp ...

Fifths have to be contracted so as to enable us to play in all keys on a keyboard instrument .. and the 'cello "C" string might need cranking up a bit in the slow movement of K.387 .....

August 17, 2014 at 09:49 AM · "Some of my "absolute" friends can only recognise, others can produce as well."

That's why the world population is growing so fast ...

August 17, 2014 at 11:28 AM · Absolute or tempered pitch is a compromise tuning which was adopted by keyboard players and manufacturers of keyboard instruments. Absolute pitch allowed the keyboard instrument to play in all 24 major and minor keys without being too much out of tune. Electronic keyboards are all tuned in this way. Singers, string, woodwind, and brass players can vary their pitches to increase the subtle nuances in a melodic line.

One of my pianist friends acquired his absolute pitch, as a child, from his slightly low pitched piano. He later became a singer and was always singing lower than normal pitches. In his church choir, other singers complained about this and the conductor had to ask him to leave the choir.

August 17, 2014 at 11:47 AM · Perfect pitch for patching potholes.

August 17, 2014 at 11:50 AM ·

August 17, 2014 at 11:54 AM · "Absolute pitch allowed the keyboard instrument to play in all 24 major and minor keys without being too much out of tune"

Hey, let's not confuse absolute pitch (permant pich memory) with Equal Temperament (twelve equal semitones in a pure octave).

The choir story rings true, though; those who rely on their absolute memory of pitches tend not to listen to others.

And AP is not usually precise enough to wory about commas, schismas, or microtones; its margin of error is considerable (1/4 tone before the next note is recognised!)

August 17, 2014 at 12:40 PM · Some interesting reads on the subject.



August 17, 2014 at 03:51 PM · Adrian Heath had a point when he posted:-

"And AP is not usually precise enough to wory about commas, schismas, or microtones; its margin of error is considerable... "

As I wrote :- "A "D" can be up a bit, down a bit, and be still within the limits of D-ness."

Having personally experienced the wide disparities of pitch perception amongst even professional musicians (most of whom are oblivious to an oboe "A") I think it's nit-picking for fiddlers to worry too much about such refinements as the comma of didymus. (Not to be confused with Ken Dodd and the Diddy Men). Most of us use vibrato! The finer points regarding temperaments are primarily the concern of piano-tuners and such.

Students of composition are taught quite early on such essential safeguards as NOT letting a violinist land on the same note as the piano accompaniment. It's emphasised that disparities in intonation will occur no matter what, and the writer must be aware, and seek to minimise the damage.

I suppose there might be the very rare child genius who will jump to his/her feet and express horror if a major third doesn't have a 5:4 ratio !!

August 17, 2014 at 05:19 PM · On my viola, the syntonic comma (E from C by 4 Perfect 5ths vs a true major 10th) in 1st position is 3mm wide: wider than my vibrato. But vibrato "softens" the discrepencies; in a similar way, Equal Temperament is acceptable on a piano, which has up to 3 strings per note, but much less on a harpsichord, which often plays on one string at a time, and is rich in high harmonics.

Vibrato also serves to "detatch" the solo string sound from its surroundings, e.g. piano resonance.

A great sweetener of sounds and souls!

August 17, 2014 at 05:34 PM · Aha ! Thanks to Adrian I have now found out what is a syntonic comma :- it's 1.25:1.265625.

Adrian, as you probably know already, it's wise to tune up your "C" string for the end on the slow movement of Mozart's duo in G.

BTW link to didymus the musician.


August 17, 2014 at 05:43 PM · @David: have to admit my daughter insists on playing her major thirds in 81:64 ratio :-). Pythagorean sounds better than Just.

August 17, 2014 at 08:26 PM · Pavel, I think we are so used to Equal Temperament that we find the raw lemon of a Pythagorean Third better than the honeyed balm of a Just Third....

In a string quartet, I find my self switching during a held note as the harmonies change. really.

August 18, 2014 at 06:43 AM · You HAVE been taking the wrong pills John!! (wink)

August 18, 2014 at 10:26 AM · Quite a few v.commers seem to get rude when they can't follow someone's reasoning....

August 18, 2014 at 12:01 PM · Adrian - you think there is reasoning involved here?

Get real!

By the way, 80% of what I write on here is either a joke, or rubbish. Take your pick.

P S It could even be 100%

I'm saying this with a (wink) but sometimes people take themselves toooooooo seriously. Have a couple of Scotches (male or female) and chill out ... Here's to the next bum note ...

August 18, 2014 at 01:31 PM · I am not refering to humour, but to rudeness and/or bigotry!

And thought-provoking lateral thinking is included in my appreciation of "reason"...

And Peter, I was not only thinking of you - so sorry!

August 18, 2014 at 01:46 PM · Oh Adrian - don't know what to say, you have sort of blown a gasket! Well I probably am all those things you say, but I haven't quite lost me marbles yet. You shouldn't worry too much about me, I've survived many a conductor and a few orchestral jobs where even my wierd sense of humour has been appreciated. I've even survived three marriages and still get on with my gay friends who have an even more scathing sense of humour than me.

But maybe I'm on the wrong pills as well,so maybe I should see the shrink and get myself straight jacketed. I notice when I play up in the stratosphere it gets me high (pun intended) and I tend to float around. No leg on terra firma. Maybe Euthanasia might do the trick, what do you think?

August 18, 2014 at 01:57 PM · This is silly! My French friends often appreciate my very eengleesh yumoor, (my enemies don't undrestand it!) and our habit of being apparently light-hearted about serious things.

The only thing I dislike on a forum is being rude or scathing about a person or his/her opinions. And opinions masquerading as facts.

August 18, 2014 at 03:24 PM · Perfect pitch is the ability to recognize the "note" of a tone associated with some scale. This is a very important point: SOME SCALE.

Like: Tempered, Pythagorean, Just, Natural vs Harmonic vs Melodic Minor, Meantone to name just a few different methods of associating notes names with frequencies.

The only thing these scales have in common in modern practice is the frequency of the "A4" note, 440Hz. If they were teleported back a couple of hundred years, even this association would be wrong as the A4 was tuned to a different frequency.

People I have encountered with perfect pitch learned the note names and frequencies from a well-tuned piano to the tempered scale.

Unless they also learned to recognize the frequency difference in the Just or Pythagorean scale, they might think a violinist is playing some notes flat or sharp when in fact they are playing on scale, just not the scale the "perfect pitch" person learned.

In a very real sense, the only time a person with perfect pitch is actually perfect is when they hear an A4 tone.

I have never encountered a person who could not recognize when a popular tune was being played a little bit off. In this regard, everyone has some sense of "acceptable" pitch and no one is truly tone deaf.

Most professional musicians I have encountered can hear a tone and immediately repeat it on their instrument of choice. In this sense, they also have perfect pitch. But instead of a letter name of the frequency they can reproduce a finger position.

August 18, 2014 at 03:48 PM · People with a good memory for pitch can eventually begin to lose it, or hear it a bit flatter, so they tell me.

Most string players (and others) know the exact pitch of A 440 and if the oboe A were to deviate they would give him/her funny looks and maybe even hand over a tuning fork!

There was a time when woodwind sections all had their own elecronic tuners (often to win arguments with colleagues) and even one or two of us string players also got them too.

But when you adjust to fit with others they become a bit meaningless. I remember a well known conductor once said to a viola player who had a solo with the first clarinet, and there was a tuning problem "surely its easier for you to adjust to him?" (Which was a rare instance of the conductor being correct, as the viola was the guilty party and a bit out of tune ...)

August 18, 2014 at 06:08 PM · Carmen, I like your descriptions. But:

"Perfect pitch is the ability to recognize the note" of a tone associated with some scale."

Now, Absolute Pitch implies recognising the note without reference to any scale. So do you use Perfect Pitch to mean perfect tuning within a scale system?

August 18, 2014 at 06:46 PM · Sorry but I'm completely lost now. What is this all about?

August 18, 2014 at 07:59 PM · Pythagoras keeps getting a mention.

Was he a cool cat, a jazz fan, a rocker maybe ?

Didn't he say something about "..some of the squares on the other two sides ??

August 18, 2014 at 08:52 PM · "...Absolute Pitch implies recognising the note without reference to any scale. ..."

"Absolute" is a misnomer because there is no absolute scale that relates note names to frequencies. Anyone who hears a tone and says it is note BLAH is implicitly referencing some scale system, or more formally, a tuning system.

A violinist who learns by ear falls naturally into Just intonation, where diatonic intervals are all integer multiples of each other. Set the A string to 440, then play the open E string with the open A string until no beating pattern is heard. The tonic (A) and the fifth (E) form a ratio of 3 to 2 with their frequencies.

A piano needs to be able to play a piece of music where the tonic can be any key and still have the melody sound reasonably similar to it being played in any octave on the keyboard. This is the basis of equal tempered tuning.

If you play A and E together, there is a subtle beating pattern that can be heard. The ratio of their frequencies are not exactly 3 to 2.

Technically, pianos are not tuned exactly to an equal tempered scale. Rather, subtle adjustments are made to match certain beating patterns across intervals to account for variations in string properties and the piano sound structure.

When a violinist is playing with a pianist, the violinist must be aware of any sustained notes that the pianist hits that might form a chord or unison to the violin part. The violinist may have to sharpen or flatten notes slightly to prevent an ugly beating pattern from occurring.

August 18, 2014 at 09:10 PM · But there are often insufficient terms for all this.

E.g. the "natural" minor scale exists whateveter the tuning sytem; "perfect" fifths also, although in meantone tuning they sound all but "perfect"!!

So I prefer Pythagorean Tuning to Pythagorean Scale.

And Absolute Pitch to Perfect pitch.

Folks with no musical experience or knowledge can still have Absolute Pitch, but they will have no note-names for the sounds they remember and compare. I know several.

August 19, 2014 at 01:28 AM · There are examples all over the internet and in old publications by teachers and performers alike.

But for a lucid, modern introduction to the various tuning methods and when to use them on the violin, I will point you to a world famous teacher, Kurt Sassmannshaus and his web site:


August 19, 2014 at 06:59 AM · Thanks Carmen, for the link.

I have often given the same demonstration to my students, but if you saw me you would see why I don't make videos!

There is a new thread "Perfect Pitch in the Kitchen".

It reminds me of a non-musician friend who said that ths squeak in my front door hinges was the same "note" as the beep on his microwave. I checked with my tuner! Absolute Pitch with no scale involved.

August 19, 2014 at 08:21 AM · To put in succinctly, (!!) we usually "construct" our available scale with true fifths (ie Pythagorean), but "indulge" in true thirds in held chords.

In Pythagorean tuning, semitones are usually small, and G-sharp is higher than A-flat. Thirds are harsh.

In Just intonation, G-sharp is lower than A-flat, thirds are sweet, and semitones are surprisingly wide. Pythagorus for scales, Zarlino for chords.

But nothing to do with Absolute Pitch.

And I am right! Your turn, anyone?

PS I have actually tuned my piano in various temperaments, so I know I am right..

August 19, 2014 at 07:28 PM · Pythagorean Tuning is constructed from perfect fifths. Start with the tonic and "add" a fifth, i.e., multiply the frequency by 3/2. This gives you the scale fifth.

Now add a fifth to this. If the note is outside the scale, divide by two to drop it down an octave. This gives the major second.

If you continue in this manner you can construct all the diatonic notes.

An exception is made for the Perfect 4th, defined as a ration of 4:3, although the method of 5ths comes pretty close to this ratio. Also, an octave is defined as 2:1 rather than a sum of perfect 5ths.

Pythagorean is both a "just" scale (based on integer ratios of frequencies) and a "tempered" scale (based on fixed logarithmic intervals between tones.

Using cents as a measure (1200 cents to an octave), Pythagorean tuning has half steps of 90c and whole steps 204c for the diatonic notes.

So a major scale would have diatonic intervals:

(Tonic) -> +204c -> +204c -> +90c -> +204c -> +204c -> +204c -> +90c (Octave)

Piano tuning is 100c between half steps and 200c between whole steps.

What is typically called THE Just tuning system is based on the harmonic series of frequencies. It relies only on integer ratios of frequencies and makes no attempt to temper the notes of the scale to "sound good" in a melodic line. So it is ideal for forming chords but can result in some odd sounds for a melody.

The major 3rds, 6ths and 7ths of Just tuning deviate dramatically from both Pythagorean tuning and piano tuning.

In contrast, most people will probably only hear a small difference between Pythagorean and Piano tuning in the major 3rd and 7th.

Some of the chromatic tones in both Pythagorean and Just tuning can be dramatically different than a piano for any particular key.

August 19, 2014 at 08:50 PM · There is an interesting expansion of Pythagorean tuning, (Serge Cordier) that uses only untempered fifths (with no narrow fifth for B-sharp) but allows the octaves to be progressively stretched. Tempered octaves with a slight vibrato! Some folks swear by it, but my children didn't like it when I tried it in our piano.

Still no connection with Perfect Pitch! Or the layout of intervals (i.e.scales). Just their tuning. One can even play a bit out of tune without altering the sense of a scale, just as my French friends understand my French despite my English accent. Folks will wince, though.

August 20, 2014 at 04:04 AM · I knew an oboist with perfect pitch

From orchestra she decided to switch

She went for baroque

Low pitch wasn't a joke

She said the transition's a . . .

August 20, 2014 at 05:57 AM · The chaotic nature of this thread, including my own posts, comes from confusing Perfect Pitch (a particular form of aural memory),with perfect intonation (tuning intervals). There!

August 20, 2014 at 12:27 PM · "I have actually tuned my piano in various temperaments, so I know I am right.."

The trouble is that lots of people think they are right on this forum.

August 20, 2014 at 12:46 PM · Oh dear, I forgot to add "(wink)"!

But at least I try out what I read in books (or on this forum, for that matter). (smirk)

August 20, 2014 at 03:03 PM · "...Perfect Pitch (a particular form of aural memory),with perfect intonation (tuning intervals)..."

I agree with your definition of Perfect Pitch but with one caveat: one MUST specify a reference tuning system or else any claims made by the person with perfect pitch are meaningless.

Let me post an example from years back when I was studying the piano...

I had a friend with perfect pitch who was a fabulous cello player and a very decent piano player. I was listening to him warm up for a recital with a young piano player, also with perfect pitch.

The younger player winced when the older player fingered a G# while running through the chromatic scale in the key of C Major.

The older player stopped and asked, nonchalantly, "Problem?"

The younger player said, "I think you were too sharp on that note".

"Really? Play it on the piano for me please."

The younger player struck the G# key and said, "There!"

The older player said, "Hmmm.... That piano is definitely out of tune!" and gave me a sly wink.

The younger player, with a confused look, said, "Oh. OK. I'll mention it to the teacher."

The piano was perfectly in tune for the 12 Tone Equal Tempered tuning system. The younger player had a fine "aural" memory of tones, but his ability to label and identify tones was limited to the piano.

The cello player had aural memory for both instruments, so he knew why the younger player claimed that the G# was off.

If piano tuning is the reference system, then yes, the cello player was off.

But if the cello Pythagorean tuning (or more correctly, Pythagorean playing) is the reference system, then by the same logic, the piano is badly out of tune.

I can usually recognize an A4, but only since I have been playing the violin. Many months of daily tuning using a meter has burned the sound of the tone into my brain.

But do not ask me the names of any other tone played at random. I clearly do not have perfect pitch, i.e., an aural memory of the tones of a specific tuning system.

Perfect Intonation needs some explanation. I take this to mean the ability to recognize the notes of some diatonic scale as "correct" or "off".

When I played the piano, I always thought certain notes in the key I was playing were a bit "off". I was assured the piano was "in-tune", or the electronic keyboard was accurate, so after awhile I stopped listening to the tones and just focused other technical issues.

Jump forward many years and to the violin. When I started playing scales, I could immediately notice when a tone of a scale was "off". So what I did was place stickers on the violin to correspond to what my chromatic tuner calimed the note was.

To my surprise, the scale still did not sound right. I took off the stickers and adjusted my fingering until it sounded "right" with reference to the tonic of the scale I was practicing.

As I recalled my music theory classes, I realized I had a sense of perfect intonation for the Pythagorean tuning system.

Most people are born with an innate sense of this tuning system, at least for 3rds, 4ths and 5ths relative to the tonic.

2nds, 6ths and 7ths can be a bit ambiguous as people tend to speak in legato style and using 3rd, 4ths and 5ths.

The piano can be trusted for playing 2nds, 4ths, 5ths and octaves on the violin. View 3rds and 6ths with some suspicion. 7ths will sound way too flat if taken from a piano.

August 20, 2014 at 08:34 PM · Carmen, please !

Your examples are clear and correspond to my own experience and knowledge. But I have tried to point out, (not just suggest) that Perfect Pitch exists also outside of a musical context.

I know folks who can compare two pitches from different occasions without being able to say what the note was (e.g.a squeaky gate and a mobile phone.) As I haven't got Perfect Pitch, I'm the one who has to compare the two sounds with my tuning fork!

On the other hand, musicians with Perfect Pitch will refer to previously memorised tones. But The Perfet Pitchers I know don't listen as intently to intervals as most of us, and a usually indifferent to temperaments: their own remembered tones seem to satisfy them.

Perhaps we "mortals" have a richer musical experience in the end?

August 21, 2014 at 08:45 AM · Something not mentioned in the 3 current threads I'll call Acquired Perfect Pitch (APP), as opposed to Innate perfect Pitch (IPP).

In a silent room, I can hear in my mind's ear, the open A of my own violin, which I tune very often, but not the tuning fork A, which is a near-pure tone. For many years, I alternated classical violin at A=440Hz with Argentine tangos where the bandoneons were tuned at 445Hz (less than a comma higher). I haven't got IPP, but I could remember the two A's on my violin, more accurately than most IPP victims.

This must be because the actual timbre of a violin changes a little with the slightest change in pitch. And I would often play without vibrato in unison with bandoneons, which like the violin, have a brilliant tone, rich in overtones.

So I suspect that APP is timbre-dependent but very accurate, while IPP is pitch only, and more approximate.

A colleague with IPP confirms this, but I would like further confirmation,as I don't know everything.....

August 22, 2014 at 08:41 PM · Silly me!

I thought perfect pitch was when you throw a viola in the dumpster, and it doesn't hit the side...

October 17, 2016 at 05:17 PM ·

October 17, 2016 at 08:56 PM · As has been discussed, there are different kinds of "perfect pitch." I do not have "perfect pitch" of any kind, but a personal friend, Stan Ricker (who died last year: http://news.acousticsounds.com/post.cfm/mastering-pioneer-stan-ricker-dies ) had the most amazing perfect pitch - as well he should since his main career had been as a recording engineer and a recognized "tone master." Not only could Stan tell you what note was being sounded, but he could at the same time tell you what the frequency of A in the scale that note was based on. He could tell how fast a car was going by the pitch of the tires and he could recognize old WW-II prop-airplanes by their sound alone.

He is the only conductor I ever had (he was a temp for us 40 years ago while awaiting a more permanent director) I ever saw tune 4 woodwind instruments simultaneously WHILE they were all playing - directing each one to correct pitch. Amazing hearing!

Leonard Slatkin pulled Stan out of retirement from the business when the St. Louis Symphony went to Moscow to engineer the recordings - I happened to catch Stan with some of the St. Louis musicians on ABC News TV while they were there having a jazz session on stage (Stan played bass there and regularly in our community orchestra).

October 17, 2016 at 09:18 PM · I knew a girl who could correctly identify any piano note from 2 rooms away. I found the little showoff to be very annoying.

October 17, 2016 at 10:34 PM · It is not necessarily as helpful as one might think. It makes it difficult to see the larger picture when it comes to chords and scales. It is easy to get thrown off if something is transposed and hear music as a bunch of individual notes rather than units of chords and scales. I had an aural skills teacher make every person his class with perfect pitch transpose dictations and solfedge exercises to a different key than they sounded in, which was usually a half step away. That was no fun.

October 18, 2016 at 05:19 PM · To be or not to be.


October 19, 2016 at 01:29 PM · After reading this whole thread I am disappointed with my heavy hitters.

Question..... Is perfect pitch (or whatever) something that can be learned or improved with time? Can I expect last years music to sound better now? Is there such a thing as an intonation learning curve?

"His music isn't as bad as it sounds." Mark Twain.

October 19, 2016 at 02:35 PM · Perfect pitch is like the imprinting of a mother goose on a gosling. There is a certain time window during which it will happen. Then it won't. I have talked to people with pitch who felt it had change or become less accurate over time as they aged.

You don't need perfect pitch, and you certainly don't need it to play with fabulous intonation. Don't try to practice it.

Use that time to work with a metronome. That is not a waste of time.

October 19, 2016 at 04:23 PM · Well, that is good news!

I am also liking the role of vibrato as a pitch factor.

October 25, 2016 at 08:40 PM · Perfect pitch, it's been said, is when someone throws a banjo into a dumpster without hitting the sides, while squarely hitting the accordion that's already there.

(My bluegrass buddies like that one. Except the banjo players.)

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