Perfect Pitch

Edited: January 14, 2020, 2:43 PM · Hi everyone,

One of my music teacher told me that a lot of great musicians and conductors( Karajan, Abbado, etc...) have perfect pitch. But the thing that suprised me is that he told me that conductors , while all the instruments are playing, can say this :"2nd horn, your F is a bit flat.The violinst behind the concert master, your B is a bit sharp"

I have perfect pitch (I'm lucky) but I haven't got perfect pitch like them(I'm not to compare myself to the bests musicians)!I hear the note's name when it is played.M'y teacher told me that they eloborated their perfect pitch.How did they elaborate it?
Is there any exercices to get a perfect pitch like this one ?



Replies (47)

Edited: January 14, 2020, 2:56 PM · I think you’re talking about two different things: perfect pitch and relative pitch. The first thing Robert Lipsett asked me after I played for him years back was, ‘You have perfect pitch, don’t you?’ He somehow could tell I did (from his experience), but honestly, I feel relative pitch is more important. I know a major concertmaster and a few top players who do not have perfect pitch, but they’re doing quite well for themselves. Having an understanding of relative intonation and the different intervals is how you can make your playing sound more in tune. Same with rhythm - it’s all relative. Studying piano and playing chamber music can really open up your ears to what one noted first violinist from a quartet calls, ‘vertical intonation.’
January 14, 2020, 2:54 PM · Thank you!
January 14, 2020, 2:56 PM · What those conductors did was learn all the transpositions for the various instruments so they knew that if they heard an out of tune concert Bb they could tell the 2nd horn (the person playing that note in the score) that the F they were playing is a bit flat.

It's in knowing how to communicate to the various instrumentalists that you need to learn -- if you have perfect pitch memory, when you know what pitch you're hearing (or that it's a bit flat or sharp) you will know how to transpose that to the note the musician is looking at.

January 14, 2020, 4:01 PM · "...conductors , while all the instruments are playing, can say this :"2nd horn, your F is a bit flat..."

Most of what conductors say is for the purpose of filling rehearsal time. They say stuff like that when they detect the musicians trying to secretly check their phones. The musicians think they're being clever, hiding behind their stands or folders, but it's pretty obvious.

Edited: January 14, 2020, 4:21 PM · Perfect pitch is worthless in comparison to really fantastic relative pitch. You might be able to sing a perfect A4 without a reference, but if you can't hear inner voices and the functional relation between notes, PP is just a parlor trick. What these conductors have in common is years of very through ear training experience. With such a developed ear, PP is not even necessary to do what you describe in your post.

There are many ear training resources online that you can find with a simple search. Some are free, but the best range from modestly priced to very expensive (like Rick Beato's new ear training method). The very best way to tune your ear, though, is to listen very carefully to a lot of music, sing, transcribe by ear, and brush up on your theory.

January 14, 2020, 4:23 PM · Every instrument and musician has their own sound. It's relatively easy to pick out the exact person.

When practicing and struggling, most instruments will also be out of sync. You can tell who's low, because you can hear them enter.

Also - those who tend to be out of tune do that nearly every time. No problem calling out an out of tune flute - it has been out of tune for ages.

January 14, 2020, 4:46 PM · I prefer to say Absolute Pitch, since we tend to confuse Perfect Pitch ("you are playing a wrong note") with perfect intonation (your F# is a bit flat").
January 14, 2020, 4:48 PM · Absolute Pitch is vodka flavored with coal tar.
Edited: January 14, 2020, 5:42 PM · I have to disagree with a lot of the comments above. From the good musicians that I have met, those with good relative pitch often don't have perfect pitch, but those with perfect pitch always have good relative pitch.

I also think that the idea that perfect pitch is not useful is not true. Here is a previous post, with some of my thoughts on the subject

It seems to me that nowadays there is a culture of 'perfect pitch shaming'

January 14, 2020, 5:45 PM · Can be useful, but also a curse. I remember back when I was doing Districts and All-State-- apparently the concertmaster had perfect pitch, but a quarter-tone off the standard. So he had to tune that out (heh) and rely on relative pitch. Obviously managed, but can't have been fun.
Edited: January 14, 2020, 5:59 PM · Keep in mind that the conductor is not hearing the out-of-tune notes on their own, but in the context of the entire orchestra. Anyone with good relative pitch will be able to hear when someone is out of tune with the ensemble. The score tells the conductor who is playing that note out of tune.

I do not have anything resembling perfect pitch. If you play a single note and ask me to name it, I'm often off as much as a third or a fourth. As a community orchestra section leader, I do not need perfect pitch to hear intonation errors behind me. Similar to what Tony points out: if it gets to the point where I'm turning around and saying something about it, I'm usually pretty sure I know who it is (though I don't mention names as a general rule), because I've heard the same error multiple times. I don't think that's unusual at all; most other section leaders I've played with have the same capability.

Edited: January 14, 2020, 6:10 PM · I make no claim to have "perfect pitch," absolute pitch" and maybe even "biased relative pitch." But for 45 years I claimed friendship with master recording engineer, Stan Ricker and through him I witnessed some of the wonders of perfect, absolute pitch. Although he died over 4 years ago his name and reputation still leave a big mark on Google.

Stan could tell the speed of a car by the pitch/frequency of the tire sound - and he could tell you what that frequency was. He could identify a propeller airplane by it's sound. He played bass (had served the USA in the Navy Band) and I shared 25 years of common community orchestra experience with him and most notably one year with him conducting. During that year I witnessed him tune simultaneously four wind players. It was amazing to hear - I'd witnessed conductors fix intonation within ensemble before, but never 4 simultaneous pitches. Not only could Stan call out the name of a pitch, but he could tell you the pitch of the "A" in the scale it was part of, and of course the frequency of the note sounded.

Unfortunately, I never got into a discussion of temperament with Stan. I think that would have been fascinating.

When the St. Louis Symphony performed in Russia, Leonard Slatkin called Stan Ricker out of retirement (as a recording engineer) to engineer recordings of their performances. On ABC TV news I got to watch Stan playing bass with an improptu Jazz group of orchestra members on that Moscow stage.

Edited: January 14, 2020, 8:41 PM · I agree James. There’s no question that all great musicians have great ears. I took part in a study of people with perfect pitch for the University of California (San Francisco) many years ago. They tested me to make sure I in fact had perfect pitch (I scored 100% on the test) and then they gave me a group of questions to answer. So I am in no way ‘shaming’ perfect pitch. :)

Ideally, if you want to be the greatest musician, you’d have some inherent natural ability and perfect pitch, much like a great NBA player is probably going to be well over 6’ tall and have the ability to jump high. There are of course exceptions to the rule, but generally this is the case. I’ve noticed relative pitch recognition isn’t always on the same level with some people I know who have perfect pitch. Of course this can be developed and trained by taking an ear training course at a music school.

January 14, 2020, 10:56 PM · It's good to be born with these things...if you can add a photographic memory to your perfect, absolute and relative pitch you're in good shape. One such musician of the 20th century who had all these things in legendary abundance was Dmitri Shostakovich.
January 14, 2020, 11:08 PM · Mr. Mozart also had a photographic memory when it came to music, in addition to all of those other attributes.
January 15, 2020, 3:39 AM · Nate - he was also near abused by his father to develop those into something useful.
January 15, 2020, 5:35 AM · "It seems to me that nowadays there is a culture of perfect pitch shaming"
Pure jealousy!

"those with perfect pitch always have good relative pitch."
Not always; I have found that colleagues with absolute pitch don't need to listen to others to find their notes, while we poor relativists have to. We function entirely by intervals, which we often enjoy fine-tuning..

From comparing notes (haha) with a Perfect Pitcher, I conclude the Real Perfect Pitch is independent of timbre, while Acquired Perfect pitch is not.

Edited: January 15, 2020, 6:46 AM · ”I do not have anything resembling perfect pitch. If you play a single note and ask me to name it, I'm often off as much as a third or a fourth.“

I fall into that categories although my score would likely be much higher if you ask me to recognize a Do or a Ré rather than a C or a D. My brain has no association between letters and pitch and I can (and do) spell the entire alphabet on a single pitch whereas I would have to focus my attention to recite the solfege in a monotone voice. Nobody is born knowing what a C sounds like, actually nobody is born knowing the roman alphabet, thus this must be learned. Our ears ability to discern frequencies vary greatly between individuals and PP (the ability to name a note one ears) is I believe a learned behaviour of association whereas pitch discrimination is a physical attribute.

January 15, 2020, 9:20 AM · There seems to be a fairly strong consensus that absolute pitch cannot be taught, therefore must be innately present in some (if not all!) children with no musical schooling. If such a child has learned a song from the media they might naturally reproduce it at the correct pitch without prompting. Has nobody ever done this experiment?
January 15, 2020, 9:53 AM · Perfect pitch can be learned up to a certain age, hence why kids who sang in choirs very early in their lives have a higher occurence of PP.

Also, most people without PP have the ability to reproduce songs they've listened to at the correct pitch at almost any length of time after hearing it, including myself. Obviously the more times someone has listened to a song, the more likely they are to find the right note. But that's a little fun fact that's been demonstrated with scientific studies.

January 15, 2020, 10:38 AM · Perfect pitch doesn't even guarantee musical talent. The only person I've known for sure who had it wasn't musical. There was a piano in the back room, but he didn't play it.
January 15, 2020, 10:51 AM · This is an area that really needs its words redefined. Perfect pitch is taken to mean 'always playing in tune', 'recognizing the name of a note', 'inability to adjust pitch to harmonize (just intonation)' etc.

My previous violin teacher (a long-standing violinist with the Toronto Symphony) once said that students with 'perfect pitch' almost always play out of tune.

These are all great issues; but let me add one more - a prediction if you will, that people with perfect pitch have a harder time playing in tune with a piano! I've wondered this for a while as the people I know with perfect pitch tend to shy away from playing piano chamber music (what with the piano really being 'out of tune', equal temperament, all the time) whereas those not so blessed are likely to love it.

January 15, 2020, 12:02 PM · It is definitely true that the term "perfect pitch" is used in many different meanings. For example Elisabeth Matesky on this forum once used it in the following active meaning: someone tells you a note name, e.g., "the second C# on the E-string" and you have to immediately nail that note, without using crutches like going to third position, then replace 3rd finger on C# by 1st finger, then do a Flesch arpeggio on one string.
January 15, 2020, 1:03 PM · Now, I have the experience of teaching my child perfect pitch at the age of 4-5. And I must say that perfect pitch is one of the most usefull things a player can have. My girl plays very well in tune for her age. That is if we define perfect pitch to be the ability to name notes and here that they are in good intonation.

But if we think about absolute pitch, which could be defined by the innorm ability to hear every pitch of everything, including carengines aso we are in another field. That kind of perfect pitch is not always associated with musicality and hence some say that people who have it dont play well. Well, that can be true. But it can be associated with musicality.

January 15, 2020, 1:29 PM · Elise - interesting!
January 19, 2020, 3:44 PM · "..that people with perfect pitch have a harder time playing in tune with a piano!"

Elise, I think this is another example of the confusion between Perfect Pitch and perfect (pure?) intonation.
Perfect (= absolute) Pitch is a permanent memory of individual pitches, and can usually tolerate equal temperament!

January 19, 2020, 7:56 PM · @Elise - I recall going to an early music performance and, during the intermission, speaking to one of the singers. I asked if the singers had any particular problem staying in tune with the A-415 tuning. She told me that the singers did not have a problem but that the violinist playing next to her had perfect pitch and was having a lot of trouble playing in tune.
January 19, 2020, 10:49 PM · "Ideally, if you want to be the greatest musician, you’d have some inherent natural ability and perfect pitch"

I think we need to be careful about cause and effect. For one thing, learning to play really well in tune has, in my opinion, more to do with sensitivity to the various resonances of the violin. Distinguishing the timbre of , say, Eflat, which differs greatly from that of E natural. It's not simply about identifying a pitch.

But more importantly, there is the issue of which is the cause, and which the effect. While it's true that many of the best musicians have perfect pitch, one must ask whether the ability is a precondition for musicianship--something of which I'm skeptical--or a side effect simply because the best musicians almost invariably start at a very young age.

Being a "greatest musician" implies a great number of specific skills, and I would put perfect pitch pretty far down the list.

January 20, 2020, 5:31 AM · "Elise, I think this is another example of the confusion between Perfect Pitch and perfect (pure?) intonation.
Perfect (= absolute) Pitch is a permanent memory of individual pitches, and can usually tolerate equal temperament!"

Which is why I wrote the first half of that post. With the term 'Perfect Pitch" most people do not distinguish between note recognition and, as you put it, 'pure intonation' - which is not a bad term but it is not clear what 'pure' means. Perhaps 'fixed intonation' is better?

January 20, 2020, 5:31 AM · "Elise, I think this is another example of the confusion between Perfect Pitch and perfect (pure?) intonation.
Perfect (= absolute) Pitch is a permanent memory of individual pitches, and can usually tolerate equal temperament!"

Which is why I wrote the first half of that post. With the term 'Perfect Pitch" most people do not distinguish between note recognition and, as you put it, 'pure intonation' - which is not a bad term but it is not clear what 'pure' means. Perhaps 'fixed intonation' is better?

Edited: January 20, 2020, 8:10 AM · In my book, "perfect intonation" is not fixed! It fine-tunes intervals according to context. E.g. in a G-B-D chord: as a dominant to a C-E-G chord, the B is a leading note to C, so higher; as a final chord, the B can be a "pure" third above G, so lower. I have even found myself my moving a finger on a long held note when the surrounding harmonies change.

I know you know this, but I'm just defining terms to my own satisfaction!

BTW in French, Perfect Pitch becomes "l'oreille absolue": the Absolute Ear!

January 20, 2020, 9:51 AM · Then what is the difference between 'perfect intonation' and 'relative intonation'? I thought the latter did the same thing?
January 20, 2020, 9:59 AM · Cotton, hole in one! I had a very reliable absolute pitch, which was a nightmare if I was trying to play on or with an instrument that was tuned otherwise, e.g. certain pianos. Now my bsolute pitch is not as reliable, I find I could do with relative pitch with a reasonable length of memory.
January 22, 2020, 1:44 AM · 'perfect intonation' and 'relative intonation'?
One is fine-tuned, and the other is "relatively" good?
Edited: January 22, 2020, 6:12 AM · Sometimes I can fall out of tune and never realize as every notes I play after the 1st out of tune note are played equally out of tune, but technically I suppose, in tune relative to the new arbitrary scale I just unconsciously set for myself, that until I play an open string. Think of it as starting out at A440, and then slowly drifting away to A445, A448, A451... Therefore I am playing in tune while being out of tune! Drives my teacher, who has PP crazy. I assume that someone with PP (aka absolute pitch) has the ability to perceive a big difference between minute frequency variations, and those are the ones in 10,000, who when randomly asked to play an A427Hz can do it within 1cent without a relative reference note.
January 22, 2020, 6:11 AM · Some Perfect Pitchers I know don't really listen and are happy if a note falls into one or other semitone; but the ones who really listen will suffer!
January 22, 2020, 6:30 AM · Elise asked what is the difference between 'perfect intonation' and 'relative intonation'. To me ‘perfect intonation’ is the ability to play the right note frequencies within a musical key and context as defined by the ‘relative intonation’, which is the frequency gap (distance) between notes within a key and context. Does that make any sense?
January 22, 2020, 11:44 AM · As one with "perfect pitch", I will assert that it can be either a blessing or a curse. There are so many times I've wished that I could easily play with 430 A intonation, or play a B-flat trumpet, without needing to transpose, or constantly reminding myself that what I'm hearing needs to be adjusted from what is on the printed page.
Edited: January 22, 2020, 12:39 PM · I usually think I know what perfect (absolute) pitch and relative pitch are, until I read other people's explanations! One thing I'm fairly convinced of is that nobody learns their doh-re-mi in Hz, so they can have no idea of how A440 relates to A427 unless they've learned both sounds from experience, or that a semitone is 5.9% and are good at calculating tonal fractions!
January 22, 2020, 2:48 PM · I made a video about perfect pitch and doing a perfect pitch challenge with my sister!
January 22, 2020, 5:21 PM · Absolute perfect pitch, in terms of pitch memory -- the ability to sing any note named and name notes that you hear -- is vastly more common in people who speak a tonal language (regardless of race), suggesting that there is an extremely strong environmental component to sensitizing the ear and brain to pitch.

You can essentially simulate perfect pitch, on a practical basis, by memorizing some references notes -- violinists should at the very least know their open strings -- and going from there in terms of interval recognition.

Pitch discernment -- the ability to tell if a pitch is higher or lower than a reference pitch, when the frequency difference in narrow -- is to a large extent trained. Violinists have much stronger pitch discernment than the general public. I've found that when I've taken long breaks from the violin, my pitch discernment went to hell, and it takes about a year to regain the discrimination. We know that the brain essentially throws away the fine-frequency discrimination information when there's no reason for it to pay attention. Pitch discernment can be actively trained.

The auditory processing skills to pick out individual sounds from the background are also trained. There may be a genetic component to this as well, but we use this skill in many ways -- not just to pick out individual lines in a musical texture, but also to separate the conversation we're following from all the other conversations, background music etc. in a crowded restaurant. And there are professions that use these skills -- for instance, Navy sonar operator technicians.

January 28, 2020, 12:14 AM · Interesting!

I do not have perfect pitch, but I found that if my strings go a little sharp or a little flat, or slightly out of tune, when I play with a group or another person (or a YouTube video) I can still adjust myself and sound in tune with them...

Probably the weirdest thing I did lately is I played along with.a video at a=440, having forgotten that I was tuned to the baroque A=415! It sounded fine...until I played an open string! Then I was surprised that I had shifted my pitch/finger placements so much without realizing it.

Anyway the ability to match your intonation to the group/piano...I have found that very useful in real life! Perfect pitch is very cool, though!

Edited: January 28, 2020, 11:50 AM · My father, who became a church organist in later life, told me that matching the key of the hymn to the pitch the congregation felt most comfortable with is an essential item in the organist's tool kit, as is the ability to instantly change key if the congregation should drift flat (not an infrequent occurrence!). When accompanying a choir it is of course the choir's responsibility under the direction of the choir master to stay with the organ pitch.
January 28, 2020, 2:36 PM · That sounds like a time when some of us were playing guitars at a care home. The residents, who were singing along, drifted at least two semitones during the course of one song, and we had to keep transposing to keep up.

I have a fairly decent absolute pitch, although fortunately it switches to relative pitch when someone else is playing. Being a science nerd to boot, I've memorized a few reference points so I can give a rough frequency in Hz after a bit of thought. And yes, my wife will sometimes ask me what note a (e.g.) car horn is sounding. (Train whistles are even more interesting because they sound fun chords like Cm6, first inversion.)

I find that having good pitch and/or rhythm sometimes requires diplomacy. Otherwise I'd be confronting our tympanist after our last concert: "You should have been tuned to B and E, not G# and D." At least he finally got the timing right...

Edited: January 30, 2020, 6:13 AM · The perceived pitch of a train whistle is of course dependent on its speed and whether it is coming towards or receding from the observer ;) This reminds me of an orchestral rehearsal some years ago when our new leader had (to her) the brilliant idea of giving a clear A 440 to the orchestra by waving a loud electronic tuner in an arc from one side of the orchestra to the other. During the coffee break she was treated to an extempore discourse on the Doppler effect by a bassist who happened to be a university physics lecturer. Subsequent tunings reverted to the traditional oboe.
January 29, 2020, 10:17 AM · "Anyway the ability to match your intonation to the group/piano...I have found that very useful in real life! Perfect pitch is very cool, though!"

I'm not sure if you're equating the two, but matching pitches to the group is not perfect pitch, nor does it require perfect pitch.

Having perfect pitch is kind of like being able to touch your tongue to your nose or wiggle your ears or some other corporeal parlor trick: congratulations if you have it, but it really doesn't matter and don't waste time or money trying to acquire it. And keep in mind that people with perfect pitch
often find that it starts to change later in life. It can be helpful to singers when they need to pick a pitch out of thin air, but we use our tactile knowledge of the fingerboard to do that. That's just muscle memory.

It's funny--when people hear that I tune pianos, they say "oh, you must have perfect pitch." It has nothing to do with it.

February 11, 2020, 3:43 PM · I didn't understand relative pitch until I started playing the violin. Having perfect pitch and playing the piano did not make me aware of how pitch worked at all.. I think perfect pitch isn't a black & white thing, rather there are different levels. You can have the ability to name the note which is different to being able to transcribe multiple notes simultaneously which is different to being able to pick which instrument is off in an ensemble by how much. I've definitely become more refined over time just like anything else in music.

I also agree there's some perfect pitch shaming out there! But I usually don't tell people ha!

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