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What does It Mean to Have Perfect Pitch?

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  • Written By: Michael Pollick
  • Edited By: Niki Foster
  • Last Modified Date: 30 September 2014
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Perfect pitch, also called absolute pitch, is the ability to identify a tone's musical qualities without any outside assistance, such as a tuning fork or piano. People with perfect pitch can hear a doorbell ring and recognize the tone as an A above middle C, for example. A musician with it can tune a guitar's strings by sound alone, even detecting very subtle sharps and flats. Very few people have truly perfect pitch, and many of those who do are not musically inclined. Interestingly enough, this ability is much more prevalent among those with autism or diagnosed savants.

Few experts agree on the origins of perfect pitch. Some say the ability to identify tones and frequencies is largely inherent, much like athletic or artistic ability. Some children are able to distinguish different pitches without specific musical training. Those who do receive musical training often consider the ability to be a basic skill, akin to muscle memory for an athlete. When a recognizable tone is played or sung, someone who can hear pitch perfectly does not have to spend time contemplating his or her answer — the note is what it is.

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Other experts suggest that perfect pitch, or at least a workable form of it, can be developed over time. Instrumentalists and vocalists who spend hours each day in rehearsal can eventually sense when their instruments are out of tune or their voices are not hitting the right pitches. Someone with innate perfect pitch may become less interested in music, since the rehearsal process is riddled with off-key sounds and other distractions. The ability to hear an ideal pitch can be both a blessing and a curse for musical students.

Some people with this ability can also identify intervals between two notes or all of the notes played together in a chord. Vocalists with perfect pitch are especially favored by composers who want to hear pure intervals. Musicians with it may also be asked to aid in the tuning process, since they can often detect a single out-of-tune instrument or vocalist. Not all successful musicians and composers have perfect pitch. It's a useful skill for performers and conductors, who must use their sense of pitch to make subtle adjustments in tone, but it is not strictly necessary for most creative aspects of the musical arena.

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anon342991
Post 8

I was "diagnosed" with perfect pitch as a teenager in high school band and choir. I truly did not realize how extraordinary this was, as I had always related to music in this way. I knew a C# when I heard it, etc. I thought everyone could do this; that's how second-nature it was to me.

It has come in handy in some odd situations, like rehearsing with a choir where we had no piano. I was the piano and had to give everyone their starting notes. The most challenging thing about this gift, however, is doing an a capella piece with a choir, and if the whole choir begins to go flat, I have to go down with them. I otherwise risk sounding like an out-of-tune idiot. I can't readily bring everyone back up to pitch.

anon224636
Post 7

I am not sure if I have perfect pitch. I can instantly identify notes (including sharps and flats) when I hear them being generated by a musical instrument (like piano, guitar, even techno-produced sounds). But I have a very hard time identifying the note if it's produced by a human voice. I think I can eventually do it but it takes me singing a relative note and then finding their note. Do I have perfect pitch?

anon187299
Post 6

I have had perfect pitch since age 5, possibly earlier than that, but it was discovered when I started taking piano lessons. It's kind of like color vision - I can automatically tell that a flower is red, automatically tell that a note is a "C", "B flat" or whatever. It helps me appreciate the beauty and differences of songs done in different keys.

Very tough when singing in a choir, and it's going flat or sharp. Have to automatically translate all of the notes to whatever the choir is actually singing.

anon160937
Post 5

My 4 year old son has HFA. He can tell us the name of a song on the radio in the first few seconds -- way before we would know. Sometimes he concentrates when the radio is on. He loves music but certain songs really upset him. They can make him very anxious and he wants the music turned off. Has anyone experienced this? Any advice how we can help him?

anon146213
Post 4

I can pretty simply identify C D E F G A B C but when it comes to some of the sharps and flats it's different. Is that perfect pitch or not?

anon103665
Post 3

I have had perfect pitch as long as I can remember, but I have one question: what can I do with it? It has been nothing but a burden my entire adult life.

I hear sounds that are so high pitched that I end up with a migraine and now have tinnitus. Oh, and I don't know of anyone who would be willing to hire a person for their perfect pitch. That's the only thing I have ever been good at, but it causes me all kinds of problems and I have never benefited from it.

Curse? I think so. Liz, AL

anon77821
Post 2

Some good information here, but the author fails to distinguish well between perfect pitch and relative pitch, which is recognizing notes by intervals. That isn't perfect pitch and shouldn't be confused as such--it's a relatively common ability among musicians, especially those trained by instructors.

And while perfect pitch can be simulated, it can't be copied. Studies have shown more than once that those who learn "perfect" pitch cannot as reliably, quickly, or accurately identify pitches as those who have perfect pitch naturally.

Aripitch
Post 1

This is an EXCELLENT article. As a perfect pitch possessor, I can definitely relate to this. I do agree that a workable form of perfect pitch can be developed, as I know of some individuals who possess this "workable" form. However, the only difference between the "learned" form and the "innate" form is that the note recognition is not as instantaneous and those with the workable form tend to be a little confused as to what can be achieved with the ability. For some, however, learning the "workable" form (pitch memorization) can "work" wonders (no pun intended).

Thanks for acknowledging all possible forms of perfect pitch and thanks for not denying our existence as perfect pitch possessors!

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