Welcome to yet another episode of “Somebody asked a question on social media so Robert wrote a blog post!”
People ask about a thing called “perfect pitch.” Confusion about this phenomenon is so rampant that even the Wikipedia article about it contradicts itself in its first two paragraphs, which I quote here for reference:
Absolute pitch (AP), often called perfect pitch, is a rare ability of a person to identify or re-create a given musical note …
The frequency of AP in the general population is not known. A proportion of 1 in 10,000 is widely reported, but not supported by evidence; a 2019 review indicated a prevalence of at least 4% amongst music students.
As you can see, this thing called “perfect pitch” is supposedly a “rare ability” but nobody actually knows how common it is, there is no evidence for any 0.01% frequency claim, and the best available data suggest that at least one in 25 music students actually have this skill. One in 25 isn’t a large number, but it’s far from rare.
As a portrait of how the phenomenon is generally seen and understood, that same Wikipedia article is one of the more coherent accounts, yet it is nonetheless completely incoherent as a description of the phenomenon itself. For example, it draws a distinction between “AP possessors” and others who have merely learned some or all of the skills associated with AP, yet it provides no explanation of how to tell those sets of individuals apart, nor even any account of why we should believe there really is any difference between them.
Why should I believe you (or not)? What do you know about this? What is your story?
Most of what you’ll read about AP is the product of introspection by people musing on their own AP or lack thereof, and history shows introspection is a terrible tool for understanding anything about cognitive psychology. What you’re reading here from me is no exception, of course: my discussion is mainly about my own experience with AP and although some parts of my story are easily borne out by factual evidence, in other parts I could be quite mistaken. Without principled experiments we primates are broadly inept at accounting for how our skills, thoughts, beliefs, and memories got to be the way they are, and this is the biggest reason you should be skeptical of what I say and equally skeptical of what other people say about AP as well.
But there are some points on which I claim authority, and here are a few of them:
- I was not born with AP. I definitely didn’t have it during my first several years learning music as a child. But right from the beginning of my piano lessons at age six, I remember always being able to tell the difference between the black and the white keys on our piano at home. I still don’t know what it was about that piano that made the difference so clear, but that’s my first memory of some coarse notion akin to distinguishing among musical pitches. I could do the same on other pianos, but not so easily.
- I never tried to develop AP until after I realized I had it to some extent. Rather, it developed on its own as I improved my listening, playing, and singing skills by studying music. I first realized I had some ability to identify absolute pitches when I was in high school. Compared anecdotally to many others with AP, that seems fairly late.
- My AP is fallible and variable. Some days I can easily nail everything and even tell you if something seems off by a quarter tone. Other days it takes some effort; on these days getting within a half step is trivially easy but then I sometimes have to work at a note for a while (usually a few seconds) to narrow its identity precisely. When I was on tour with my high school’s vocal ensemble, another member in the group came walking back to my seat on the bus and sang a note to me, asking if I could identify it. I guess she had heard I had perfect pitch or something, and she wanted to test me. I had ego problems around a lot of things, but not about “perfect pitch” so I comfortably said I wasn’t sure, but it sounded like a C to me. As she walked back to her group of friends at the front of the bus the note’s identity got a lot clearer in my mind. I called out to her that it was a C#, and now I knew I was right (and she later confirmed it). Now in my fifties, it’s still like that sometimes.
- Depending on the context and the timbre of the sound, a note can be easy to identify — some tones feel like they really scream their names at me, especially if they’re played on instruments whose sounds I know well — or more difficult if I’m less familiar with the timbre.
- There’s a lot of tricky business wrapped up in AP, especially when it comes to tones on musical instruments. The sound of an open string on a guitar, the unevenness embedded in a widely used but slightly “wrong” way of tuning an approximation to equal temperament on a piano, or the sound of figures that fall easily under the fingers in different tonal centers on piano… Those and many other cues like them can contribute to giving each tonal center a specific sound, personality, or “color” — its own identity. And here we’re talking about cues that come from ear skills very different from absolutely and directly identifying pitches. Other cues I’m immediately familiar with are the feeling of singing a particular pitch in my throat, the dependable pitch of a tinnitus tone, AC mains hum, and many others. There are many cues that we might use consciously or subconsciously as pitch references apart from a true and unwavering sense of absolute pitch. Many attempts to assess AP in individuals seem to wind up confounded by those tricky cues. It’s hard to control for them and many assessments seem so naïve as to forgo any attempt at such controls.
- AP feels like a parlor trick to me, not a core musical skill. It’s useful, as when I want to jump into a tune on the bandstand and it’s great that I already know what key the group is playing in, but most of the time it’s not at all an important contributor to my musicianship, nor does it detract. I feel I lean much harder on my well developed relative pitch skills, i.e., the ability to identify pitches according to their relationship to a tonal center or other reference that comes from outside myself. But of course my AP and my relative pitch get muddled together in real world musical situations. I just know what notes I’m hearing and I can’t honestly attribute that knowledge to AP or relative pitch or some combination at any given moment.
Is AP a blessing or a curse?
It is mostly a parlor trick: sometimes entertaining, but not a deep asset, neither a blessing nor a curse.
I don’t find it harmful at all. We’ve all heard stories of musicians who claim they are cursed by having AP since they find themselves distracted by hearing music in “the wrong key” sometimes. Often those folks say AP is a hindrance to their ability to transpose, i.e., to play music in different keys from the most familiar or canonical one(s). The only thing I can say with authority about that is that it’s very different from my own experience; I don’t much mind hearing and playing music in different keys, though of course I notice when I hear a piece in a key I don’t expect. I have a sneaking suspicion that some musicians are blaming their AP “affliction” when really their problem is just that they have uncomfortable skill shortcomings in other aspects of ear training or instrument technique.
An analogy: If your knowledge of English gets in the way of your speaking French, it probably just means you need to work on your French.
Who has AP and how do they get it?
It’s learned, not inborn, though like any skill it might initially come easier to some people than to others.
It’s not binary, not something you either have or don’t have. Some people who do it are better at it than other people who do it. I suspect everyone has it to some degree and it’s clearly better developed in some than in others for all the usual skill reasons: innate predisposition, hard work and commitment, exposure to opportunities for (self-)critique and reinforcement, etc.
I don’t know how I learned AP but my best guess is that I kept working at music generally while carrying the mindset that being able to orient myself to the music using my ears is perhaps the most important of all musical skills. With that mindset I invested effort in learning relative pitch and building the mental “muscle” of taking musical dictation through transcription practice and through call and response interplay with other musicians. I feel like my AP developed along the way as a side effect of that work.
What about the name?
“Perfect pitch” is a terrible name for the skill we’re discussing, because even in the people who are best at it, it’s far from perfect. I’ve met a lot of piano technicians, many with “perfect pitch,” and of course I know a number of musicians with “perfect pitch” also. Not one among them would consider their AP or their piano tuner’s AP worthy as an instrument-tuning pitch reference. At best it seems AP is good within a quarter tone or so. All of us have heard stories of that one amazing person who could do eighths of a tone, but so far it seems like nobody has actually met that person. And even an eighth of a tone is far too coarse to pass as a tuning fork.
That I had perfect pitch – it doesn’t work always, but almost always – I didn’t even know until teachers found out. And then was more of nuisance to me than a reason for joy.
My guitar teacher reacted with blatant jealousy when he overheard me tuning my instrument before class without using the tuning fork, when it was completely out of tune due to temperature changes (I had to walk there, also in winter). From then on, he was obnoxious – and eventually told me why. But he was a difficult character anyway.
My music teacher at high school was enthusiastic, I revealed myself through a slip of the tongue during lesson, and from that moment on she assumed that I was just playing coy, because I never played the piano before audience – I’ve never had any lessons by then. But she kept urging me before my fellow students until I eventually snapped at her. Which ended a long time good relation.
My accordion teacher thought it was a nice but essentially redundant skill. So did my piano teacher many years later. I was downright happy they didn’t care.
I only had one advantage from this once: when I had to conduct our men’s choir for a year as a stand-in. The choir is made up of amateurs, many of whom cannot even read music scores properly. They never even noticed that I called out cues without touching the piano. But it eased the challenge – I actually never learned conducting.
A parlour trick, I don’t now. Just an ability I have nearly no use for. I’m very good and pretty fast at mental arithmic, too – that served me a lot better in life.