In Search of Perfect Pitch

Neil Degrasse Tyson once remarked that “If you are scientifically literate, the world looks very different to you.”  I would modify this and say that if you’re musically literate, the world sounds very different to you.

A recent tweet by Skeptoid’s Brian Dunning raised some questions about an elusive aspect of music: Perfect Pitch.  When Dunning was asked, “Can someone not born with perfect pitch acquire it (intentionally)?”, he replied, “Keep wishing.”  While this simple answer was not incorrect (and he can hardly be blamed for the 140 character limitations of Twitter), there is nonetheless a great deal more to the rare talent that is perfect pitch.

What is Perfect Pitch?

Most people understand that perfect pitch (or absolute pitch) means the ability to name any note that is played, with 100% accuracy, and with no reference note.  As amazing as this sounds, it’s even more impressive than that.  A person with perfect pitch can name every single note played before them, every chord, every combination of notes, every interval, and can distinguish subtle changes in pitch in a singer’s voice or instrument’s tuning.  If a cat meows a B-flat, a person with perfect pitch can distinguish it immediately.

Having such an ability has obvious advantages to a musician, songwriter or a composer, but it also has tremendous drawbacks.  Most of us probably get that spine-tightening feeling when we hear an off-key rendition of Let it Be, but to a person with perfect pitch, it can cause an actual physiological response, inducing nausea, and headaches.  Most people notice when they hear an out-of-tune guitar happily strumming along, but musicians in general, and those with perfect pitch in particular, hear it much more severely.

 

Perfect Pitch is extremely rare.  It is estimated that only 1 in 10,000 people (usually trained in music before age 6) are identified with this talent. In my 20+ years as a musician, and 16 years as a music teacher, I have met a person with perfect pitch just once.  She was a jazz singer I knew very briefly with a voice that could melt butter. I was a little too inexperienced to give her a properly-designed double-blinded study (at the time, I didn’t even know what that meant) but I did blind her while I played various notes, chords and intervals on various instruments, and she never failed.  To her, this was not so much a talent, but it was just a regular part of how she processed every sound that she heard.  She wasn’t even aware it was a thing until other musicians later pointed it out to her.

This is a feeling that is universal to those with perfect pitch: they can describe tones as easily as you and I describe colours.  If I ask you to tell me what colour a Smurf is, you’ll say “blue”.  But how do you know it’s blue?  The answer is that we have arbitrarily ascribed nomenclature for sensory input: Blue, Sour, and F Sharp are all, as neuroscientist and record producer Daniel Levitin puts it,  psychophysical fictions, they do not exist in the world, but we’ve named them anyway.  Levitin also discovered that pitch is retained by memory, even if we don’t all have the musical names for it  (Levitin, This Is your Brain On Music, p147, Penguin, Toront0 2006), so it may be possible that we all have the capacity for perfect pitch, but this is purely speculative at this point.

But can it be taught?

In short, no.  True absolute perfect pitch seems to be one of those things that people are born with, and it’s still not entirely clear why.  There are some trends that indicate perfect pitch may tend to be higher in people with Williams Syndrome, and in children with autism spectrum disorder. In a study comparing Chinese and American music students, researchers found that Chinese students were more likely to possess perfect pitch.  This might imply a genetic component, but it’s also possible that because the Chinese students were exposed to a tonal language (Mandarin) from an early age whereas the American students were not (English is a language which does not depend on tone variation for communication), there may be a learned aspect to perfect pitch.  Clearly, more research needs to be done that isolates American-raised children of Chinese descent and Chinese-raised children of American decent, so as to hopefully identify a genetic predisposition.  To my knowledge, no such study exists.

Even if you’re not born with perfect pitch, you can teach yourself (or be taught how) to achieve near-perfect pitch.  Near perfect pitch does not refer to a person’s ability to identify a given note with 90% success, or an ability to very closely identify the correct note (such as an A instead of an A Flat).  Instead, Near perfect pitch differs from perfect pitch in one key aspect: Tonal reference.

An experienced musician can likely memorize the tone of a small number of notes, and use those as a baseline (no pun intended) for comparison.  In my case, I’m reasonably good at identifying notes in relation to an F, because of my familiarity with the song ‘I Will‘ by the Beatles (the word “knows” in the opening line, “Who knows how long I’ve loved you” is an F).  I can usually identify notes near an F (such as an E or a G) or a perfect fourth or perfect fifth from that F (a B-flat and C, respectively), and sometimes a D (thanks to Eric Clapton’s ‘Layla‘, played in D minor), but I’m afraid my skill ends there: I always have to compare notes to an F or a D, and I’m right enough to just barely do better then random chance.

But there are plenty of musicians that can identify notes much better than I can, and they did this through years and years of practice, and specialized ear training. One of the best ear training methods I teach to my students is to teach intervals (the space between two notes in a given scale), and to compare an interval to a known song:

Unison / Prime – Happy Birthday

Minor Second – Theme from ‘Jaws’

Major Second – Frère Jacques

Minor Third – Smoke on the Water (Deep Purple)

Major Third – When the Saints go Marching In

Perfect Fourth – Amazing Grace

Sharp fourth (tritone) – Theme from ‘The Simpsons’

Perfect Fifth  – Twinkle Twinkle Little Star

Minor Sixth – Because (The Beatles)

Major Sixth – My Bonnie Lies over the Ocean

Minor Seventh – Theme from ‘Star Trek’

Major seventh – Take On Me (A-Ha)

Octave (perfect 8th) – Somewhere Over the Rainbow.

This method generally works best with adults who already have an internalized library of music that they can draw from.  Children learn ear training (in my experience) best when they can physically see and hear the intervals as they play them (on a piano generally works best).   There are a few free online tests that can help you work on your interval training,but in order to take them, you need to know the interval names (such as in the list I provided above).

So while you may not be one of the few people with the gift of perfect pitch, you can, with time and practice, acquire a near-perfect facsimile.

I should provide a caveat here: a good deal of this article comes from my experience as a professional musician and music teacher, and less from the scientific literature.  I know that skeptics generally avoid speaking from anecdote, so take this article with a grain of salt.  Mind you, I do teach music for a living, so I like to think I am speaking from some level of expertise here.  If anything in this article is incorrect or misleading, please provide evidence in the comments, and I’d be happy to correct myself as needed.

5 Responses to “In Search of Perfect Pitch”

  1. Michael5MacKay says:

    Very interesting post Steve. I will try playing the list of songs later today.

  2. CyberLizard says:

    This article matches up neatly with my own experiences as a musician. I knew a single person with perfect pitch in high school. It was amazing to work with him. Interestingly, if I had to guess, I’d put his behavior as someone on the aspergers/autism spectrum.

    And your description of learned “near perfect” pitch exactly describes my experience as well. I trained the hell out of my ear to be able to identify middle C and from there used all the sight singing tricks you mention to find intervals off of that. I also get a milder form of those physiological responses to off-key music. I can’t even watch American Idol until the finals, if at all. ;-) Listening to the Star Spangled Banner before some event is literal torture for me!

  3. Composer99 says:

    I find I have very stong relative pitch, which I understand to be a mixture of talent, training, and theory; given one or two notes I can usually work through an entire part in a song without requiring further reinforcement.

    People who are more into musicals may find that West Side Story has two songs which fit in well with the interval mnemonics: “Maria” for the tritone, and “There’s A Place For Us” for the minor seventh.

    Interestingly enough, I think lists of well-known songs for upwards intervals are well known, but this does not seem to be the case for downwards intervals (not to say that such a list does not exist; only that it is less commonly encountered). I wonder why that is.

  4. Steve Thoms says:

    As far as the descending intervals are concerned, they have never come up in my practice. Vocal teachers often use descending interval training, but for the instruments that I teach, it simply has never come up. It may come up one day, and if it does, this is the list I’ve come up with:

    Descending
    Minor 2: Joy To The World
    Major 2: Mary Had a Little Lamb
    Minor 3: Hey Jude
    Major 3: Swing Low, Sweet Chariot
    Perfect 4: Eine kleine Nachtmusik (‘A Little Night Music’, Mozart)
    Tritone: YYZ (Rush)
    Perfect 5: Theme from The Flintstones
    Minor 6: Where Do I Begin (Theme from ‘Love Story’)
    Major 6: Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen
    Minor 7: Opening chords of “Hit The Road Jack”
    Major 7: Main theme from “Circus!”

  5. C. Child says:

    Steve,

    Thanks for explaining perfect pitch — I’d never heard of it before.

    I started playing violin when I was three. All the kids in my class were learning with the Suzuki method, which aims to teach pre-schoolers how to play an instrument at the same time they are learning their first language. It’s modeled after natural language acquisition, blah blah blah…

    I dropped out when I was 6! And didn’t return to music until a decade later.

    Anyway, I wonder if these kids are more likely to have perfect pitch, or at least something very much like it.

    Regards,

    - Chris

Trackbacks/Pingbacks


  • Steve Thoms

    Steve is a professional music teacher living in Kitchener, Ontario. He studied recorded music production at Fanshawe College, and Political Studies/History at Trent University, where he specialized in political economy and global politics. He is an amateur astronomer, and an award-winning astro-photographer. Steve also runs the blog, Oot and Aboot with Some Canadian Skeptic." can can be followed on Twitter, @SomeCndnSkeptic.