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.