Perfect pitch, also called absolute pitch, is the ability to identify or sing a note without any reference. That’s the definition, but there is a lot more to it than that. Perfect pitch is often misunderstood. There’s a common misconception in the musical community that perfect pitch is not only unimportant, but actually bad to have. In order to understand exactly what it is and if there is even a need for it, we need to have a very clear understanding about what it actually is, and what it is not.
What is Perfect Pitch?
Briefly, I want to be more specific about what perfect pitch actually is. Someone with established perfect pitch can recognize immediately the pitches that your doorbell is producing, the notes your blender makes, or even reproduce the knock at the door in the correct pitch. A person with perfect pitch would not have to run to the piano and check if they were right. They just know. It’s kind of like being a human tuner.
An person with perfect pitch can recognize musical pitches in every day life like you can recognize words that you hear. If someone spoke to you in your language and an accent you’re familiar with, there’s no thought involved in recognizing the words they are using. Depending on the subject it may take longer to understand the meaning of those words, but the words themselves are obvious. This is how an individual with perfect pitch hears sounds. They can recognize sounds innately.
What Perfect Pitch is Not
Perfect pitch is not relative pitch. Having good relative pitch does not lead to perfect pitch, and having good perfect pitch does not lead to relative pitch. They are two completely different skills.
People with relative pitch can identify notes and chords by ear, as long as they have a reference note. For example, if you heard a C and was told that it was a C, you could then accurately identify an F because you could tell the distance it is from the C you heard earlier.
If you had relative pitch and heard three notes at once, you could tell what they sound like in relationship to each other, and identify the type of chord it was. If a reference note is not given, someone with good relative pitch could still recognize the distances from one note to another. They could therefore replicate the sounds they hear relatively. Without a reference pitch the notes the person with relative pitch reproduce may not be the same as the notes they heard, but the distance between them would be the same.
Perfect pitch does not need a reference. Even if someone with perfect pitch has a reference note, they are likely just identifying the note in isolation in their minds. An F sounds like an F to someone with perfect pitch. If after the F the person heard a C, the person with perfect pitch would recognize it as a C. They wouldn’t recognize the distance it was away from the F. If the person with perfect pitch understood music theory, they would be able to recognize that interval as a fifth because they know an F to a C is a fifth, not because they were using relative pitch to hear that distance.
Relative pitch is learned, and perfect pitch is innate or developed naturally at a very young age.
Common Perfect Pitch Myths
Perfect pitch is enigmatic. People have difficulty understanding and defining it. Many myths have developed around perfect pitch that need to be dispelled. Let’s look at a few of them.
It’s a Curse
People with perfect pitch know when anything is out of tune. They can tell the difference between an A at 440 Hz and an A at 442 Hz (the difference between those two frequencies is almost inaudible to most people). This can actually be true. There are degrees of perfect pitch. Some people with perfect pitch wouldn’t be able to tell a difference between those two frequencies, but others could.
Here’s the thing. There is nothing innately special about the way we tune our instruments. The A of just a few hundred years ago is closer to our current Ab than it is to our A. The letters we give to frequencies are just labels. If we tune one a little higher than normal, nothing changes other than the pitch is a little higher than normal. A person strong good perfect pitch may be able to tell the difference, but there would be no reason why it would “bother” them in any way.
In fact, a lot of conductors have perfect pitch, and they routinely tune their orchestras higher than accepted concert pitch.
Bad Music Sounds Worse
If the clarinet is playing a note that isn’t in tune with the flutes, wouldn’t that bother someone with perfect pitch more? Because people with perfect pitch are more attune to slight pitch changes, this could bother them more than someone without perfect pitch. But really, who wants to listen to bad music? Whether you have perfect pitch or not, if you’re a trained musician, you can tell if music is out of tune. I wouldn’t want to hear it regardless of if I had perfect pitch or not.
You’re Born With It
Exploring the research around why people have perfect pitch is a little out of the scope of this article, but it does look like it is likely that people with perfect pitch acquire it because they are exposed to music from an early age rather than being born with it.
Perfect Pitch Isn’t Even Helpful
This seems to be the common consensus among musicians and educators. It’s just not true though. Let’s examine why.
Why Perfect Pitch is Helpful
No one establishes perfect pitch later in life (well almost nobody). Everyone with perfect pitch has “always had it.” It can be difficult to understand how helpful it is to a musician because no one has ever developed it. There’s no contrast to see how much developing it has helped.
In order to assess it’s importance we need to understand what perfect pitch helps musicians actually do not what it is. Once we understand this concept, it will be clear how important it is to musicians.
How Pitch Recognition/Ear Training is Helpful to the Classical Musician
Classical musicians just read music right? Yes, pretty much. So an ear for music won’t matter right? Well, not so fast. There are some very important ways that pitch recognition can aid a classical musician.
Being able repeat music that you hear in your head helps a lot with memorization. If you’re about to have a memory slip, but you know what the next note sounds like and you can repeat that note on your instrument, you won’t have that memory slip. It’s pretty simple.
Pitch recognition is also important when it comes to sight reading. If your eyes can’t keep up with the music, but you know what the music sounds like, you can play the music on your instrument while your eyes catch up. If you’re a pianist you can also start making up harmony to what you’re playing as well. You can usually tell if a sight reader has great pitch recognition, it’s like they never make mistakes. If you know what the next note is on your instrument by sound, and you can play the passage technically, why in the world would you play it wrong? You wouldn’t, and musicians with great pitch recognition don’t.
Practicing Pitch Recognition Through Relative Pitch is Difficult
No one would argue that being able to accurately play music that you hear in your head is a bad skill to have. Is it a skill you can learn? Of course it is. Relative pitch is a learned skill. It is only a learned skill. No one is born with incredible relative pitch. You need to work on it, and you need to work on it a lot.
Almost every major university will include ear training courses in music major instruction. When I took these required classes I noticed something. This class was hard. You’re being tested and judged on a learned skill, not the memorization of facts and numbers like most classes. For me it was one of my most difficult classes. It was the same way for a lot of other students.
Even after doing well in all of my undergraduate ear training classes, I still had little to no practical use for the pitch recognition I acquired. I wasn’t confident recognizing chords or even intervals. When sitting in a testing environment I could figure out what an interval was because I recognize it from a familiar piece, or I could sing up to the notes based on a scale. Maybe I could recognize the chords based on a couple of intervals I heard in them, or maybe I would just recognize what the chord was not which would give me a pretty good idea as to what the chord was.
I learned a lot of tricks that helped me (with some effort) to recognize what notes, chords, intervals, and melodies were. The problem was that this had almost no practical music applications. Dictation, writing down music that you hear, wasn’t so simple that I could hear a melody and write it out perfectly without effort. It took many listenings and a lot of corrections to even get close, and even then it was very rarely perfectly accurate. I couldn’t sing a melody in my head and feel confident I would play it on my instrument correctly, and I certainly couldn’t tell the quality of chords without a lot of effort.
I practiced too. I practiced a lot. I learned how to sight sing. Although I was never perfect, I could get a pretty good idea where the notes were, and where they were going. Why am I telling you all of this? Because even after receiving a degree in music, I wasn’t able to use my ear in any practical way for music practice or performance. That just stinks.
Maybe I was just an anomaly and ear training is just something I’m not good at, or maybe my school just didn’t teach it well? Yeah it’s possible. But I know I’m not alone in this.
I know a lot of educated musicians. Very few of them, without perfect pitch, have a good enough ear to recognize chords, intervals, and notes fast enough to apply them to music. In the classical music world, you can get by without ever having a very good ear. All of our music is written down for us. This may not be the case for other types of music like jazz where musicians typically have a much better ear on average. Jazz musicians must improvise, hear chord changes, and play music they hear in their heads. For most classical musicians this isn’t a requirement, so a lot of musicians don’t work on it much.
It’s taken for granted because as I’ve already explained, it’s really important.
You Can’t Use it Right Away
This tends to be the reason most people don’t work too hard on their ear training abilities. Until you’re really proficient you can’t use what you’ve learned in real music. Could you imagine having to go months or theoretically even years, while practicing a skill that you haven’t been able to use even once? Sure, if you try really hard you can pick out an interval or two, but it takes quite a lot of work to get to the point of being able to use your ear training in a practical sense. This is why it’s rarely learned by students of classical music.
Perfect Pitch is Unlearned Pitch Recognition
So the golden question is what does this all have to do with perfect pitch? We should all be on the same page now as to why pitch recognition is so important. Wouldn’t it seem like a bit of an unfair advantage if some people were just born with a near perfect ability to recognize pitches? Well there are plenty of people out there like that. They have perfect pitch.
Again I want to emphasize that perfect and relative pitch are different, but the outcome to both are the same, pitch recognition. Perfect pitch is pitch recognition for children that never need training in it. Pretty amazing? Yes, it’s amazing, and amazingly helpful. Don’t let anyone tell you differently.
Can Those Without Perfect Pitch Catch Up?
Music isn’t about catching up, it’s about expressing yourself. If you spend the time to work on your ear, then yes you can have functionally the same abilities as someone with perfect pitch. You can recognize notes almost instantaneously (with a reference pitch) and you can play them on your instrument. You can hear music in your head and play it on your instrument. The different is the amount of time it took you to get there. Having perfect pitch as a child can help the child progress faster than a child without it. They already have pitch recognition, so music will come easier to them. Of course, the person without perfect pitch can continue to develop their pitch recognition and get to that level, but they’ve missed out on all it helped the other person learn while they were a child.
This post isn’t meant to be discouraging, just realistic. There’s no reason to give up and say you’ll never be good enough without perfect pitch. It’s just not the case. But let’s be realistic and recognize perfect pitch for what it is, an advantage.
If you know of people with perfect pitch, perhaps you’ve noticed they are great musicians because they usually are. Correlation is not causation. There are many reasons why they could be amazing musicians. Maybe they are great musicians because they started young and having perfect pitch is just an outcome of starting young.
Sure this is possible, but logically it makes sense that having perfect pitch is an advantage. As musicians and teachers we should stop trying to make ourselves feel better that we don’t have perfect pitch by saying it’s not important. Instead, we should understand the importance of pitch recognition and spend more time working towards it for ourselves and for our students.