I was about 10 years old when I learned that there was something different about me. During a jazz band practice in a music summer school I was attending, the instructor played a phrase on the piano and asked us what he had just played. Naively, I verbally repeated back — note-name by note-name — the entire phrase. Surprised, he went back to the piano and played a note, asking me if I knew what it was. A bit confused, I said “Yeah … that’s an ‘F’.” After a couple more successful note-identifications, the instructor informed me that I had perfect pitch.
Up until this point, I had never considered that the ability to name the pitches that I could hear was not shared by everyone. Since then, I have learned that perfect or absolute pitch is a unique ability (perhaps comparable to the photographic memory) that is only experienced by 1 in 10,000 people.
How Does Perfect Pitch Work?
Perfect pitch (usually referred to as “absolute pitch recognition” by scientists) is the capability of certain people to hear a note, without any harmonic context, and correctly identify its pitch. It is different from “relative pitch,” the ability to correctly identify note pitches based on their relationship to another note. (Eg. If someone plays a ‘C’ and from that you figure out the distance to sing an F-sharp back.) Rather than measuring the interval to the next note, as most musicians do, individuals with perfect pitch jump to each pitch as if it were a landmark on the ground. Their mind works like a piano keyboard: each pitch has its own place and anything in-between is simply a flat or sharp version of one of the real notes. Singing a string of random notes (such as ‘D’ ‘G-flat’ ‘E’ ‘C-sharp’ ‘B’) correct on the first try is no harder for them than if would be for a pianist to play them on the piano. To people who find this ability hard to believe, I remind them that just about all people can recognize a certain shade of color without comparing it to another. In practice, absolute pitch ability works about the same, except instead of colors, some people can recognize pitch.
If you want to test yourself for perfect pitch, try this survey and test from University of California, San Francisco.
How Do You Get Perfect Pitch?
Scientists are not certain how perfect pitch is developed, but there is a general consensus that it is a mixture of genetics and early-aged exposure/training. A recent study reported by the American Psychological Association reports that almost everyone may be born with the ability to recognize absolute pitches as an infant, a hard-wired sense to facilitate language-learning, but that the ability disappears for good if it is not developed.
Jenny Saffran, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and her colleagues reached this conclusion by playing a random sequence of notes for 20 8-month-olds. Immediately afterward, half of the babies listened to a set of notes taken from the previously heard stream. The other group of infants listened to a set of notes that were the same tune as the original note stream, just transposed to a different key. That is, the notes’ relationship to each other did not change, but their absolute pitches did.
The infants who heard excerpts from the note stream transposed to a different key paid attention to the recording about one second longer than the infants who heard the exact same pitches as before.
Babies pay more attention to novel sounds than ones they’ve recently heard, Saffran says. Therefore, the study suggests that infants recall the absolute pitch of notes and notice when they are transposed, she says.
Adults in a similar experiment, however, did not distinguish between the two groups of notes–they recalled the notes’ relationship to each other, but not their pitches, Saffran adds.
Though they are born hard-wired to recognize absolute pitches, in their first few years most children in America and Europe quickly lose their ability to do so because that skill is not practiced. In Western languages absolute pitch is not typically used, but rather relative pitch: we raise the pitch of our voice to emphasize or indicate we are asking a question, but it is not important what specific pitch the voice rests upon. This is not true in tonal languages, such as Mandarin, however in which words must be intoned on certain absolute pitches or risk misinterpretation. Children who speak a tonal language, therefore, have a district advantage at developing perfect pitch:
Diana Deutsch, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of California, San Diego, tested this hypothesis by playing 36 notes to a group of 88 Mandarin-speaking Chinese music students and 155 English-speaking American music students. The students wrote down the name of each note after hearing it played. [...]
Of the Chinese music students, 63 percent named the notes correctly–within a half step–at least 85 percent of the time. Of the American students, only 7 percent met the criteria for absolute pitch.
Speaking a tonal language is not a fail-proof answer to develop perfect pitch, however. Absolute pitch requires that the individual marry a sensibility to pitch level with a knowledge and experience of the structure of the musical scale to the point that their brain knows no other explanation for pitch. If a given tone has a discernible fundamental frequency, it cannot help but label it with a pitch, even if the sound is coming from a chain-saw or the squeak of a shoe on a gym floor. Studies have shown that this thorough education of the musical scale must usually be given while the brain is still formatting for language, typically before the age of 6. That the training is on an instrument (rather than singing, which is almost always performed by children without a thought for what pitch they are on), and even better, an instrument that requires repetitive tuning (such as the violin) all increase the likelihood of developing perfect pitch.
Even with early music education and tonal language experience, however, a large percentage of children still do not develop perfect pitch. Studies have shown a few factors that seem to indicate that there is indeed an element of heredity to the possibility of a child developing perfect pitch. Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco have been conducting a study that involves identifying individuals with absolute pitch recognition and studying any genetic similarities. Already, they have determined that the ability seems to run in families: assuming that both individuals have had early music training, the one with a sibling with perfect pitch is 15 times more likely to have the ability themselves. The graph they have generated of the results of participants taking their “Perfect Pitch Test” shows distinct groupings of high and low scores on pitch recognition with little in the middle, showing that when it comes to perfect pitch “either you got it or your don’t.” Researchers even think that they may have identified a few specific genes that are shared by possessors of perfect pitch.
What’s It Like to Have Perfect Pitch?
As stated above, having perfect pitch is like hearing the world through a keyboard in your head: Every sound that has a discernible pitch (some are just noise and don’t) can be identified as a specific pitch. If the sound is not exactly on a pitch, the listener will interpret it as a slightly out-of-tune version of the pitch it is closest to. This doesn’t mean that every time someone talks a person with perfect pitch is tracking the pitches they are intoning on. Fortunately, the brain usually filters out that kind of useless information or we might go crazy! But if they choose to focus in on that, then yes, a person with perfect pitch could probably tell you what pitches you tend to talk on.
Musicians with perfect pitch are often either idolized or spurned for having a super-human ability that places them unfairly above others. It is, however, a blessing and a curse. Yes, perfect pitch is often very helpful for tuning and sight-reading, provided that standard tuning is used. It is, however, a curse when a lower tuning is used (such as for baroque music), when the piece is being transposed, or when the ensemble is not in tune. In fact, the whole mindset of pitch being absolute can get people with perfect pitch into trouble in bands, orchestras and choirs where singing the written pitch does not matter much if it does not harmonize with everyone else. Today’s perfect pitch (I suppose it was different in earlier eras) operates on the structure of equal temperament, a tuning system that is not entirely natural and is often not used by ensembles. Rather, they typically use the acoustically correct just intonation in which ‘F-sharp’ is slightly higher than ‘G-flat’. (Ask any professional violinist if they do this. Don’t ask a singer, they do it without realizing it.) For someone with perfect pitch, the thought of adjusting a pitch according to its harmonic function likely will not make any sense. Ironically, many skilled musicians with perfect pitch learn to ignore that ability and instead develop and use relative pitch to achieve the subtle pitch nuances that can make all the difference in a high-quality performance.
How Can I Develop Relative Pitch?
As I stated before, only 1 in 10,000 develop perfect pitch, but almost anyone (including people with perfect pitch) can and should learn relative pitch. After receiving a reference note (usually the key of the song), a person with relative pitch uses their knowledge and experience of scales and intervals to measure out each note and sing it in tune. Unlike perfect pitch, relative pitch ability varies widely according to training and practice. The best way to develop relative pitch is to practice scales, chords and intervals paying close attention to how they sound. Try them with and without accompaniment (especially if the instrument requires individual note tuning such as the voice or violin) and work on consistency of intonation. Usually, this kind of ear training is included in any formal instrument or voice study.
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