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Perfect Pitch

or similar.
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Replies (28): Threaded | Chronological
on July 29, 2011 12:12pm
Andrew:  You're welcome to try it, of course, but this has been around for literally DECADES, and I've never known anyone who developed perfect pitch through it.
There's been enough preliminary scientific study done to establish that perfect pitch is associated with a particular location in the brain, which is larger and more active in people with perfect pitch than in the normal population.  In other words, it's something that you are born with or you are not.
But it also requires training, and that's the gimmick that this company is preying on.  After all, you might be able to recognize frequencies but not to hang labels on them, just as a trained artist can differentiate more different colors than someone without training because they learn more labels for the colors.  The lead in my barbershop quartet could pick an F out of thin air, just from having sung that note so many times as a pickup note, but that's pure muscle memory and not perfect pitch.  And our lead trumpet player could identify just about any note played on the trumpet, by its particular tonal quality and the degree of tension in the tone, but that isn't perfect pitch either.
I do NOT have perfect pitch, but I've know enough people who do to understand that it is a real phenomenon and that it does exist.  What I do have is very good relative pitch, which mean that given a known pitch I can usually identify any other pitch by its relationship to the given pitch.  But THAT is something that is learned and that most good musicians have, whereas most good musicians do NOT have perfect pitch recognition, and many of those who do consider it more a handicap than a useful ability!
All the best,
on July 29, 2011 5:38pm
Evidence shows that perfect pitch is more trainable than that.
At the Beijing Conservatory, over 90% of the students have absolute
pitch.  This seems to be a byproduct of speaking a tonal language.
One person who has investigated this is Diana Deutsch: here is a
Radio Lab segment on this topic:
Brian Holmes
on July 29, 2011 8:53pm
Yes, I'm aware of the tonal language studies, but I've always wondered whether absolute pitch is the proper term.  After all, a child's voice can't reproduce the exact frequencies of a grown man's voice in a bass-baritone range.  Nor would I think that men's and women's voices reproduce exactly the same frequencies.  The normal bell distribution of vocal ranges doesn't get repealed just because a particular language happens to be tonal.
And of course the Radio Lab (whatever THAT is) segment you cite is nothing but a journalistic article, and not a very well written one at that.  It would, of course, be interesting to read the original experimental report, but I tend to have the same reservations as some of the Comments on that site.
I also question an experimental design that deliberately chooses subjects who are self-selected as advanced music students.  That makes any statistical conclusions suspicious right off the bat, and one of the factors that obviously wasn't controlled for is the extent to which the Chinese system deliberately seeks out young people who already HAVE the characteristics that they believe lead to musical success, much like the Russian and East German track athletes and the Romanian gymnasts.
So it sounds a lot as if we're talking relative pitch rather than absolute pitch, right?
All the best,
on August 1, 2011 9:11am
John Howell writes:
"...The normal bell distribution of vocal ranges doesn't get repealed just because a particular language happens to be tonal."
I respond:
While I don't have a bell-curve fetish, I do respect empirical evidence.  And since the Handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997, the proportion of Caucasian expats in my large amateur choir has decreased, while the proportion of Asian locals has increased.  Over the same time, it has become harder to find true altos, which supports the anecdotal evidence that the alto voice occurs naturally less frequently among Asians than it does among Europeans.  And also over the same time, the proportion of individuals in the choir who possess absolute pitch has increased.  Hmm.  Anybody for repeal?
Best regards,
Jerome Hoberman
on August 1, 2011 1:30pm
Excellent and helpful observations, Jerome.  There are frequency distributions (the famous "bell curve") for both the general population and for specific subsets of the general population, such as national groups or language groups or any other kind of groups.  (A running joke in psychology is that most experimental results cannot be generalized beyond the population of college sophomores, since those are the subjects who most often volunteer for psychological testing!!)
In my own experience, the "normal" voice distributions and voice types found in caucasian Europeans, which our choral music is based on, do not necessarily generalize to the voice types found in African-Americans.  I would certainly expect to find differences in other limited population groups as well.  (And let's not forget that "alto" means "high," and originally denoted a high man's voice, not a low woman's voice.)
It doesn't take a bell-curve fetish to recognize that it's a valid distribution plot for many different human characteristics.  Just an introductory statistics course.
All the best,
on July 30, 2011 2:13am
This is off the top of my head, and from the viewpoint of a bystander listening in to technical discussions, but I recall hearing from respected music specialists (both foreign and local) in Japan that an unexpectedly large proportion of Japanese have perfect pitch -- and theirs is not a tonal language. Apparently the music teachers specifically seek to train their students to develop it -- and a lot of them do.

I imagine most music teachers do not try to do this, since it is not a particularly useful accomplishment to have. In the various choirs I have sung in, over many decades, I recall several singers having to do instant transposition note by note when a choir director decided on a slightly higher or slightly lower key -- while the rest of us automatically switched keys without a blink.

FWIW, Doreen Simmons in Tokyo

on July 30, 2011 4:36am
Growing up with a parent with perfect pitch, I can tell you it's a real mixed blessing. The absolute requirement for perfection is rather a strain on those without the "gift". Now, at age 75, my parent is unable to continue singing in choir due to a disagreement with another singer regarding pitch accuracy. Of course my parent was right and the other singer was wrong, but the damage was done. Be careful for what you ask (or train) for. I'm not sure the musical value outweighs the potential social awkwardness.
on July 31, 2011 9:49am
I was born with perfect pitch. I learned the names of notes when my mother started teaching me to play the piano before I was 2 and without any special instrucion, I could always name notes Iimmediately that I heard played anywhere. It was always helpful to be able to identify correct pitch from choirs, but a nuiscance to have to transpose pieces mentally that were changed to a different key. When I reached my seventies, I found my pitch started to slip, and for many years now, I consistently hear everything a whole tone too high. I have talked with other professional musicians who said they also found their perfect pitch slipping with age.  Humming a note and thinking about its colour helps, but it's not the same as being able to name a note immediately without thinking.
Ruth Watson Henderson
on July 31, 2011 12:38pm
Hi, Ruth.  I've observed almost the opposite.  I had a young student who gave no indication of having perfect pitch, but seemed to develop it almost spontaneously at about age 14.  She was a violinist as well as a singer, and as concertmaster claimed to be able to distinguish between A=440 and A=442 when our orchestra conductor asked for the very slightly higher pitch!  And listening to recordings of baroque music at A=415 drove her nuts!
And a friend, Arthur Squires, was one of the original tenors in New York Pro Musica when they first started up in the '50s (after having been a chemical engineer involved in the Manhattan Project!), and had/has perfect pitch.  But since early music often used old clefs, he simply learned to read the 9 movable clefs and used them to transpose the music when he needed to sing it in a different key.  American students are not taught to read clefs any more, although Nadia Boulanger was still teaching them to her students in Paris in the mid-20th century.
All the best,
on July 31, 2011 12:02pm
People often think I have perfect pitch. I do not. I have what I call "very good pitch memory." If I need to come up with a note out of thin air, I imagine the piano keyboard and what that note sounds like. I am right most of the time. I do tend to rely on the sight of the note to determine the pitch so transposed scores will throw me at first and then I have to switch over to relative singing pitches.
I find that children can develop this "memory." If they've rehearsed a piece for quite sometime, they'll be able to start singing it in the key it's written in. I expect that many choral singers could start singing a favorite anthem in the correct key. You just need to imagine Mozart's Ave Verum or Thompson's Alleluia or whatever piece you could probably sing from memory. The trick with the kids is to not rely on the piano too much, teach them to sight-read independently, and always make sure the model they hear is in tune. That will develop the "vocabulary" for them to have good pitch memory in life.
Julia Simon
Silicon Valley Boychoir
on July 31, 2011 2:00pm
Julia:  A perfect example of your second paragraph was the first recording of the works of Bach conducted by Nicholas Harnancourt with his European baroque orchestra and the choir of Kings College, Cambridge.  (It was the St. John Passion, as it happens.)
It was fairly obvious to an experienced listener that the choirboys had rehearsed the work at A=440, because especially in the opening chorus they sang consistently sharp to the orchestra's A=415.  As the work progressed their pitch got better and better, and someone unfamiliar with baroque performance practice and pitch probably wouldn't have noticed, but it was pretty obvious to us.
All the best,
on July 31, 2011 2:19pm
Perfect Pitch is as Gretchen pointed out a mixed blessing. I have what might be called 'excellent relative pitch', meaning that I am 95% accurate on where I ned to be. The other 5% requires hard work to catch up.Some I've sung with with perfect pitch struggled when things weren't "perfect". This was particularly true if a piece was transposed to a different key from what was on the page in front of them.
One of my early theory teachers encouraged anyone with perfect pitch to develope their relative pitch. His theory was that even with P.P. they had the ability to train their ear to easily transpose what was on the page, by becoming very accurate in their interval work. If you knew what the interval was you could transpose it to any key easily. 
on August 1, 2011 5:22am
May I weigh in on this topic by questioning the concept of perfect pitch? Imagine what Bach would say were he to be transported to a modern performance of the B Minor Mass (using A=440)--he might wonder why we were doing the work in c minor. His location of the pitch b would differ from ours, yet it would be hard to assume that Bach did not possess perfect pitch. Indeed, the entire early music performance assumption is founded on the idea that the key referenced by the notation is lower than today's key. I think perfect pitch is more correctly understood as perfectly reliable pitch using today's standard of A=440. I have not heard of someone having perfect pitch at A=415, unless they were one of the several folks I've taught over the years who sang reliably flat.
on August 1, 2011 9:58am
Hi, Floyd.  On the contrary, I would say that there is no evidence whatsoever that Bach HAD absolute pitch, and of course no evidence that he did not, either.  In fact no evidence either way, outside of the observation that he could tune his harpsichord in about 10 minutes.  It's usually non-musicians who make the assumption that any great musician must have had perfect pitch.
And the assumption in early music circles is NOT that pitch was lower.  The modern "baroque pitch" of A=415 is nothing but a modern convenience based on the simple fact that it's about a halfstep below A=440.  In fact there was NO standard pitch, and pitch could AND DID vary from place to place and even from church to church in the same city!  Travelers reported that pitch in Paris was the lowest in Europe (c. A=392 or even lower), which pitch in Venice was the highest (c. A=460 or higher).  And Bach himself had to deal with at LEAST four different local pitches:  high and low choir pitch and high and low chamber pitch.
Bruce Haynes covers all this rather well in his book, "The Story of A."
All the best,
on August 2, 2011 6:12am
Hi John - I always enjoy the wealth of information you bring to these discussions.
I think evidence that "perfect pitch" is a misnomer resides in your accurate characterization: there is no standard pitch. How can anyone possess accuracy to a generally agreed-upon frequency for a pitch when the written symbol for that pitch possesses no standard audible meaning?
A second reflection I had yesterday involved the complete unpredictability of a connection between someone claiming "perfect pitch" and his/her ability to sight-sing. One would think that the perfection of A=440 would naturally lead to the perfection of the other eleven pitches, but I have not found it so. 
An additional factor might be that a range of performers (string players and barbershop quartet singers, for example) often tune their leading tones and thirds higher than their enharmonic equivalents in particular circumstances. Perfect pitch implies A=440 (for example), but performing the well-tempered version of all twelve notes is only one way to produce pitch. Does someone with "perfect pitch" accurately produce meantone tuning without the same practice and education than one without such a gift? Would a person with "perfect pitch" exhibit meantone rather than well-tempered tuning if it were not for the near total dominance of well-tempered tuning in virtually all music most of us experience for our lives? Context seems critical.
I for one would rather not dwell on such a fuzzy and error-laden concept as "perfect pitch." Let's teach critical hearing and singing skills, and try to achieve "perfectly reliable" results.
on August 2, 2011 9:27pm
Floyd:  You bring up an interesting point that hasn't been addressed.  I guess that absolute pitch must be an ability that's both inherent (genetic) and learned, while sightreading music well is clearly a learned skill rather than an inherent ability.  Yes, we expect them to go together, but that doesn't mean they actually do.  Many singers who read music well say that they hear in their "mind's ear" what the intervals are that they need to sing next.  But perhaps KNOWING what the notes are may not be as accurate, in some ways, as knowing the intervals???  Yet another good argument for learning solfege!!
And while some singers and some instrumentalists are trained to stretch their major 3rds wider than equally-tempered major 3rds, that's really a 19th century affectation, based on the concept of raising the leading tones to be closer to the tonics they resolve to.  In other words, it is a MELODIC adjustment.  Those who specialize in early music, on the other hand often sing their major 3rds NARROWER than equally-tempered major 3rds, in the precise 4:5 frequency ratio that's found in the natural harmonic series, and THAT is actually what makes chords "ring."  After all, it's ONLY keyboard players who are really stuck with some kind of temperament, because they can't adjust the pitch of individual notes as they play.  Singers have ALWAYS been able to make micro-adjustments in their intervals, and sing in what I think would be called "pure" or "just" intonation with all intervals in the small whole-number ratios of the harmonic series.  That is a HARMONIC adjustment.
And yes, there is a constnat conflict between melodic tuning and harmonic tuning, just one of the many things that makes musicians' lives interesting!
All the best,
P.S.  No, meantone tuning would NOT be what anyone except a keyboard player would be interested in, and to a modern ear, saturated with equal temperament, it sounds horribly out of tune, just as equal temperament, to an ear saturated with pure just intonation, sounds horribly out of tune.  In meantone tuning the several most used major thirds are tuned pure (narrow), but in order to do so the perfect 5ths are tuned MUCH narrower and out of tune than in equal temperament, and the bad intervals are spread around unequally making free modulation unpleasant.  In fact some of the instructions for meantone tuning say to "tune the 5ths as narrow as the ear can stand"!
on August 1, 2011 7:02am
The term "perfect pitch" is misleading. Relative pitch can be more important when playing with other people. You tune to a given pitch which can vary, i.e. A=415 instead of A=440, but your relative pitch can keep you finely tuned to that pitch. "Perfect pitch" however is the pitch you hear without being given a note to tune to, and it may not be perfectly accurate to as fine a degree. I have 2 daughters who are string players and their relative pitch is more sensitive than mine. Sometimes they are still tuning after I think they are in tune. Their relative pitch is often more useful than my "perfect pitch".
on August 1, 2011 10:12am
Hi, Ruth.  You commented that sometimes your daughters keep tuning after you think they are in tune.  I would bet anything that you're talking about tuning the open strings, not tuning in the context of a passage they're playing.  And in that case, they are tuning until the resultant tone or undertone or "Tartini" tone locks in and reinforces the two notes in the sounding 5th.  It was first described by Giuseppe Tartini in the 18th century and recommended as a way for violinists to fine-tune their double stops as well.  And it's no wonder that a violinist would be the first to recognize these tones (which are an acoustical phenomenon created in the human brain thanks to the non-linearity of the human hearing mechanism), since violinists have their ears closer to the sound source than players of any other instruments.
Example:  If A=440 hz, E=660 hz.  The resultant "undertone" produced is 660 minus 440, or 220 hz, which is one octave below the lower note of the interval, and when that locks in the "beats" smooth out and the fiddler knows that the 5th is tuned perfectly.
IF your perfect pitch is to equal temperament, you will not hear the perfect 5ths as "perfect," because equally-temered 5ths are NOT acoustically perfect.
All the best,
on August 1, 2011 12:29pm
Thank You X 7.
on August 1, 2011 1:29pm
John - that was most interesting.  Thank you.
PS  According to a friend of mine with either perfect pitch or extremely good relative pitch (after these discussions I'm not sure which)   he says that every newborn baby he has heard cry starts exactly on the note A  (440).
on August 1, 2011 7:23pm
And now, folks, for something completely different.  On the miracle of perfect pitch. And, for me, it is a miracle in many ways. 
(I, BTW, have very good relative pitch and rely on muscle memory--my touchstone is middle C, I just know how it's suppose to feel in my body and go from there when I am singing but, conducting, I just *know* when it isn't in tune!)
Okay, back to my story.  I have three sons--the middle boy is a percussionist (and has advanced degrees in math/physics) and we used to say when the kids were young, he had *perfect rhythm* because both of his brothers have perfect pitch and we didn't want him to feel bad. I do believe there is such as thing as perfect rhythm and that kid's got it! My youngest boy has perfect pitch which showed itself when he was about 9 and I was in grad school and preparing a recital--I was working on Barber's "Despite and Still" song cycle and little Benjie told me when I was practicing I was singing more C-ish than the C#ish I was suppose be singing--I was tired! He told me at the time he never understood why people didn't tune correctly because he just assumed EVERYONE could hear what he was hearing. He has advanced degrees in piano, played cello as a kid, and is a member here on ChoralNet. And it can be a blessing and a curse for him as well, since he also plays harpsichord.  You can start the jokes about the harpsichord......I've heard them......and so has he!
Now, for the miracle part.  My eldest boy has perfect pitch.  He is nonverbal and has autism.  I realised he had perfect pitch when we took him to his brothers' youth symphony concerts.  One concert, the upper strings kept tuning and tuning and tuning and Ben was sitting with us.  Russ started humming and humming (remember, he is not able to speak),  Ben turned to me and said, "Mom, Russell's humming the pitch they SHOULD be playing!" Russell loves to have the piano tuner come to tune our Steinway.  If the tuner is distracted, Russ will hum the next key--and the pitch it's suppose to be--he needs to tune.  The tuner has told me, he just hates people with perfect pitch.  I told him not to hate Russell because it's the only thing he can do. And that tuner LOVES to have Russ sit in the living room when he is working......he feels good to know Russell appreciates him!
And he does understand pitch and "in tune-ness".......but he is not able to speak or read or write.  He understands unison and harmony and who is not in unison or not singing the correct harmony.  I could go on but you get the idea.  It always boggles my mind how someone so disabled can be, well, gifted with perfect pitch.  I kinda puts it in perspective, don't you think?
on August 2, 2011 2:09am
That is amazing - and very moving.  
on August 2, 2011 9:27am
This discussion has been very interesting to read, but also very frustrating. I  have perfect pitch and have had it, I suppose, for as long as I can remember. I have also been singing in choirs for as long as I can remember. This has never been a curse and has only occasionally been a blessing. Perhaps because I was also trained as a string player and sang in choirs that discussed intervals, I have always sight read using intervals and a sense of harmonic function. Only occasionally (in some 20thC music), if a note seems to appear out of nowhere, with no reference point in sight, will I access a note through perfect pitch.  
In general, singers with perfect pitch who feel it's a curse are probably missing out. A few thoughts....
Singers with perfect pitch who express frustration about singing in a choir because others are singing "out of tune" are missing the beauty of choral music entirely and could quite possibly be out of tune themselves. As an earlier post noted, a true perfect fifth sung by several singers will not be comprised of the two frequencies that a piano would produce playing the "same" notes. Likewise, a true major third in the context of a major chord sung by a choir will be significantly lower than it will sound on the piano. Thus if we're in C major, the E that my choir sings is lower than the E of the piano. Only then does the chord "lock" and take on a new, amazing ring that's simply not possible on the piano. In a cappella music, to stick to the "correct" (ie equal tempered) frequency of a given letter name is to prevent your choir from truly singing in tune and experiencing the glory of acoustics. To achieve that kind of tuning, singers have to *listen,* not simply produce exact frequencies with their voices. Learning how to listen and sing in tune with an ensemble is far more valuable than knowing how to pull a C# out of thin air.
Also, simply to head to a particular frequency just by knowing where it is via perfect pitch is to miss the joy of knowing and feeling one's function in a V-I cadence, or as the seventh of a jazz chord. "Transposing" every pitch in your mind?? What a hassle!! Just last weekend I sang Byrd's Mass for Five voices two on a part, a whole step away from where the music was printed, and if I had been mentally shifting every note down a whole step in my mind, I would have been behind and wouldn't have been able to enjoy phrasing and tuning with the other members of the ensemble. 
I love early music, and I would hate to think that there are singers with perfect pitch out there shying away from this glorious repertoire. Much of the music of the baroque and earlier, many musicologists believe, was not only sung somewhat lower but also in a variety of temperaments. I say "somewhat lower" because A415 is not a standard but an oft-used agreed upon convenience. Who's to say that any given choir in the 15th century wouldn't pitch the same motet in two different places on two different days depending on certain variables (like, say, the singer with the really low notes was ill that day, so the piece had to be taken up a tone, or the choirboys had the day off, so the piece could move down a third)? Beyond where one fixes "A" or any given pitch, different temperaments change the relationships of the notes to one another in all sorts of ways. The results can be very satisfying. I sang a concert once at A 392, in a quirky French Baroque temperament where not only did "A" not mean 440, but "A" had a totally new relationship to Bb as its leading tone. It was a delight to use my ears and live in the colorful world of that temperament. I conducted a group of 12 women singing Poulenc's Litanies a la Vierge Noire in a church in southern France where organ there was roughly a whole step lower than the standard tuning. 3 of the 12 women in the group had perfect pitch. Fortunately, we had sung the piece enough that they were able to adapt/transpose the melodic bits as a whole to the new pitch location and still feel their harmonic role in Poulenc's idiosyncratic chords. Had they been completely reliant on their perfect pitch, we would have had a sub optimal performance. 
In graduate school, in a required "hearing" class (aural skills/theory), about half of the students in the top level had perfect pitch. The professor made a point of playing dictations in a key other than the one she told the students they were in. She also demanded that students not conceptualize chords at clusters of individual pitches but instead as sonorities with functional tendencies. In analysis she prioritized non-pitched parameters (texture, orchestration, rhythm, phrase length, etc) over concerns of individual notes. Though it initially frustrated many of them, all of the students with perfect pitch appreciated this approach, as it attuned their ears more keenly to so many other facets of the music they loved, thereby deepening their listening experiences and enhancing their own playing. I would encourage all teachers of music, whether they're teaching young people or seasoned graduate students, to emphasize that there's more to music than pitch. As a choral conductor, I would even go so far as to encourage a high school choral teacher who has student(s) with perfect pitch to try sight singing examples with their groups a step or two away from printed pitch. 
Just thought I'd share a few cents!
Ryan Brandau
on August 2, 2011 9:50am
I certainly don't know the science behind perfect pitch but being someone who has it, I can honestly say it does have its pros and cons. When I was 3 years old, my parents bought me a Magnus organ. For those who don't know what those things were, they were a small electronic device - some with legs, some without - that had push-button chords with a limited keyboard. Every Sunday after church, I would come home and immediately start to play and work out the hymns I had heard earlier that day and pick out the chords on those buttons. The strange thing was, even though I didn't know how to read music, I would play them in the keys they were written in the hymnbook because that is what I had heard and remembered. A little time later, my parents noticed what I was doing and spoke to the local piano teacher about it. She taught me the names of the notes and soon discovered my "pitch prowess". As the years have progressed, it has definitely changed and I no longer have the sharpness I once had. I think one reason for this is that I worked in a recording studio for over 17 years and with the evolution of auto-tune, I think it somehow upset that certain balance I used to have in my brain.
One thing I whole-heartedly agree with is the frustration with transposing "on the fly" because of pitch problems in choirs or ensembles. I know this has caused me various degrees of difficulty just because I look at the music, see the notes and hear the notes in my mind as they are to be played or sung and when you have to literally switch gears to accommodate another pitch, what you're looking at doesn't agree with what you hear. I have learned how to take a few moments and memorize quickly just so I don't have to look at the notes when this happens. One pro about this - I am a great sight reader and learn music extremely quickly!
Perhaps this might be a great subject for Oliver Sachs since he specializes in brain injury and function. If you haven't read anything by him, I would highly recommend his book "Musicophilia"
Layne Thompson-Payne
on August 7, 2011 4:38pm
I always thought that "perfect pitch" was simply pitch memory.  One of my undergrad college professors told us of a student who was a violinist who first learned music on a piano where the G#5 was out of tune.  In order to play her violin in tune, she had to consciously correct that G# to what sounded to her to be out of tune.  (He told us the story to emphasize the importance of keeping our instruments in tune.
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