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If you've ever heard someone talk about a musician or vocalist, you might have heard someone say they have "perfect pitch". But what is perfect pitch?
2019-09-30

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Perfect Pitch and How It Works

Many successful musicians and singers have perfect pitch, so what is it? How do you know if you have perfect pitch? Here's some more information on this interesting phenomenon.

When we talk about musicians and vocalists, the concept of “perfect pitch” is an enviable trait to have. However, this innate understanding of tones isn’t just a neat character trait, it’s a valuable skill for musicians. In this article, we’ll explore the concept of perfect pitch, how it works, its relation with relative pitch, and why it helps people get a footing in the music scene.

What is Perfect Pitch?

Perfect pitch, or absolute pitch, is the ability to identify tones without a reference note. People with perfect pitch are able to recreate these tones, and typically do so perfectly. They do not have to “hunt” for the sound, which means making similar sounds to find the one they’re looking for, and they do not need someone to play the tone beforehand. If you ask them to sing or hum a certain note, they will do so with ease.

They can also identify the key signature of certain songs, and identify what notes are being played. People with absolute pitch tend to excel at learning songs by ear, and some never learn sheet music. The exact number of people with absolute pitch is unknown, but you can identify people with this skill by testing their ability to:

  • Name the key of a previously-unknown piece of music
  • Sing any tone on-demand
  • Name the pitches of car horns and certain alarms
  • Identify what pitches are being played on any instrument

Absolute pitch is a rare ability, and most people with this skill are born with it. While some argue that perfect pitch can be somewhat learned as an adult, others claim that it must be acquired at birth or learned as a young child. There have been no definite cases of an adult obtaining an innate sense of perfect pitch, though training and practice can make them well-versed in identifying tones.

Some groups are more predisposed to perfect pitch than others. For example, one study showed that children with autism or Williams syndrome had higher levels of perfect pitch among the participants. People born with optic nerve hypoplasia, which causes blindness, had higher levels of absolute pitch as well. Those with synesthesia also have higher levels of perfect pitch, since they often identify certain tones with feelings, colors, emotions, textures, etc.

Many theories have been proposed about the link between auditory processing and absolute pitch, and some of these have shed light on the deciding factors that lead people to have natural perfect pitch.

Among those that grow up in East Asia, the likelihood of perfect pitch is higher. However, people of East Asian origin raised elsewhere do not show the same levels of absolute pitch ability. This is likely caused by the tonal languages spoken in this region; most dialects of Chinese and Vietnamese require the use of tonal shifts to differentiate words with multiple meanings.

How Do You Get Perfect Pitch?

As mentioned above, there are no cases of an adult obtaining perfect pitch. While children trained from a young age can sometimes pick up on this ability, adults trained in absolute pitch (AP) never reach the levels of innate ability of natural AP listeners.

However, this shouldn’t stop you from honing your ability to identify and mimic pitches. Even people without perfect pitch can learn to listen and identify key signatures, pitches, and chords. It’s also important to remember that absolute pitch is a rare skill, so it will not be required if you want to pursue music.

People with absolute pitch don’t always have a perfect ability, either. For example, some people have perfect pitch, but their perception of certain pitches is slightly sharp or flat. While they can jump between these tones easily and mimic them spontaneously, their internal perception is off. This makes the actual pitch sound out-of-tune to them. Those with absolute pitch can also have problems caused by their ability. A slightly-out-of-tune piece (such as key-shifted songs or baroque pieces), will sound “wrong” to them, making it difficult for them to play or sing along.

Perfect Pitch and Relative Pitch

While absolute pitch is the ability to identify and recreate pitches, relative pitch is the ability to identify intervals between certain pitches. Unlike absolute pitch, relative pitch is more common and arguably more useful. People with relative pitch have the ability to:

  • Jump from a reference note to the requested note (when given a B, they can identify the interval between B and an F and sing an F).
  • Accurately identify the intervals between two tones
  • Sing melodies and identify them according to reference pitches

Relative pitch can be taught using ear-training, and teachers will often use popular songs and melodies to teach students the intervals between certain notes. For example, the melody of “twinkle twinkle, little star” and “here comes the bride” can be used to teach intervals.

Not everyone with absolute pitch has relative pitch, and few people with relative pitch have absolute pitch. However, a small number of people are gifted with both.

Celebrities with Perfect Pitch

There is a lot of hard work, talent, training, and luck that goes into becoming a musical success. However, some celebrities claim that their perfect pitch played a part in their career. Here are some celebrities with perfect pitch.

  • Mariah Carey. Known as the “songbird supreme”, this five-octave vocalist also has notoriously perfect pitch.
  • Bing Crosby. A famous singer and actor, Bing Crosby was known for his absolute pitch — even snoring in-tune with train whistles.
  • Mozart. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was known for being able to recreate and identify notes on any instrument at any time, even as a child.
  • Jimi Hendrix. One of the most influential guitarists in history, Hendrix couldn’t afford a tuner when he was young. Instead, he tuned by-ear using his perfect pitch.
  • Ella Fitzgerald. The First Lady of Song, Ella’s pitch was so perfect and pure that her band would tune to the sound of her voice. No wonder she’s such a legend!

If you think you might have absolute pitch, you can test yourself using a perfect pitch test. While absolute pitch is not a deciding factor for musical ability, many people with perfect pitch have gone on to have successful careers in music.

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