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gailcalled's avatar

What does perfect pitch mean?

Asked by gailcalled (54644points) July 31st, 2008

I have always envied those who can sing out, say, the A above middle C, but never understood how they did it. Can they hear the intervals between the notes on the western Ionic scale?

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26 Answers

dvchuck's avatar

perfect pitch is “the ability to identify the frequency or musical name of a specific tone, or, conversely, the ability to reproduce a frequency, frequency level, or musical pitch without comparing the tone with any objective reference tone, i.e., without using relative pitch.

xxporkxsodaxx's avatar

It is usually an acquired talent from years of practice, and sometimes savants are born with it. There is a savant at my old school who had perfect pitch and it was pretty amazing. I have memorized it but I’m nowhere near as good as the savant or someone who actually has had more than 5 years of practice. But as chuck said all it is is just being able to identify or produce a musical note without help of a relative note ie. concert F or B flat being some of the most common.

gailcalled's avatar

@Pork: You are saying that it is learnable?

xxporkxsodaxx's avatar

Yes, it takes years of practice and hard work, I can do some key notes only because they were the same notes we played for tuning every day in Symphony and Orchestra, I have been playing bassoon for about 5 years and I still haven’t gotten most of it down. If you are talking about choir then it might be more difficult because I hear there are more notes and variants as with me we have the chromatic scale and that includes all of our notes which are just the flats, naturals, and sharps; no majors or minors unless you are talking about scales.

gailcalled's avatar

@Pork; so if I said, “Hit b above middle C,” you could do it, with no references? Enviable.

(What’s a concert F? F above middle C?”)

loser's avatar

Practice is called Aquired Pitch. Perfect Pitch is something one is born with. It’s the abilty to hear a note and be able to name it like someone sees the color orange and and can name the color.

xxporkxsodaxx's avatar

I probably could if I practiced for while, it’s summer break for me so I have been laying off the practice. And by a while I mean a few months. Concert F would pertain to instruments and it is a different note for almost every instrument because of the key they’re in. Bassoon is in the key of F so the concert note would be the same as my note, but the goal is to play different notes to make the same pitch. For us it really varies from instrument to instrument but as for me you are correct, but for other instruments it would be something different. And I must be getting those things mixed up but I guess it’s essentially the same thing except one requires practice and the other doesn’t.

loser's avatar

@gail: yes, concert F is the first F above middle C. It’s the octave that revolves around concert A, the common note for an orchestra to tune to where the sound waves vibrate at a frequency of 440.

gailcalled's avatar

Octave is middle C to high C or F to high F? And explain in words of one syllable how playing different notes would make the same pitch. And I thought the reed instrumentalists agonized over the reeds rather than the pitch.

My son played the clarinet and I found flawed reeds everywhere when he was in HS.

And is the French Horn still in the key of E flat?

gailcalled's avatar

Poser: So that is how you are spending your summer? (I did laugh, in spite of my mature self.)

ebenezer's avatar

I heard about a study done about perfect pitch where they studied the frequency of perfect pitch in certain language groups. I think the result was that Chinese speakers have a much higher frequency of people with perfect pitch than English speakers. They believe it is due to the pitch based word inflection that Chinese speakers learn from a very young age. This also makes it difficult to learn Chinese.

I probably have some of the details wrong…

n from a young age.

AstroChuck's avatar

I always felt that, as far as control is concerned, Juan Marichal had a perfect pitch.

loser's avatar

I had a friend who had perfect pitch. (Not that she lost it, we lost her) She said was it wasn’t always a good thing because when she heard music that was off somehow, it was almost painful for her.

gailcalled's avatar

AC; Poser got there first. ^^. (But nice try.)

cwilbur's avatar

Perfect pitch is the ability to hear a sound and know what note it is, without any external reference. For instance, if I sing a note to someone with perfect pitch, he or she can tell me that it’s closest to an F, but is about a quarter tone flat.

When I was in graduate school and studying music (and my advisor was one of the leading researchers in aural skills acquisition), the state of the art held that there was both a genetic component and an environmental component to perfect pitch. People who had the trait, if they were exposed when sufficiently young to fixed pitches, could learn to always recognize particular pitches, and once they had the skill, it could be refined and further trained later in life. If they were not exposed to fixed pitches within that window, they could not later develop perfect pitch.

One of the interesting things in the study of perfect pitch is that recently the researchers have stopped using the piano as a referent and have started using pop songs. With declining musical literacy and the ubiquity of the Top 40 and radio, it’s far more likely that someone with the trait to develop perfect pitch will have heard “Hotel California” and “Stairway to Heaven” in their formative years.

This is very different from relative pitch, which is a trainable skill. For instance, if I have an A tuning fork handy, I effectively do have perfect pitch, because I have a reference note and I can hear the relationship.

And as far as how two instruments playing different notes can produce the same pitch: the most common clarinet is in B-flat, though you can find variants in A and E-flat in most bands or orchestras. This means that when the clarinet plays a written C, the note that comes out is a B-flat (or an A, or an E-flat). This is a throwback to the days when instrument building was not as good as it later was, and issues of tuning had not yet been decided: the instrument makers could make it sound good in one key, but could not make it sound good in all keys. So clarinetists would have several different clarinets, so that for any key they were likely to play in, at least one of the clarinets would be close enough that they could use lip tension to adapt. With modern instruments in equal-temperament tuning, the B-flat clarinet can play equally well in all keys, but there’s a huge body of music written under the old assumptions; and having a B-flat clarinet and an A clarinet close to hand means that the clarinetist can choose whichever one makes the music easier to play.

zina's avatar

Thanks cwilbur for clarifying—I just saw this question, and was somewhat surprised by all the confusing (and flat out wrong!) answers.

here’s an obvious link to give:

To follow up with one point, in my experience, concert pitch would then refer to the B-flat the clarinetist is playing—not the “C” that they’re reading (or thus thinking of it as), but the actual note that’s sounding. So if a conductor says “let’s tune to concert F” everyone knows on their instruments what they need to play to produce the F (so for instance on Horn, which is typically an F instrument, meaning it sounds a fifth lower, that would be a C). Essentially they are NOT playing different notes, but have different names on their instrument for the same actual pitch (due the history as cwilbur described).

And yes, perfect pitch is somehow innate, and relative pitch is learned. But Gail, relative pitch can be worked on to a point of essentially being the same as perfect pitch in practice—- if you do exercises like playing an A above middle C on the piano or a pitch pipe (or whatever you have) every morning, or several times a day for that matter, you’ll start to be able to hear it, in your mind—you can guess at it a moment before you play, and over time your guesses will probably get closer and closer. Chances are that if there are songs you hear (or sing) over and over again (in the same key), you could start singing them on your own roughly in the right key—maybe the same with your alarm clock or microwave beep or another pitch you hear often—if you find out what that key is, you’ll have a reference for it (oh, my kitchen timer dings an Eb!). Anyway, there are many ways to work on this, but as you work on intervals and being able to tell where certain notes fall in your vocal range and so on, you can refine it to be able to do just what you described. Now, if what you’re describing is when a singer finds the A from another pitch (since you wondered if they hear the intervals, I wonder if that’s what you mean – which is not necessarily perfect pitch, as you now know)—then that really is just a matter of working on intervals. In my experience much easier than developing a sense of absolute / perfect pitch! There any many aural skills or musicianship books which give exercises for this, and again, an easy way might be thinking of songs you know—the beginning of Happy Birthday is a whole step (or second), Here Comes the Bride starts with a fourth, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star starts with a fifth, .... even hard ones can be found: Maria starts with a tritone (between a fourth and fifth – typically one of the hardest intervals to pull out of nowhere).

I’m glad you asked this question because for the first time I’ll be teaching a musicianship class, starting in just a few weeks, so I need to dust off my thoughts on this and get together easy descriptions, lesson plan with exercises, etc!! I had very good aural skills training at Oberlin Conservatory, but now years later I’m a bit nervous to suddenly teach an advanced-level undergrad college class!

stratman37's avatar

Yes, it’s learnable. try for interval training

cwilbur's avatar

@zina: If you think hierarchically and use movable Do, the tritone is actually pretty easy. You can get it as either Ti-Fa, or if you think of the first note as Do, you can easily find Sol, and then it’s just the leading tone to Sol. (This is actually what’s going on in “Maria,” but you can find it without the Bernstein reference if you must.)

@all: Bear in mind that there are at least three different approaches you can take to learning aural skills—movable Do, fixed Do, and pure intervals—and that they all have advantages and disadvantages. And that there’s a lot of snake oil out there, including people who will cheerfully sell you an umpty-hundred dollar system for learning perfect pitch.

zina's avatar

@cwilbur: Yes, the tritone is fairly easy for me, I was just giving examples for Gail, since it seems she’s trying to get a handle on this stuff, and sometime devices like that, intervals that are ingrained in your head from songs, makes the first steps easier. Similarly I was just thinking of “There’s a Place for Us” as a great way to get the minor sixth – much like “Maria” for the tritone – both being at least initially harder for many people, and that way you don’t have to think, ‘ok, do-sol-half step down, ok now do-leading tone’ etc. Not knowing Gail’s musical background, I can’t guess at what terminology she’s familiar and comfortable with, and that’s the kind of thing that I’m guessing she might already know and thus feel like ‘hey, i might not know movable do, but I know that interval’. Then’s it’s not a leap – it’s finding new ways of articulating and understanding things you already know. I personally find it an empowering way to look at it.

gailcalled's avatar

I read music very well and have played the piano since I was six. I know what a moveable Do is, if you are talking about the Solf├Ęge. I can more or less do the Do-Mi-Sol, or Do-Fa. But I was really asking about the people who seem to be born with the ability to pull a note out of the air.

And when you mention the minor sixth in “There’s,” I could sing that also, but not so anyone would be inclined to ask for an encore.

Lots of interesting info here, in answer to my question. Thanks, all.

28lorelei's avatar

The difference between perfect pitch and relative pitch is like the difference between fixed and moveable do. According to a guy without perfect pitch, normal people hear music by e.g. picking a random note as “C” or “do” and finding out the rest of the notes from it. However, if you have perfect pitch, you already know what the notes are, and can use fixed do. Also, using moveable is very confusing, because a C just doesn’t sound like a G or an F. Normally you can also notice what key something is in, as easily as picking a single note out of the air or identifying a note (unless the piece is completely atonal). However, if anything is out of tune badly enough, it can be physically painful (some get headaches, others get nauseous)

28lorelei's avatar

gailcalled:“This is very different from relative pitch, which is a trainable skill. For instance, if I have an A tuning fork handy, I effectively do have perfect pitch, because I have a reference note and I can hear the relationship.”
That is relative pitch, because you need the tuning fork, and deduce the relationships. With perfect pitch, you could hear that the tuning fork is an A without knowing that beforehand. Or better, you could sing the A before hearing the tuning fork and be right on.

gailcalled's avatar

@28lorelei: I appreciate the belated answer but do note that most of the people above you ^^ have already given this explanation.

And my question implied that I did know the linguistic difference but not the mechanics involved.

28lorelei's avatar

@gailcalled if you want to get into the neurology of it, it seems the structure of the ear is exactly the same, and so is the basic processing. It is not clear exactly what is different, but scientists have found that a certain area of the brain called the planum temporalum is more asymmetrical in favor of the left side in the PP population in than in the non-PP population.
More info on:
auditory processing
planum temporalum

Also, in Absolute Pitch, how they do it is not just by judging the highness or lowness of pitch, which most people do (I think.) To them, each pitch has its own chroma, or pitch color, kind of like how orange and blue are different. Keys have their own feel and pitch colors, for example D minor is often thought of as dark and sad, while D flat major, for example, is mysterious, rich and kind of romantic. E major is bright and sunny. I hope this answers your question a little better.

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