What actually is “perfect pitch”? And if you don’t have it, can you acquire it?

So what is perfect pitch?

Perfect pitch”, or “absolute pitch”, is an aural faculty that enables the possessor to identify the pitch of a sound, or a note played by an instrument, without the aid of a device such as a tuning fork. It’s a handy tool for musicians and a neat party trick in some circles: not only will a person with perfect pitch will be able to name any note played on the piano (without seeing the keys) or what key a song on the radio is in; they will also be able to pitch any note they imagine in their heads out of the blue, without first hearing an external reference. 

Are there degrees of perfect pitch?

The term “perfect pitch” is a little misleading; there is nothing “perfect” about absolute pitch. Precision can vary, but most people with the ability can identify at least 70 distinct tones; the brain assigns a unique auditory quality or “flavour” to each of these notes that sets it apart from any other pitch. Some may distinguish exact frequencies, and others can tell with accuracy whether a note is, say, a quarter of a tone flat. Most musicians simply have well-developed “relative pitch”, whereby one is able to navigate the scale in relation to a tonal centre – being able to find a G, for example, when given the note C.

Why do some people have perfect pitch and others don’t?

Perfect pitch is relatively rare, occurring in fewer than one in 10,000 people. There is not yet any reliable research to suggest whether those who have the ability are born with it. There is certainly no anatomical difference between the haves and the have-nots; rather, it is essentially an aural memory or imprint of sound, often retained through early exposure to music or any activity that actively engages the ear. Many expectant mothers play classical music to their unborn children, but there is no proof of any beneficial effects in the perfect pitch department. Research suggests the ability is more common with native speakers of tonal languages such as Cantonese, Mandarin and Vietnamese, which have built-in pitch variation in the inflection of words. It is also commonly possessed by the blind. Interestingly, you don’t need to be a musician to have perfect pitch, nor is someone with the skill innately more musically gifted; Mozart famously had it, but Wagner didn’t.

Why is it useful?

It’s a given that musicians with perfect pitch have a knack for identifying wrong notes! It also may be easier for them to play with spot-on intonation on an instrument with variable tuning like a violin or cello. But there are downsides. It may be uncomfortable, even debilitating, for someone with perfect pitch to hear music transposed into what they perceive as the “wrong key”, as in period-instrument performances of early music where the tuning may be lowered in accordance with historically informed practice. Playing an out-of-tune piano can be extremely distressing even for the most accomplished virtuoso, as it adds the confusion and frustration of an additional mental process: playing a piece in one key while hearing it in another. To explain it in terms of colour, the sensation has been described as “going to the produce market and finding that, because of a temporary disorder of visual processing, the bananas all appear orange, the lettuce yellow and the apples purple”. 

Can you acquire it?

There are several computer and iPhone applications which help in developing pitch recognition skills, but there is no guarantee that even the most diligent or gifted musician will be able to practise their way to the phenomenon. However, exercises in learning key signatures, sounding intervals and chords, sight-singing (solfeggio) and aural dictation will sharpen those senses, and singing in a choir is a great way to fine-tune these skills too. You can also have fun listening out for everyday sounds as mundane as a vacuum cleaner or car horn and trying to guess the pitch, taking the John Cage view that all noise can be heard as music. The Oxford Companion to Music refers to a music professor at Oxford who spoke in terms of his father blowing his nose in G and the wind whistling in D minor…  

Synaesthesia: the colour of notes

Many of us think of music and colour in terms of metaphor – but for a rare few with synaesthesia, scales, arpeggios or musical passages in various keys translate into a strong visual sensation of a corresponding colour. Composers such as Scriabin, Rimsky-Korsakov and Messiaen associated chords and keys (rather than specific notes) with different colours, although they did not always agree on the colours represented. Messiaen described his colouristic experience of certain chords in vivid detail: for him, some music yielded “blue-violet rocks, speckled with little grey cubes” or “stars of mauve, black and white.” In Oliver Sacks’s book Musicophilia, the American composer Michael Torke, who has perfect pitch and synaesthesia, describes anything in G minor as having an “ochre” or “gamboge” colour, while D major is blue and F minor is “ashy”.