Not So Perfect

Not So Perfect

“How are you supposed to improvise in a tonal context if you do not have perfect pitch?” It seems that one is either born with this ability, or acquires it at an extremely young age. The only other solution would be for the second musician to have a sheet of the melody/chords to follow, or for the first musician to yell out the notes and key changes…”

These comments were posted in response to what I wrote last week about teaching improvisation. Once again, the idea of a sense of absolute pitch is being held up and revered as if it were the Holy Grail. If one possesses this object, the Western tonal world is at your fingertips—improvisation is possible! Otherwise, you are destined to muddle your way through others’ music, never able to create your own.

What is perfect, or (as it is also called) absolute, pitch? Most of my colleagues feel it is the ability to be able to recognize any pitch and identify it without having to relate it to another in an intervallic manner. While I agree with this description, I still think that in the larger context it is a skill based on relations. For example, I have perfect pitch. I can identify any pitch you give me, based on the assumption that an A is 440hz. But would I have that same identification of if I were a musician, say 300 years ago? No. I would have developed my pitch memory based on the tonal centers of that age, which is close to a half step lower than what we apply to most of Western music written in the past 200 years.

Even the Oxford Dictionary of Music definition of absolute pitch alludes to it being more a highly refined skill one learns, even as it describes it as an innate attribute:

Absolute (perfect) pitch is really an innate form of memory; the possessor retains in his or her mind (consciously or unconsciously) the pitch of some instrument to which he or she has been accustomed and instinctively related that pitch to every sound heard.

To my thinking, if it is something that one becomes accustomed to, it means that it is something that one has developed a relationship with. It wasn’t something that just happened; it was the result of a process. Since the act of becoming is always affected by the context, e.g. the environment in which it occurs, it is relative, not absolute. And anything that is relative is not “perfect.”

So-called perfect pitch is supposedly innate and only achievable at the youngest stages of life. But while it is advantageous for someone to have developed his or her tonal ear as a child, it by no means precludes one from ever learning to hear music in such a way. Music is a language. Like most languages, to speak it fluently without an accent one needs to have learned it by a certain age, usually before adolescence. However, it can be done. Like a student of a foreign language, older music students usually develop their ear in a more intellectual, rather than instinctive, way. Regardless of the method, I have seen students ranging in ages from three to fifty able to master the ability to hear pitches out of intervallic context.

So, I do not believe in perfect pitch. I also do not believe it is an innate gift. What I do believe is that there is perfect “relative” pitch and that it is attainable by most anyone. As for the belief that, without perfect pitch, one would need to rely on a written sheet that possesses the melody and chords of the piece one is to improvise on, even those that have perfect pitch use such tools. The cult of perfect pitch is not an exclusive club, and membership is not required.

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NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

10 thoughts on “Not So Perfect

  1. JKG

    Imperfect pitch…
    Hey, I can’t believe I glossed over that statement, but it’s true – nothing is more ridiculous than the notion perfect pitch gives one access to anything musically, except perhaps grief. Pitch and number memory are good qualities for any musician, but there should be some leeway, however miniscule. How else will a piece ever be left to performer interpretation? And if improvisitory practice is the ultimate in performer interpretation, of what use is perfect pitch at all? No, I think the question betrays a misunderstanding of that sort of memory, and a conditioned response to it’s value for musicians. It’s the same as my ear doctor years ago telling me I could not write music, because I had a hearing loss *scratches.” Just because some folks understand some things a certain way, doesn’t mean they are at all correct about the matter. I would, in fact, like to point out that some of the most miserable listeners I’ve ever known all purport to have this dubious “perfect pitch,” as if this quality somehow made them superior as a listener amongst their peers. And what of the various tunings of the note A worldwide amongst different orchestras under varying conductors? I’m glad I don’t have it – I much prefer really good relative pitch.

  2. grahamenglish

    Imperfectly perfect
    That was a refreshing description of how “perfect pitch” is experienced. While I think that absolute pitch is a useful skill and should be part of any ear training practice, I too often find musicians paralyzed with an “if only I had perfect pitch” attitude. I make better music than I did 10 years ago. Partly because I learned absolute pitch and partly because I’m wiser now. I find that wisdom comes from developing a consistent “listening practice.” Even though I teach absolute pitch, on my ear training blog, I tend to focus more on the art of listening and the psychology of musicianship. Because I know musicians with great ears who still struggle finding their voice or transcending their mechanical knowledge of music. After all, once you develop absolute pitch, you still have to practice!

  3. A.C. Douglas

    “So, I do not believe in perfect pitch. I also do not believe it is an innate gift. What I do believe is that there is perfect “relative” pitch and that it is attainable by most anyone.”

    You’re confusing the issue here. Absolute Pitch (AP, the correct technical term; “Perfect Pitch” is a pop corruption) is genetically determined, and therefore an innate characteristic exactly on the order of, say, eye color, and not something one “believes in.” In no circumstance is it learnable. Relative Pitch (RP), on the other hand, *is* learnable, and if well developed is often mistaken for true AP. True AP is a form of memory — pitch memory, to be precise — and like all memory, it must first be “programmed.” Once programmed, however, it’s infallible, and even long periods of disuse will not affect its accuracy. Not so RP. It too must be “programmed,” but it’s, 1) not infallible, and 2) strongly and adversely affected by periods of disuse.

    I’ve of course above barely touched the surface of this fascinating subject, but to hold out hope to anyone that he could somehow develop true AP is simply to not understand its fundamental nature.


  4. bartalk

    absolute pitch
    Reminds me of undergraduate ear training. We had a couple of kids with perfect pitch who ran roughshod over me in dictation, and I complained about this to the teacher, so from then on, whenever he did dictation, he would say it was in one key and play it another. As the absolute pitch folks were’nt all that great at “paper theory”, they we’re slowed down by having to transpose, so I was on more equal footing.

  5. swellsort

    Perfect Pitch vs Absolute Pitch
    In my experience there is a difference between what is called perfect pitch and absolute pitch. Perfect pitch is the ability to hear any pitch and know exactly what pitch it is. It can be any instrument, any sound, and the person will be able to recognize that it is say, an A4. Absolute, or relative, pitch is where one has the ability to identify a pitch by the other pitches around it, meaning that if you know the first pitch is a C, you can reference C to find any other pitch around it. Perhaps it is merely nomenclature that we are disagreeing on, but I believe that perfect pitch is not something you just learn suddenly, whereas relative pitch is something you can learn. On top of that, if you have a good sense of relative pitch, as i do, it is very possible to improvise in a tonal context, so long as you know what key you are in!

  6. Shupatra

    I have to say, I find this topic extremely interesting…

    I have had perfect pitch since I can remember. My dad always used to play classical music in the car, and I believe this had a profound influence on my ability to recognise pitches. I could always recognise when a piece was in a different key, and in my head they all had different “personalities”. It is still like this today.

    When I was about 9 I started playing musical instruments. Keyboard, guitar, viola, cello, bass, double bass, and most currently the tenor banjo. I also stidued Music in high school. As I became more familiar with the notes and began experimenting, I becan to assign the pitches to their correct notes (Db, A# etc).

    I know I do have it, because if someone plays a random note I can tell them what it is. However, I still don’t know whether I learned it or whether it is innate.

  7. Aripitch

    I agree with the above post. I was exposed to a lot of music at a young age, and I began to play the piano by ear. As I began to learn the note names, I began to unconsciously assign pitch names to them. After I became a teenager, someone played some notes and asked me to identify them. When I identified them correctly, they told me that this was called “perfect pitch”. At first, I didn’t believe this person. I tested myself in various ways, but I was always correct. Perfect pitch and relative pitch are two complete different things. Perfect pitch can assist with relative pitch, but relative pitch cannot assist much with the development of perfect pitch.

    Anyone who thinks that he/she has perfect pitch or thinks that it does not exist should attempt the Perfect Pitch test that is given by the University of California online. It is almost impossible for anyone that does not have it to pass this test. The fact that some people have passed it proves that perfect pitch does exist!

    Everyone cannot develop it, but some people are naturally predisposed to the phenomenon. That’s why it seems that some people develop it later in life, which means that the people who have it have always had perfect pitch. They were simply not exposed to learning the actual names of the notes – the pitches always held a place in their minds!

  8. J. T. Bentley

    I think that there is an annoying tendency to idolize “absolute” pitch. Of course, it is a very real thing; but I don’t think most people have an accurate understanding of what it is.

    It absolutely does have to do with the context. The only reason someone with perfect pitch hears an A 440 as an A is because of the arbitrary decision of western music to make that the standard. I often sense an elitist attitude along the lines of, “well I can hear any note and tell exactly what it is.” Of course you can. That is only slightly different than saying, “I can tell the difference between a lawn mower and a hair dryer.” Humans all have the ability to remember sounds. Every one of us has a sound or more that we can remember in our mind’s ear with flawless accuracy. Perhaps it is the sound of your mother reading to you as a child. Perhaps it is the sound of the stairs squeaking as you tried to sneak around your house. Also, all humans have the ability to distinguish high sounds vs. low sounds.

    I would submit that the only “gift” bestowed upon those with “perfect” pitch; is that of an incredibly accurate memory/recall system of high and low sounds. How could it be anything different? Notes are arbitrary reference points in the infinite number of pitches that have been created by humans. So, if there are an infinite number of pitches, there is nothing perfect or even absolute about having an accurate memory of them.

    Perhaps “accurate pitch” would be a better name for it.

    I also think that in an attempt to categorize, we have oversimplified the kinds of pitch recognition. I, for example, do not have perfect pitch. I will not claim to have “relative pitch” either, because that is nothing more than the ability to hear interval relationships. But, about 8 times out of 10, I can guess a pitch within a half step. Usually, I am right on. But not always. What does that mean? I think that it is simply that I have a good memory/recall system for the highness/lowness of pitches. It isn’t as accurate as someone with “perfect pitch”, but it is still good. I think there is an infinite amount of variation in people’s ability to judge accurately the pitch that they are hearing relative to all the pitches they have heard before.

  9. Craig Cobb

    Although I have witnessed the elitist view of some people I’ve encountered who claim to possess absolute pitch, almost no one I know that has it (5, including myself) has exhibited any of that behavior. In my own personal experience, I know it to be an innate ability because I’ve known nothing different since I was able to talk. I did learn, at 4 years old, that some of the pitches I heard were the standardized Western ones. After learning their names, I still knew that it wasn’t the end-all, be-all of how musical pitch works. Some other truths I have learned, though: 1. Having absolute pitch doesn’t teach you how to write or improvise. 2. Developing absolute pitch and good ear-training does! 3. Some of the greatest, most gifted musicians I’ve met and/or played with DO NOT have absolute pitch. 4. Refinement of absolute pitch, if you have it (I’m frequency-accurate to within a few Hz, given normal musical boundaries), can only make you a better sound engineer, by being able to catch feedback frequencies more quickly. It WILL NOT make you a better musician. But it is 100% real and it is a genetic anomaly that produces cool results sometimes. Sure, it’s useful, but never should be considered a “Holy Grail” by anyone. 5. Not all people with absolute pitch have problems listening to “out-of-tune” stuff or have a problem transposing, etc. None of it bothers me. I was rather relieved when I learned that tempered tuning is real and explained some of the discrepancies that I heard in the Western pitch system. In short, get over it and go make music!


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