Perfect pitch - not so perfect?

Perfect pitch - not so perfect?

Here a BBC website article about a study that reveals that "perfect pitch" is not quite as perfect as has been thought, and can change according to circumstances.

Speaking for myself, I can usually detect whether the A string of my violin has gone slightly flat, without reference to another source, but this is not unusual for musicians who are used to playing in orchestras or other ensembles and are exposed regularly to a tuning "A" at 440Hz. I’m sure that is no more than a straightforward memory effect.

What I certainly don’t have is the kind of perfect pitch (which some unfortunate individuals apparently have) that makes it difficult for them to play or listen to music tuned to other than A440; which is why I have no problems in playing my piano which is tuned to A430 (= C256).

Re: Perfect pitch - not so perfect?

I have a similar issue, which I call Relative. I can remember the key I first heard a piece in and sing it back to you quite readily. This causes issues when the original key is too low to sing in. I’m looking at you Fay Hield.

I find relative to suit my needs - I’ll know what note a tune started on and I can guess the rest if and when I need to. And as a guitarist, knowing the key for a new tune by ear can be very helpful.

Re: Perfect pitch - not so perfect?

I find it quite strange. I correctly identified a hum coming off a friends pa as being G the other day, which a quick test on his keyboard proved spot on. I can often immediately detect the key of a tune or song being played but the piano in the house I grew up in was tuned a tone and a bit flat so how does that work? And my accuracy is worse if I’m "tired and emotional" (ie: the worse for drink. No surprise there though, my fingers can forget what they’re supposed to do after as little as a single pint!) ;0)

Re: Perfect pitch - not so perfect?

I got 99 problems, but my pitch ain’t one.

HA SmashTheWindows


Re: Perfect pitch - not so perfect?

It’s kind of weird how your pitch sensitivity can alter. I have PP but sometimes it takes me forever to tune my fiddle right….

Re: Perfect pitch - not so perfect?

I’ve known people with perfect pitch, and they believed that it could be taught, but the person learning had to have a specific aptitude for remembering sound. Like how some people never forget a face.

the thing is that there is no way for a person to be born knowing that A=440Hz. That is an arbitrtary construct of human culture. So to have "perfect pitch" you had to have learned it.

This was their argument as they attempted to teach me

What I noticed was that I have a good sense of intervals. When I tune to a standard, I get a sense of where my tuning note is. What I can’t do is tell you what key a piece is being played in.

But I would tend to argee with the article that the skill called perfect pitch doesn’t make a person into an electronic tuning machine

Re: Perfect pitch - not so perfect?

My pitch recognition is very unreliable. When tuning a stringed instrument, I can usually get somewhere in the ballpark without a pitch reference, because I know how *that instrument* sounds at its proper pitch - but I could be as much as a semitone out on occasion. With instruments I am less familiar with, I wouldn’t have a clue what note I was hearing without some form of reference. One method I have of identifying pitch is to use my voice as a reference; I know what the lowest note in my range is, so if I sing that to myself, I can identify any other note by the interval.

My *relative pitch* is fairly good (better, I think, than some electronic tuners*), so I have no trouble identifying key changes. I would question whether ‘perfect pitch’ is really of any practical use in traditional music - if in doubt, I only have to play one note on my instrument to know what key a tune is in. Quite often, I just know because of how it sounds on the instrument - dependent, maybe, on where the string crossings are, the intonation or, on flute and whistle, perhaps where the tune jumps octave. Let’s face it - how many possibilities are there in Irish trad, anyway? I probably wouldn’t recognise the key on an accordion or concertina. I would recognize when instruments are tuned up a semitone - they just sound *different* - and similarly, when they are tuned down, although I’m not sure whether I could identify by how much. (This puts me in mind of a story: There was a session going on with a set of flat pitch pipes during the Willie Clancy Week one year. A whistle player came in to listen. The tunes were hoppin’ and after a while he could no longer contain himself. Not having the right whistle, he nipped out to the music shop and came back a few minutes later with a brand new Generation C whistle and started to join in - only to realise that the pipes were in Bb! The funny thing was, he had had a Bb whistle in his pocket all along.)

*I have no doubt that the electronics inside these tuners is far more discerning than my humble ear. The problem is that their displays are far too coarse (except on super-expensive strobe tuners), so they allow a margin of error considerably wider than that of a reasonably well trained ear.

Re: Perfect pitch - not so perfect?

Perfect pitch - as in recognizing equal temperament notes based on a=440 - can only be developed in children under five or six years old. a=440 wasn’t set internationally till 1939, and so anyone born before 1934 who has perfect pitch may well have learnt it based on some other frequency. Must be agony!

Re: Perfect pitch - not so perfect?

that is interesting that it has to be learned at an early stage of human development. Explains why my freinds got nowhere with me in college trying to teach it to me.

I knew a girl in college who was doing her graduate work on teaching perfect pitch. She had the rare kind of perfect pitch that she actually saw colors associated with each note.

Re: Perfect pitch - not so perfect?

Well, I have synesthesia (and relative pitch) but not perfect pitch, per se:)

The colours are associated with harmony rather than single notes, so I can identify chords in no time but struggle a bit more with single notes. But both my relative pitch and some perfect pitch were definitely learned when I was a teenager. I don’t know whether the synesthesia gave me a natural disposition to be able to learn perfect pitch (probably did), but I find it easier the more familiar I am with the instrument, and with single notes I can definitely be fooled. In fact, the way I do it is usually to imagine a chord around the note I am trying to identify and see what colour it is.

I agree with pretty much all of the above, A=440Hz is definitely arbitrary and learned and so it is not at all surprising that people with perfect pitch can be fooled as the article suggests. And I am proof that you can learn perfect pitch after childhood, but as Nate suggests you probably need to be predisposed for remembering sound.

I have also had that experience with flat pianos, where you can identify thew key even though the piano is flat so it’s the wrong key. Instinctively I feel that the colours all look different because the gaps are all different, but scientifically this is mega-untrue because that’s the opposite of what ET is…mysterious.

Incidentally, I find learning irish trad. tunes difficult because they’re all made of just notes, and since we only play in D or G everything is green!

Re: Perfect pitch - not so perfect?


Most intelligent observations about PP. My own comment is, perfect according to what?

A440 is a commercial standard since 39. There were a number of competing pitches used by the Western (Pythagorian) school. Clearly PP of A440 has to be learned, so therefore born PP must likely be perfect compared to a harmonic (resonance) naturally present on this planet.

There are some very interesting POVs if you youtube: C256, Natural Pitch, Scientific Pitch, Solfeggio scales. Personally I am trying to retrain myself to use a natural pitch C256 Pythagorian scale, namely:

C 256
D 288
E 324
F 364.5
G 384
A 432
B 486
C 512

Waddayall think?

PS. I came upon this site while googling C256 Pitch Pipe. Looks like I have to DIY one.:-)