Not Absolutely Perfect or Perfectly Absolute

Last week’s chatter on perfect pitch evoked such strong opinions on my commentary that I decided to attack this issue again. In particular, one respondent wrote:


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.

While I do concur that “perfect pitch” is the vernacular term, the issue that absolute pitch is wholly genetic, like say, blue eyes, is still a controversial theory in the scientific community.


Systematic music training in early childhood seems effective for acquiring AP. Possible genetic contributions to AP are undeniable, but evidence for them is inconclusive.
Ken’ichi Miyazaki, Department of Psychology, Faculty of Humanity, Niigata University

“Perfect pitch,” known in the scientific literature as “absolute pitch” (AP), is a rare phenomenon that has fascinated musicians and scientists alike for over a century. There has been a great deal of conflict in the literature between advocates of the two main theories on the etiology of AP: some believe that AP is learned early in life through intensive musical training, whereas others believe AP to be largely innate.
Epilepsy Behavior. 2005 Dec; 7(4):578-601. Pub 2005 Aug 15.

Absolute Pitch, commonly referred to as Perfect Pitch, is an intriguing behavioral trait involved in music perception and is defined as the ability to recognize the pitch of a musical tone without an external reference pitch.
USCF Genetics Absolute Pitch Study

Below is a quote from one of the scientific articles that I feel sums up the basic arguments people postulate:

The etiology and defining characteristics of this skill, absolute pitch (AP), have been very controversial. One theory suggests that AP requires a specific type of early musical training and that the ability to encode and remember tones depends on these learned musical associations. An alternate theory argues that AP may be strongly dependent on hereditary factors and relatively independent of musical experience.
The Neuralsciences of Music, Vol. 999 December 2003,
from the NY Academy of Sciences

So, we are back to the age-old nature vs. nurture debate, one found in almost all areas of study concerning human characteristics. Judging from the numerous studies out there, the field is filled with theories but no universally accepted facts. I continue to have serious misgivings about how we musicians treat the skill, but the discussion of perfect/absolute pitch provides valuable insight into a myriad of topics relating to how we perceive learning, teaching, listening, and even judging the quality of both music and musicians. The verdict is still out, and we should not shut the door on any possible answers.

7 thoughts on “Not Absolutely Perfect or Perfectly Absolute

  1. mjleach

    I’ve worked with a lot of singers, and about 1/4 to 1/3 of them have perfect pitch. When they sing together, they have to decide whose “perfect pitch” to tune to. They all hover on or around A440, but it’s not the same frequency for all. Not only that, an older singer that I know has been discovering that her “perfect pitch” has been gradually getting lower the past few years, something she looked into, and has found that that is not uncommon.

    I had pretty good relative pitch as a child – the only problem was, was that I was a clarinet player, and I was off a second. ;-)

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  2. jonrussell20

    Some anectdtal evidence supporting the innateness of perfect pitch: my roommate is a guitar teacher and recently started teaching a pretty beginning level college student. She was playing all the pitches correctly, but was complainging that she felt like she wasn’t really getting it and was having trouble knowing the correct fingerings. My roommate became curious and started playng notes and seeing if she could identify them, and low and behold, turns out she had perfect pitch! She had taken piano lessons as a child, but had never been especially serious about it and had never taken any ear-training. Her piano teacher had never noticed. When my roommate asked if she realized that she had this special skill that enabled her to identify any pitch, she was puzzled: “can’t everyone do that?” She didn’t consider herself a particuarly fantastic or talented musician, so she couldn’t believe that she had this ability which more highly trained and talented people did not have. Obviously, one case doesn’t prove anything, but it was a surprise to me to hear how apparently innate this student’s perfect pitch appeared to be.

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  3. swellsort

    In my personal experience, I feel that absolute pitch is something that can be acquired. For my own ear training course, our prof had us try to memorize a pitch, and I succeeded in doing so, and can now sing an A 440 at the drop of a dime. Thus, if I tried hard enough, I could memorize each pitch with time and effort.
    But I don’t find it all that important to have absolute pitch. In fact, I know a piano instructor that has it and finds it to be a nuissance. For instance, when his dishwasher is running, he can hear and identify all the pitches that the plates make, and it annoys him. It might be a useful skill, but consider the ramifications of hearing any sound and being able to identify its pitch. To me that is a little overwhelming.

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  4. Colin Holter

    I don’t know whether perfect/absolute pitch is innate or acquired. What I do know is that in scientific circles, anecdotal evidence is sometimes referred to as “not evidence.”

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  5. lubmus16

    This may be a very obvious comment to make…but I would seem to think that AP exists from both origins. I have a professor with perfect pitch, I asked him once if he learned it or if it was innate. He told me that at one point when he was younger, he was listening to a recording and realized that he just ‘knew’ that a note in the part was middle C. However, another teacher once told me that we are all born with the ‘ability’ for AP. Inddeed, we all have ears and brains that have complex systems of memory and difference threshold. In addition, we all have muscles in our throats that are capable of vibrating at controlled frequencies. I tend to think that acquiring AP (which I do not have…yet) is mostly a function of muscle memory concerning the sensory muscles in the ear, coupled with regular memory intensification, which is a psychological skill that is easily trainable. I feel that at its most functional level for most musicians, AP needs only be one pitch (most likely A or C) that can be memorized, as stated above, and then use of the reletive pitch that we all obtain before or during our undergrad studies.

    So does it really matter where our AP comes from? Some are gifted with it just like some are gifted with Super-sonic Hearing or Total Recall (Mozart); Some are able to discipline themselves and obtain it, which undoubtedly expands their musical horizons. AP is great, inherit it, learn it, do something useful with it.

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  6. Aripitch

    I agree that everyone with perfect pitch WAS born with it. There is no doubt about it. Anyone who knows for a matter of fact that they were not born with it probably uses relative pitch. There is nothing wrong with relative pitch – it is what it is.

    However, some people have realized that they possess this gift relatively late (no pun intended). Because they did not attend a music school as a young child, they may not have learned the note names. The skill was always present. In fact, they probably categorized things, such as “my car horn makes the same sound as my microwave – or Song A is on the same tone as Song B, etc.” (Does this sound familiar to any of you who want to contest that you acquired this ability late in life and that it was learned? If so, this is your proof that it was not learned!)

    Face it, fellow perfect pitch possessors – you were born with it! Congratulations!

    Reply

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