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Imperfect pitch

Today I would like to conduct an informal poll of sorts.

I have really good relative pitch. Once during my college music theory class I was the only person who took down a dictation correctly because I recognized a tricky note as a sharp instead of a whole step. But whoopie for me — perfect pitch is where it’s at. When you can identify a note out of the air without scale context, you’ve got it made, right? If you haven’t got that, well, you’re hardly screwed, but you’ll never be… perfect.

Or is perfect pitch the x factor after all? I ask because of something my mother has said. My brother has perfect pitch, so dictation tests are easy as hell for him — he doesn’t need a base note to work from or even to pay attention to anything but an individual note at a time. And that, says my mother, is precisely the problem with perfect pitch: because he doesn’t need to make the connections between notes to arrive at the correct answer, he has never had to recognize the sinew that holds them together, never had to weigh notes against each other to see how they fall together on a given scale. Being forced to work relatively also forces you to find the thread that runs through a piece; notes are never lonely floaters.

So… what say you, musicians? What say you, music teachers? Does perfect pitch have a crack in its flawless armor after all? Or is this a debatable, even laughable point invented by us relative pitchers (like relief pitchers but with multiple innings) to feel better about ourselves?


About Jenn

Despite being the former digital marketing intern at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Jenn German does not like Mozart. Beethoven could've totally beaten him up. Also she has an arts management graduate degree from American University, but this changes nothing.


8 thoughts on “Imperfect pitch

  1. Nice one.

    I had a childhood friend who was so amazing he was the village church organist at age 12 (no mean feat in the UK). His perfect pitch helped him play tons of music each week. But, he never studied (he was too busy playing), never learned, and never passed an exam/ test. As a result, by the time he was 20 he was a passionate bus driver and never heard from in the music world since – not even in church.

    Then there’s Lorin Maazel with not only perfect pitch, but a photographic memory. As a conductor I’m somewhat envious, but perhaps my 25,000+ hours of musical studies result in different experiences for my audiences. Who knows?!

    Posted by Stephen P Brown | January 4, 2011, 8:43 am
    • Ha, I can beat that! I played Bach’s “Minuet in G” on the piano in church when I was seven! I screwed up the middle bit.

      But then people with eidetic memories will never know the joy of… of… of slowly slogging through a bunch of text and committing it to memory through repetition? Help me out here. (Seriously, though, I don’t think I would ever want to take a speed-reading class, because as painful as it can be to not know what comes next in a novel, taking your time with a good one is the only way to fly.)

      Posted by Jenn | January 4, 2011, 10:44 am
  2. Us “imperfects” shall always be envious, I suppose, but our lack of perfect pitch definitely does have some major perks. I’ve developed a very good sense of relative pitch through early choir and piano training, and it’s come in handy countless times. I do a lot of transcriptions, and often times, I need to take down the notes in a different key than the recording. This is extremely easy to do since I do it all relatively anyway. Obviously, this would be a lot harder with perfect pitch.
    Then there’s the whole problem with playing a non-concert pitch instrument and having perfect pitch. I know people do this, but it just seems like it would be so hard hearing one pitch come out of the instrument and reading another on the page. I know several musicians with perfect pitch that have been turned off to playing certain instruments because of the key they are based in. A perfect-pitched flutist would have a hard time switching back and forth from alto flute, for example, after playing a concert-pitched instrument for so long.
    Two of my perfect-pitched piano teachers lived long lives with their prized “perfect” ears, only to be struck down by a hearing problem later in life. For example, one of these teachers had a stroke inside of her ear, and now hears pitches up to one whole step off from what they really are. The direction of this “transposition” varies, so she never really knows what the true pitch really is. Imagine playing the piano in C with your mind telling you it’s all in D-flat!
    There are really few truly beneficial things that you can get from perfect pitch that relative pitch can’t offer, if you’ve developed it well.

    Posted by Sarah Rushing | January 4, 2011, 2:21 pm
    • Oh, wow, that’s interesting! I didn’t know your brain could do that — the bit about hearing notes up a step. Although now that I think about it, that kind of makes sense; I wonder if that how people with terrible pitch hear it? Because their brain skews the notes, it really does sound right?

      Posted by Jenn | January 4, 2011, 2:31 pm
  3. Interesting thought. I’m sure everyone hears things slightly differently; obviously trained musicians are going to notice different things in the music and notice certain things over others. Some people are more inclined to higher lines, while others are more drawn to the bass line.
    As for people with “terrible pitch” hearing different notes, I have no clue. I just know from experiences with my former teacher that her “perfect pitch” really messed her up when she started having ear problems.
    My guess is that they probably hear the same notes as us, unless they also have a hearing problem like my teacher. They probably don’t listen as attentively or notice as many details as a trained musician would, though. They also may never have learned to match pitch, and therefore have problems communicating what they hear (which leads us to think they have “terrible pitch”).
    Off topic, but I’ve also wondered the same thing about color. I’m wondering if we all assign the same name to a color (i.e., we all agree that the sky is “blue”) but in reality the color I see as blue, you may see as my pink.
    Yes…very off topic, but kind of related!

    Posted by Sarah Rushing | January 4, 2011, 2:39 pm
  4. Not off topic at all, methinks. My wife sees many things as green that I think are blue. And as for hearing colors… we’re on opposite poles! What I think sounds yellow (EMajor, for example), she thinks is more purple. Overall, I agree that there are distinct disadvantages to having perfect pitch and your posts and comments lay some of them out very nicely. Thq and well done.

    Posted by Stephen P Brown | January 4, 2011, 2:45 pm
  5. Wellllllllllll, this is certainly off to a great start!

    Messiaen had synesthesia ~ the ability to see color when hearing music. He would go to a movie, see that the background on the screen was blue, but “hear” yellow.” He would get ticked off and walk out. Didn’t know why other people couldn’t “get” it.

    Perfect pitch: a former senior music director of The Riverside Church in NY has perfect pitch. When he was the lowly asst. organist, he also had a synagogue job. One Sat., he decided to have some fun. During a service, he used the transposition button on the electronic organ, heard the music come out in a different key, and… his hands moved over!

    I have good relative pitch… people w/perfect pitch have lots of trouble transposing. I have trouble too, if I have just played something in one key, say the soprano key for a song, then a mezzo sings it a couple of days later in a different key. I can’t hear it in the new key that soon.

    In ear training, we had to write down 4-part harmony as we heard it played on the piano. I had trouble hearing the tenor part, so went to church and sang tenor on all the hymns.

    As far as having “bad” pitch goes, I don’t buy it. The percussion players in my ear training class had just never sung anything, and were used to low pitches. Also, children are too often told to stand in the back and “just mouth the words” when their teachers think they can’t sing. But if the kids are involved in singing situations, they can match pitch before long. There is a children’s music specialist in Boston who has videos to prove it.

    My sister-in-law says she is tone deaf. But when she’s in a group, singing Happy Birthday, she’s fine. Yup. Back row of the chorus, mouthing the words.

    One of my piano students, age 8, had a mother who told me the kid was tone-deaf. During a lesson one day, the daughter suddenly said, “This sounds just like THIS!” She flipped to a piece about 15 pages later in the book. That sort of recognition is NOT an indication of being tone deaf! Her mother was probably one of the kids who was told SHE was.

    OK, that is all… 😉


    Posted by GretchensPianos | January 5, 2011, 12:38 am
  6. Speaking as someone who has a profound hearing loss, but grew up hearing; I know first hand what it is like to see colors when playing music. I am able to close my eyes and see all the colors of the spectrum dance across time; even colors that I am unable to see once the music has stopped. Sounds strange, yes; but it is truly AMAZING when it happens…As a musician, to me my hearing is my most valuable sense; but, I am also not afraid of the day when I will lose the rest of my hearing…I look forward to seeing what colors I am able to see then…

    Posted by Christine Petrolati | January 5, 2011, 6:35 pm

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