Sunday, August 6, 2017

Perfect Pitch; What does it mean, and is it even real?


As I was reviewing patient charts on Thursday, a member of my cohort who had just finished his gastroenterology rotation came into the conference area where I was looking over records after the supervising resident physician made notations.  The resident looked up and briefly greeted him. My cohort-mate said to the resident, "So you're working with Alexis now."

It was a bit of a Captain Obvious moment, as there would have been no other logical reason for the two of us to have been simultaneously in the physician's computer pod and passing patient records to one another, but the resident let it go. "Yes," he responded to the preceding comment with no perceivable enthusiasm.

"Alexis is a musician," my colleague told my superior. "She has perfect pitch."

"There's no such thing as perfect pitch," the resident intoned.

"Really?" I queried, though not with any marked incredulity, as I've heard the line before.  

It's all a matter of semantics, though in this case it's also a matter of the resident physician's ignorance as to what is meant by perfect pitch. I don't typically  use the term perfect pitch because it's an imprecise and sometimes misunderstood term. 

I prefer the term absolute pitch over perfect pitch. Absolute pitch refers  to a person's ability to reproduce a given musical tone or to identify a given tone without external reference. A person who can spontaneously produce a given note within a quarter-tone of standard pitch is usually considered to possess the skill of absolute pitch. Likewise, anyone who consistently identifies notes without external reference also would be said to possess the trait. Regardless, the only arguable point in reference to absolute pitch is the criteria used in measuring or determining who is in possession of the skill.  The concept of absolute pitch exists. Some individuals possess the ability to identify pitches or to produce tones spontaneously.

Relative pitch refers to a person's ability to hear notes in relation to one another. This pertains both to the concept of identifying specific tones on a scale as well as to the premise of pitch in reference to a specific note.  When musical tone is produced by voice or by any instrument for which a tone is not fixed, the pitch may, obviously, be higher or lower in relation to any other tone. A person with a strong sense of relative pitch possesses the ability to match pitch vocally or mechanically with accuracy to a greater degree than does a person with a weaker sense of relative pitch. It could be argued that anyone who is not clinically deaf probably possesses some degree of relative pitch. Relative pitch is, as is absolute pitch, a very real concept, and its existence is not a point for debate.

Tone deafness is another pitch-related concept. In actuality the concept is something of a misnomer.  True tone deafness exists, for the most part, only where actual deafness exists.  If a person truly lacked the ability to hear and to differentiate between tones, the first seven notes of "Old McDonald" would sound identical to the first seven notes of "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star."  Almost anyone who knows both songs will hear the distinction between the two. What is
most commonly equated with tone deafness is the inability to sing on key or to match pitch. Yet people who cannot sing on key can usually tell if someone else is not singing on key. Singing is a complex skill -- both a motor skill and an auditory skill. Individuals who lack the ability to sing on key either cannot hear themselves as others hear them when they produce vocal tones, or they lack the motor ability to control their voices precisely, or both.  Some accomplished musicians cannot sing on key.* Others can eventually find a pitch with their voices but cannot hit a note cleanly at the outset. Other people can come close to maching a pitch, but cannot differentiate between the production of a tone that is mildly sharp or flat as opposed to producing the identical tone, or matching the pitch. Some people have more refined senses of relative pitch than do others. It doesn't mean that the others are tone deaf, though,  unless they're actually clinically deaf.

I suspect that any confusion over the reality of perfect pitch occurs  as a result of the occasional practice of referring to a person's highly refined sense of relative pitch as perfect pitch. 

One of the nurses with whom I worked in my dermatology rotation recently spoke to me of the violin studies of her ten-year-old son, Ian. The nurse's child was studying violin under the tutelage of the nurse's fiance. "My fiance doesn't believe in perfect pitch," the nurse told me, "but he says that Ian's pittch is pretty darn good."

Along those same lines, when I was a child, I read If You Could See What I Hear, which is the autobiography of blind singer Tom Sullivan (on which the subsequently produced and heavily panned movie of the same name was based.) Sullivan related the story of his being evaluated for placement in a choir by being asked to match the tones produced on a piano by the choir director. The  choir director told Sullivan, based on his vocal reproduction of the piano tones, that he had perfect pitch. 

I asked my mom, who was the only parent home at the time, how a person could possibly tell that another had perfect pitch simply by having the person hum or sing notes that were played on a piano. My understanding of perfect pitch had been that it equated with a sense of abolute pitch, and reproducing the notes one heard would be no evidence whatsoever of anyone's sense of absolute pitch. My mom explained the concept of relative pitch to me, and said that some people considered a refined sense of relative pitch to mean perfect pitch, but that it was a misuse of the term. She explained why, in musical academia, the terms absolute pitch and relative pitch were used instead of perfect pitch.

But what if we agreed,  for the sake of argument,  to equate perfect pitch with highly refined relative pitchWould that, then, support the premise of my supervising attending physician (and of Ian's mother's fiance) and others that perfect pitch is a myth and an unattainable standard, and that no one actually possesses it -- that perfect is, like infinity, an unreachable quality or quantity? No; even equating perfect pitch with relative pitch would not create an unattainable standard, thereby negating the existence of the skill of perfect pitch. If pitch existed only in the ears of those who heard it,  and pitch couldn't be quantified or measured, perhaps the non-existence of the skill of perfect pitch could be supported.  Instruments exist, however,  to measure any pitch's vibrations in a given interval of time, thereby availing the option of standardizing pitch. Likewise, the capacity to measure or to document a person's perception of pitch exists as well.

Again, because pitch can be precisely measured, an individual's perception of pitch can likewise be measured. Hence, even if we used highly refined sense of relative pitch as our standard for perfect pitch, people exist whose senses of relative pitch allow them to differentiate between pitches with differences as minute as a single rotation per minute. Some people can actually hear the difference between four-hundred-forty rotations per minute and for-hundred-forty-one rotations per minute. People with such refined auditory perception are few and far between, but they do exist, which is proof positive that perfect pitch exists regardless of whether its definition is encompaased by the parameters of relative pitch or of absolute pitch. I assume that both my supervising resident physician and my nurse acquaintance's fiance are operating under the assumption that however refined a is person's capacity to distinguish  pitch, it could be better still. Maybe or maybe not, but if a person can auditorially differentiate between one-hundred-thirty-nine, one-hundred-forty, and one-hundred-forty-one vibrations per second,  both Ian's mother's fiance and my supervising resident physician are wrong no matter what is the agreed-upon definition of perfet pitch.

I really couldn't care less about what the resident physician thinks about perfect pitch or about any other aspect of music except that most people who waste time and energy arguing that  perfect pitch does not exist do so because they don't have it. They believe that because they don't possess it, perfect pitch is therefore not real, and no one else can have it, either. I do not need for my supervising intern to hate me just because I have a better sense of pitch than he does. 

*Composer Burt Bacharach was known for his ability to compose and to play the piano both by reading standard music notation and by ear, but couldn't sing on-key.

**The hertz (the symbol of which is Hz) is the standard unit of frequency for reference purposes, defined as one cycle per second.


  1. I have perfect pitch too. It's a real thing. If it weren't a real thing, why would there be a study about it at the University of California San Francisco's medical school? I took part in the study and I assume that's a legitimate place to earn a medical degree, right? Tell the resident to STFU... in more polite terms if you must. :D

    1. The idea of perfect pitch being a myth is perpetuated only by those who don't possess it. It's about jealous individuals rationalizing by zeroing in upon the narrow concept of perfection, as in if anything could possibly be better even to the smallest degree, it shouldn't be called "perfect" in its present state. Those who feel the need to reassure themselves that we don't, in reality, possess an ability that THEY don't can tell themselves anything that makes them feel better, but the fact remains that some of us can spontaneously identify and/or produce pitches.

      The supervising resident graduated from UCSF med school. I won't bring the subject up again, but if he does, or if anyone else does and he again denies the existence of perfect pitch, I will reference the study from HIS alma mater and see what he has to say about THAT.

  2. They took down their Web site, but here's an article about it. I took the test twice because I narrowly failed it the first time. I got flustered because it was so fast. I passed it easily the second time and noticed that the notes they used were exactly the same as they were the first time I took it.

    1. When they sent me a letter about it, I confessed to taking the test twice and they said they were glad I did it, because I was really close. To my knowledge, no one else in my family has it.

    2. My parents both have it. My mom's mom had it. No one else in my dad's family ever had it as far as we know. we don't know if Matthew has it. no one has checked. he has very good relative pitch, as do most people I know with perfect pitch.

      My mom's best friend and her daughter have it, and no one else in her family is known to have it. 9It's a very large family, though they're no particularly close and wouldn't necessarily know if others had it.

    3. I have found that people get bitter about it... Jealous, as you say. In truth, I have found that it makes things more annoying for me. I notice things that others don't. I probably would make a terrible music teacher because I hate hearing things that are off.

    4. One article I read said that absolute pitch does not make transposition more difficult, but I've found that it does make transposing harder. Transposing on an instrument is a somewhat demanding task though achievable task for almost anyone unless the person is just playing the piece by ear in another key. This is particularly true for keyboard instruments or harp, because the player is playing more than one note at a time, and needs to transpose every not played at a given time simultaneously. Unless the instrumentalist is just playing by ear, it's a cognitively demanding task. Transposing while singing, on the other hand, is relatively simple for anyone who doesn't have absolute pitch. The person just attaches any pitch to the value of do and the respective tones of the scale. There's really nothing to it. If a person has absolute pitch, however, the music must literally be transposed. Also, some older pianos have strings that have stretched to the point that they can no longer be tuned to standard pitch. The notes are tuned relative to one another at lower pitches. This is maddening for anyone with perfect or absolute pitch because they expect to hear 440 when an A is played. It causes major cognitive dissonance to hear something different than the standard pitch when each note is played. The pianist may be able to adjust for it, but it's very distracting.

      My mom ordered one of those giant roll-out piano keyboards that you step on to play the notes when Matthew and I were little. She sent it back because it was not tuned to standard pitch and it would have driven both of us crazy. It was very stupid on the part of the manufacturer not to have tuned the thing to standard pitch. It's just as easy to tune an electronic instrument to one pitch as to another. There was no good reason other than perhaps ignorance or laziness to have used a non-standard tuning.

      Perfect pitch is an essentially useless skill. It's great if you want to run around ringing people's doorbells and telling them the pitches of their doorbells, and I know what is wrong with an IV line based on the pitches of the alarm sounds without going to check (which would be a really valuable application of perfect pitch if I were a nurse), but, for the most part, the skill is a novelty. The saving grace is that the vast majority of people with absolute pitch also have extremely strong senses of relative pitch. I haven't known anyone with perfect pitch who wasn't also great with relative pitch.