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Thread: Do I Have Perfect Pitch?

  1. #1
    Registered User
    Join Date
    Nov 2007

    Do I Have Perfect Pitch?

    So, for as long as I could remember, I've been able to identify, in isolation, any type of pitch and give the key of it. It can extend from such things as a piano, guitar, to random noises (sirens, doorbells, etc.). Every quiz that I take on the internet comes up as 100%, etc. If you need to know the key of a song, I can tell you (at least as far as my general chord knowledge goes, but even then, I can give you a root). I'm self-taught in piano and didn't take my first theory class until I was a freshman in college (a couple of years ago). It was a great class and very informative and I got a nice lesson in relative pitch, although I pretty much already knew it, despite not being taught, since I already knew the individual pitches. Though it was at this class that I discovered something very interesting...

    Despite how I've always felt I've had perfect pitch throughout the years, whenever it came to melodic dictation, it wasn't as much of a breeze as I expected. Granted, I still finished before everyone else, but the notes didn't pop out to me like they would in isolation and sometimes I could just be flat out lost, but pretty much only due to the speed. If the teacher slowed it down, I could nail it, but I did have my problems. On the other hand, when I listen to actual music, for the most part, trying to figure out the pitch of, say, the melody that is being sung or even a solo... I'm usually lost.

    And it's precisely that why I post all this. After not really paying much attention to theory and the like since that class, I'm now sort of into it again. Mostly because my goal is this: I want to be able to hear a song and right after hearing it, go to the piano and play it, melody/riff and all perfectly, or at least close to it. I know this sounds a bit unrealistic, but if I have perfect pitch, shouldn't I have the ability to do this? Or does my inability mean that I don't have it? Or is acquiring such a goal as mine more of a non-perfect pitch issue?

    I suppose I would be really interested to know why 1. I have trouble identifying notes when NOT in isolation and 2. what could be done to remedy this.

    Your help is greatly appreciated.


  2. #2
    Registered User JonR's Avatar
    Join Date
    Dec 2002
    Twickenham, UK
    Firstly, you certainly have perfect pitch - even if it may be somewhat "imperfect" in practice.
    Secondly, PP is not much use to a musician.

    OK, yes, if you improved your skill in the way you would like, you would be able to go straight to a piano after hearing a tune and reproduce it, in the same key.
    I'm sure, in fact, with some practice, you would be able to do this better (or quicker) than you can at present.

    But any musician with good relative pitch can do much the same thing.
    That is, they won't be able to identify the key, but they will be able to hear what the chord sequence is (eg, I-IV-vi, or whatever), and they will be able to tell how the melody notes relate to the key and chord (3rd, 6th, whatever).
    So they could go to a piano (or whatever instrument) and play the song. So what if the key is wrong? That's easily found (using RP) by another quick listen while at the instrument.

    IOW, the advantage PP gives you is being able to identify pitches, keys, etc, without having an instrument present. How useful is that? In how many situations is that going to be an important skill?

    Of course, as you have it already, I'm not suggesting you unlearn it! Only that the best direction to go in is to train your relative pitch. IOW, you need to be able to identify (say) a major 3rd without going through the process of recognising (say) C and E as the separate pitches, and then using your theory knowledge to say "oh that's a major 3rd!" I.e., the sound of C and E together is much important than the sound of the notes individually.
    You need to be able to recognise that C and E together have - in all important respects - the same sound as G and B together. (To someone who only had perfect pitch, those two intervals would sound very different. The difference in the frequencies might obscure the similarity of the intervals - the ratios between the frequencies - which is what matters.)

    All musicians need relative pitch. No musician needs perfect pitch. (Otherwise all musicians would have it, and they don't.)
    It's true that the incidence of PP is a little more common among musicians than non-musicians, and perhaps (I don't know) more common among great musicians; but it's still only a minority that possess it. (And some regard it as a curse, not a blessing.)

    In a sense, what you have is a rare gift or skill - but it is (apparently) musically untrained. You need to train your ear in the same way all musicians do. That is, to hear relationships between notes, above or before the character of individual notes themselves.

    Interestingly, the problem you have is the same one computer software has. Digital tuners can easily identify single notes. But it's hard to design programs that can identify chords from a piece of actual music. If the sound is clean (eg a solo electric piano) it's not too difficult. But if it's a band or orchestra, with lots of different timbres (overtones) and percussion sounds, then no computer program, however advanced, can reliably disentangle the relevant pitches. That's where the ear of a musician (or even many non-musicians) wins out. We can identify instruments and chords more easily than software can. We can easily tell a saxophone from a trumpet, playing the same note. We can tell a guitar from a piano - and we can easily tell an expensive digital emulation of a guitar from a real guitar.
    But what we can't do (without perfect pitch) is identify a single frequency - which a simple $10 tuner can do immediately. That's because it's not necessary for us (biologically or culturally!) to be able to do so. Our whole hearing system is geared to identifying small nuances of differences between sounds - in pulling meaning out of the mass of air vibrations that enter our ears. The frequency of one pitch has no meaning or importance, until it combines with another.
    Music simply refines that skill - via relative pitch, which is something we ALL have to some degree.
    Music, IOW, is not about notes, but about the relationships between notes.

    PP without RP - which AFAIK is a pretty rare condition - would be like reading a piece of text (or hearing someone speak) and identifying all the single letters, but not being able to understand the words. "OK, I can hear he's using the letters H, E, L and P, and it's quite loud... now where's that dictionary..."
    Last edited by JonR; 11-11-2009 at 10:51 AM.

  3. #3
    Registered User
    Join Date
    Feb 2008
    I think you should try to use at best whatever ability you feel the more natural to you wether it's absolute or relative pitch because after all, it's only a tool that you will use for playing what you hear.

    Here, Jonr is supporting the consensus that relative pitch is more important to a musician. I don't fully agree with that for the following reason:
    We are not talking about the ability to hear and enjoy the combinaison of notes that is called music which is something most people (and you has well) have anyway. We are talking about formalizing and learning to recognize the various relations between those notes which is a whole different story. Despite the fact that music is for sure based on note relations rather than absolute pitches, learning relative pitch is nothing but easy, it takes times usually several years before a musician can really claim to have a good relative pitch. Strangely, learning to put labels on note relations heard all your life through music is not something that seem to be as natural as it should be.

    It is my opinion that today we still have to find a a better way to teach relative pitch to adults and also possibly children.

    However, to come back to the original question. Let's say you were improvising at piano: It's not how you manage to find on your instrument the notes you hear that is important. It may be absolute pitch, relative pitch or a mix of both, it's more why you select those notes and I would say that you can't be wrong on that choices because it will always be based on your previous musical experiences which most probably were enjoyed by listening way more relatively than absolutely.

  4. #4
    It sounds like you have an underdeveloped talent. Maybe you have natural skills far above the average but without training you are not able to focus those abilities. This has been the plot of a hundred different science fiction shows. Good thing you are not telekinetic.

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