Musicologists define perfect pitch, also known as absolute pitch, as the ability to independently identify the pitch of any musical note, or to reproduce any specified note. Some studies have indicated that perfect pitch is relatively rare; only about one person in 10,000 possesses it.
Here are a few facts and theories about perfect pitch, and how human beings—particularly children—might be taught to develop it.
1. What is the science behind musical pitch?
Every sound consists of sound waves. These vibrations reach the ear, and then the brain, via nerve impulses. The unit of measurement for sound waves is the hertz, with a single wave per second designated as one hertz, 100 wave vibrations per second as 100 hertz, and so on. The human ear can perceive sound waves vibrating along a scale of approximately 20 to 20,000 hertz.
When musicians talk about the pitch of a sound, they are referring to the sensation of its frequency. Lower frequencies equal lower pitch, and as the frequency gets higher, so does the pitch. A highly trained musician with excellent pitch can distinguish very subtle differences between sounds that vary by as little as 2 hertz.
2. What’s the difference between perfect pitch and relative pitch?
People with perfect pitch know, for example, that the first musical interval in the children’s song “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” represents a perfect fifth on the scale, and that the iconic vocal “way up high” jump in Judy Garland’s rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” is the interval of a major sixth.
A musician with perfect pitch can instantly determine the relation of any one note on the scale to any other. He or she can also reproduce notes at specified intervals without looking at the instrument being played or any other external source.
With relative pitch, a musician can identify the intervals between notes, but not necessarily the notes themselves. Most experts believe that perfect pitch cannot be taught; however, most musicians can develop some degree of relative pitch through application and study.
Experts point out that perfect pitch and relative pitch are complementary, and that it is possible to possess both. One way of describing the difference is to say that perfect pitch is analogous to creative, artistic, “right-brained” ways of understanding the world. Relative pitch is in line with more “intellectualized,” “left-brained” means of perception. After developing relative pitch, musicians are better able to name and describe the elements of music verbally, whereas those with a sense of perfect pitch have an instant, innate understanding that transcends words.
3. Which famous musicians have had perfect pitch?
5. Pitch can be associated with meaning.
Other techniques exist for assisting young children in the development of relative pitch.
Children can listen to a story about, for example, animals of different sizes and temperaments, and can learn to associate a specific pitch with each one. For example, one instructor would ask children to imagine a big, powerful elephant lumbering alone. As the image unfolded in the children’s minds, the instructor would play a combination of low notes on the piano. Then a monkey would appear in the story, accompanied by notes in the piano’s middle range. A series of lilting high notes would go along with a section of the story about light, high-flying birds.
6. New research suggests perfect pitch can be learned.
It was a long believed that perfect pitch was inborn and not able to be taught or learned, but some contemporary researchers believe otherwise.
Diana Deutsch, a University of California, San Diego, psychology professor and researcher into cognition and musical ability, believes that the secret lies in helping young children make connections between pitch and meaning. Dr. Deutsch, known for her discovery of a range of musical illusions and paradoxes, has focused in particular on the phenomenon of perfect pitch.
Dr. Deutsch has written that all people are born with an inherent form of perfect pitch, but that most never learn to recognize or use it. People may recognize a note but be unable to name it. But she also believes that timing is everything. If a child has not had in-depth musical training before beginning elementary school, he or she is less likely to discover that hidden sense of perfect pitch.
7. The identification of tritones can help develop perfect pitch.
Dr. Deutsch grounds her theory about developing perfect pitch partly on her work with musical illusions and conundrums, including her discovery of the “Tritone Paradox.” A tritone indicates the interval where an octave—a series of eight notes—divides evenly into two halves. An example: C and F-sharp form a tritone pair.
Every musical note has a companion, as in the C-F-sharp pairing, located precisely one-half octave away. The paradox lies in the fact that individuals may hear the same tritones as either ascending or descending when they are played in sequence. People are often astonished to find that others hear the opposite.
Dr. Deutsch’s research showed that everyone has some ability to remember these fixed tritone pairs, which she defines as one innate form of perfect pitch. She further discovered that working on this type of fixed pitch just might enable an individual to go on to acquire perfect pitch, if such instruction starts early enough.
8. Speaking a tonal language may help with the acquisition of perfect pitch.
Native speakers of tonal languages, such as Vietnamese and Chinese, seem to have a particular advantage when it comes to developing perfect pitch. Dr. Deutsch theorizes that this is because their brains were wired around distinguishing fine gradations in spoken tones, and because perception of tritone patterns in these cultures tends to be the same for all speakers. By contrast, individual speakers of American English tend to have their own individual perceptions of whether any given tritone is ascending or descending.
9. Creating a DIY tonal language may help young children develop perfect pitch.
Dr. Deutsch suggests that parents who want to give their young children perfect pitch try to recreate a tonal language at home. An easy way to do this is to label each note on a keyboard with a different sticker showing an animal. For example, every C note can be labeled with a dog, every F-sharp with a cat, and so on. Children can then more easily mentally associate each tone with a meaning. As they learn the abstract notes of the scale, they will substitute them for the animal pictures.