Perfect Pitch: Everything is Music

[This is part of the Music and the Brain series]

Nature can be somewhat musical. Not in a figurative way, but a literal way. A squeaky gate, a car horn, even someone blowing their nose.


My house has a squeaky gate that can drive me insane sometimes. Under the right circumstances, the three squeaks that come from it while closing, make up the first three notes of a tune that I know well. This is not perfect pitch. This is just hyperactive regular musical recognition and relative pitch. But it is not the same for all.

Relative Pitch vs. Absolute (perfect) Pitch

People with perfect pitch have what could be called the Pro version of the musicality that most people are born with. The average person can tell you if two notes you are playing are different, and if one is higher or lower then the other. Perhaps they cant tell you, for example, how much farther above or below the second note was, but this can be taught through training. They cannot however, tell you the names of the notes without seeing a keyboard or whatever else you happen to be playing on.

People without absolute pitch however can do this. They can listen to a note and, assuming they have been taught the names, immediately tell you which note you are playing without looking at your fingers or the instrument. Not only that, they can also reproduce a note exactly on pitch by just being given the name. No other notes required. You may think, What could be bad about this? Let me tell you. Plenty can

This ability does not stop at musical notes. It can apply to everything that may even be remotely musical. The screech of a car, the blowing of a nose, the screaming of a little girl. All of that becomes a musical note that they can name.

I am not at that point (thank goodness). But I do notice some things that I never did before. Take my vacuum for example. I noticed at one point that it too made a musical note whenever it operated. I was able to hum it, walk to my piano, and figure it out. It happened to be a G#. This is not absolute pitch, but it does illustrated how musical training can make you notice things you never did before.

How Can They Tell?

Imagine you are looking at two different pieces of construction paper. Lets say that one is pink and one is orange. Now, there is no difference in shape amongst the two. But you can obviously tell them apart because of their different colors. Most people with absolute pitch say that each tone has its own color. Not an actual, visual color, but a quality that is unique to the tone itself. Letting them know what it is. Obviously something is different with their brains. What is it? Once again we are not exactly sure. It must be hell to play an out-of-tune piano!

Can I learn it?

Ah yes, the ultimate question. The short answer is maybe. It was long believed that absolute pitch could not be learned, and that you had to be born with it. However research has shown that it may be possible to learn it as a skill. Look around on the internet and you will find plenty of products that claim to teach it to you. Although I cannot vouch for the validity of any of these products. The positive reviews do seem to indicate that they work to some extent. But why dont you give one a try and let me know how it goes!

So, in conclusion. Perfect pitch is helpful to a musician, can be quite annoying, and just might be able to be learned. I say we learned something here.

[This is part of the Music and the Brain series]