Absolute Pitch

Absolute Pitch (often referred to as Perfect Pitch) is the ability to recognise and name a musical note without a reference tone. It is possessed by about one in ten thousand people.

I have just finished re-reading This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel Levitin. Levitin is a leading neuroscientist who specialises in music and he tells us that he has read every single research paper on Absolute Pitch (AP). He admits that scientists do not know why some people have it and some don’t. But, he also demonstrates a poor understanding of the nature of AP. For instance he gives the example of a colleague who “discovered a patient who has absolute pitch but is tone deaf! He can name notes perfectly, but he cannot sing to save his life¹.”

Why the exclamation mark, Daniel? As someone with AP, my response to this is “like, d-uh!” As long as the patient were not visually impaired or colour blind, no one would bat an eyelid at his recognition of the colour green or blue, yet in no way would this lead to an assumption that he would be able to paint anything recognisable with them.

So, I thought I’d write about my experiences of AP in an attempt to help further understanding of this ability in those who may be interested. Of course, these are only my experiences and those of others may be very different.

Each Note has a Unique Quality

I can recognise an A or D# as easily as I can recognise my husband’s voice, or which one of my dogs is barking. An F just has a quality of “F-ness”. It is not something I have to pay attention to and it requires no effort – though, as we’ll come to, there are exceptions to this.

I Have No Idea How I Came to Have AP

I can’t have been born with AP because at birth I was unfamiliar with the concept of musical pitch. But I don’t recall acquiring it and it feels like I’ve always had it. In fact, I used to think everyone had it. It was only when I misunderstood an aural test and I wrote down the melody of a piece played on the piano, along with the (required) rhythm, that my music teacher told in a mix of awe and accusation “you’ve got perfect pitch!”

The Pitches of Some Instruments are Harder to Identify than Others

I find the piano the easiest of all to determine pitch, even though I’m not a trained pianist. Instruments with prominent dissonant overtones are the most difficult. There are some singing voices that I cannot identify.

AP Does Not Go On Indefinitely

I cannot identify notes at pitch extremes: either high or low.

AP is a Function of Response, Not Initiation

If you asked me to sing a certain pitch, I could do it correctly 90% of the time. But I have to sing the pitch in my head first. Once I’ve heard it internally and experienced the quality of the required pitch, I will know if my internal starting pitch is correct or if it needs adjusting. I can then reproduce it vocally.

If I just sang without hearing it first, I could be off. This correlates with the research finding that muscle memory is not involved in AP.

AP is a Blessing and a Curse

Yes, I’m pretty good at playing by ear! But sometimes I don’t want to know that the key of a piece is Gm: it doesn’t further my enjoyment or connection with the music and sometimes, I think it even gets in that way of that. Also, transposing can be a challenge. However…

I Run in ‘Parallel Pitch’

When you consider that my first main instrument was the Bb clarinet, a transposing instrument, it is even more peculiar that I should have AP. But it seems that I have the ability to compartmentalise. In fact, when I listen to the clarinet, I can tell you the pitch of the note either from an AP viewpoint, or from the viewpoint of the clarinettist. The note has a certain quality which I recognise because I recognise the pitch, and because I recognise the note as its played on the clarinet. I’m effectively hearing two pitch schemes in tandem and choosing to focus on one or the other.

Another example is the Persian setar, which I am studying. The tradition here is to tune in standard pitch when playing with others, but to tune down a tone when playing solo because the strings have more resonance at the lower pitch and the setar sounds better. So, with a tuned down setar, I recognise that my teacher is playing a G but I have to go to the fret which I know as A in order to play the same note. I’m not quite sure what is going on here, but I don’t believe I’m carrying out an instantaneous transposition, rather that I’m running a double pitch scheme in my head, where the quality of G can be an A if I let it.

I Lose it When I Am Ill

Isn’t this interesting? I can lose it overnight if I’m coming down with something. In fact, there are degrees of AP loss: I may just lose it with some instruments and my AP compass might decrease. Or I may lose it completely. I can even use it as a barometer of how poorly I am. When I’m better, it re-appears.

I Have a Relationship with Pitch that Cannot Be Appreciated by Non-AP Musicians

I once wrote an article on harp tuning and claimed in passing that singers find it easier to sing in flat keys. I was taken to task on this by someone who, virtually apoplectic with rage, insisted that this could not possibly be the case. It was something that a singing teacher (without AP) once told me and it matched my own experience. So, when I was challenged I sat down and paid attention to what was happening. It was true: when I was singing a flattened note (ie, an on-pitch Bb, not an under-pitch, out of tune note), I felt a sense of ‘settling or easing down’ into the pitch; when singing a sharpened note, such as F# or C#, I had to ‘reach up’ for it. Enharmonically, I even found it much more comfortable to think in terms of Db major than C# major. I could well imagine that my critical reader would not readily understand if I were to tell him that, for me, going from note C to D# is more of ‘stretch’ than going from C to Eb, because, ultimately, he does not have the same intimate relationship with pitch that I do. We were, therefore, both right from our respective experiences.

 

¹Levitin, Daniel J. This Is Your Brain on Music: Understanding a Human Obsession, May 2008, page 184