Is it possible to have perfect pitch and yet be unable to sing?

I certainly don’t possess perfect pitch, but I can fairly frequently recognise a given note (e.g. I’ll listen to a piece of music and know that the opening chord is an E or whatever) and although I can’t play the piano, I can recreate a simple melody by recreating what “sounds right”.

So clearly I’m not tone deaf, and yet – anyone who heard me try to sing would probably think I am. I just cannot sing. I can hear in my head the tone I should be hitting, but my vocal cords just don’t do it. If I really concentrate and have several attempts, I can just about hit a given note, but as for singing along to a tune, forget it. This does frustrate me, as I am really envious of people who can effortlessly sing and not frighten nearby animals. I can whistle in tune, but that is less satisfying.

So, taken to extremes, are there people who can identify any given pitch perfectly and yet are utterly unable to reproduce them with their voice? And is it possible for people like me who are reasonably musically literate and yet totally tuneless when it comes to singing, to learn to sing?

Yes. I went to school with one. She was in choir. It was rather painful. Like the wiki article you linked states, there are two kinds of absolute pitch. My choir director in high school called them “receptive” and “productive”. The guy quoted in wikipedia calls them “passive” and “active”. You don’t have to have both to lay claim to the title.

Also yes, with practice. I’m rather in the same boat you are. I was in several choir for many years, did solo voice training and a few student recitals and I have a decent Broadway style voice (which is annoying when one really wants to sing like Janice Joplin or Melissa Etheridge, but there you are), but I’m not strong at finding a good starting pitch or finding even the simplest of harmonies without another voice or instrument to lead me. I was better at it when I did it more, but now that I’m out of practice, it’s sometimes hard for me even to *match *a pitch when someone else starts singing. I have to take several stabs at it before I find it. I used to be much, much better at it, and I’m pretty sure I’ve gotten bad at it just by virtue of not doing it much in the last 10 years.

I don’t have perfect pitch, but I have excellent relative pitch. I can name intervals and types of triads and inversions (and when I was better, even more complicated chords.) But I couldn’t tell you what the tonic was.

I am completely and totally unable to sing. For some reason, my excellent pitch just does not apply to the sound of my own voice. In music theory classes, we occasionally had to sing stuff. With a lot of individual attention, the teacher could goad me to hit the right note, and I could hear myself harmonizing with the others just perfectly. But good luck getting me there again.

Actually, this means you do have perfect pitch, though not infallible, according to the article you cite.

Well I don’t think so, really, because the only reason I know it’s an E (or whatever) is because it sounds the same as a chord in another piece of music that I happen to know is an E. I can’t recognise a note if I haven’t heard it somewhere else and learnt what it is - e.g. some people would be able to identify a given note with no reference point whatsoever, and I can’t do that. And I can usually only recognise a note if it’s on an instrument with a similar timbre as one I’ve heard it on before… it’s more of a musical memory rather than picking out the pitch.

I think I have a better ear than most. Excellent relative pitch. When I attended Berklee, I was immediately placed in the advanced ear training class, 3rd and 4th semester material both in my 1st semester.

I have been told never to sing again. I have the ear, but not the instrument.

Wow, interesting. That may be quite unusual, because even the best trained with relative pitch don’t “remember” a sound whose pitch is known by other means for more than a few minutes. It all hinges on what exactly you mean by “because it sounds the same as a chord in another piece”. I guess I see what you mean by an instrument sounding more at home in a rather narrow range of pitches, and that you could remember that certain pieces of music are written in the lower, middle, or high end of that instrument’s normal range, and so by perceiving how a new piece of music compares to the ones you are recalling, you could guess its pitches pretty closely.

You answer the conundrum yourself. You’ve got an acquired ability to recognise sounds, as a combination of timbre and pitch, due to an aural knowledge of context in which you have previously heard them. Most musicians can do this, some to a very great extent, without laying claim to any kind of perfect or absolute pitch.

As for singing, your OP also hints at the answer: If I really concentrate and have several attempts, I can just about hit a given note, but as for singing along to a tune, forget it. For many people, the vocal chords won’t hold individual pitches, let alone a melody, without being trained to do so. ‘Training’ can just mean having always been singing since childhood. But if there’s a huge gap in any attempt to use the voice in this way, coinciding with the voice changing with age (more obviously but not solely the case with male voices), then it can feel like a very alien thing to be doing.

Really? The timbre created as a consequence of a particular guitar chord, or a bowed open string, or a clarinet in particular registers, or (etc.) has no effect?

Yes, I can see now that it can (as I tried to say at the end of my previous post). Quite easy, in fact, with instruments such as the guitar, where the most typical fingering for any given chord (say, a D) happens to have a characteristic pattern (say, fifth, root, fifth, third, root, third) that can be detected when one hears it strummed. As for timbre for a bowed or blown note, I can see how that would get you within a narrow range, but to pick out the pitch itself, to the nearest half-tone, can’t be easy, although I’m sure some folks can manage it.

Well I don’t think so, really, because the only reason I know it’s an E (or whatever) is because it sounds the same as a chord in another piece of music that I happen to know is an E.[/quote

If you’re talking about another piece of music that you heard a while ago–like, more than several minutes ago–then it still sounds like perfect pitch to me. The ability to recognize that this note is the same as that note you heard yesterday requires perfect pitch.


I too have to question this. Not only can I recall an interval or melody on a different instrument, I find it useful to imagine a melody on different instruments. I orchestrated an entire opera doing this.

In fact, I was a little surprised that there are people who have a hard time with this. In said opera, we were trying to teach a singer his melodies. He couldn’t read music, and plunking out his notes on the piano was of no help to him. I actually had to record myself singing all of his parts (badly!) and burning a CD for him. The only way he could learn was to hear another man sing his parts. And this was considered very unusual.

Last night while watching TV, there was a commercial for a car. The background music was sort of pop-orchestral with a beat, and upbeat and peppy. “Where have I heard that before?”, I asked myself. I muted the TV and thought about it for a moment, and realized it was a Pink Floyd song that I’d heard maybe twice. The melody was played on a capella guitar, with no harmonies.

As a hijack, what Floyd song am I thinking of? It has to be from a post-Wall album. The song starts and ends with a slow repeated riff on the guitar.

Wish You Were Here? (Link goes to YouTube)

Dum dumdumdumdum … Dum dum…dumdumdum…

Well that explains a bit - I was mostly thinking of guitars, simply because a large proportion of the music I listen to is guitar music.

For instance, the example I gave about recognising an E - well, I know that the opening chord of Blur’s Parklife is an E, and I hear and recognise that sound in other songs and think “ah ha, that’s an E”. Similarly Crazy Little Thing Called Love by Queen is the canonical D in my brain.

I can do the same with piano notes, but less reliably.

But as for singing, I think I may have even overstated my ability above… I will hit a note occasionally, almost by accident, and will recognise that I have hit it, but any attempt to hold the note or reproduce it almost always ends in failure. In fact, I’d rank “People being able to sing in tune” pretty near the top of my list of really simple things that amaze me. How do you do that?

There’s a fair few notes where a specific timbre is created on one instrument or another. Plus…

What about if we’re talking about a thought process (concious or not) that identifies a whole chord, voiced in a specific way, which then can be placed in context among known music? I know I can identify a D major chord, because I am very familiar with the sound of the D-A perfect fifth on a violin. I can sing a C# minor arpeggio accurately, and I do so by using my memory of the unique sound of that tonality when used in the opening trumpet call of Mahler 5.

B-b-b-but…I don’t have perfect pitch. Nowhere near. But in many cases (and I think that’s the qualifier under discussion) I have ways of identifying particular pitches.

That’s pretty much what I’m talking about, too. (With the exception of being able to sing it!)

The total inability to sing (at least in tune) is rather rare. Hie thee to a voice teacher, and I’m willing to bet they can get you singing in tune in short order. I usually can do so in the space of one lesson. It’s really just a question of learning how to distinguish between the sound you hear coming from an instrument or other person, which is transmitted by normal sound waves, and the sound of your own voice, which is transmitted through bone conduction. That makes it a bit more difficult to tune yourself. Once you learn to make that connection, you’ll be able to tell quicker when you’re on the right pitch. After a while, muscle memory will kick in to the point that you won’t have to laboriously match every pitch, but rather be able to come in at least fairly close, and make any micro-adjustments from there. As you become more familiar with your voice, you’ll find it easier to determine where in your range a particular note lies, and come in right on it.

I don’t have perfect pitch, although I can usually tell what a pitch within a step simply by where it sits in my range. Every once in a while, if I’m working enough on a particular piece, a pitch will stick with me, which is sort of odd. For a few years I could start singing Largo al factotum and come right in on middle C. Couldn’t find the C any other way; if I wanted a C, I had to start singing the Largo. Of course, from there I could find any other pitch, so it was a useful ability. I haven’t worked as intensively on anything for a while, so that particular ability is sort of gone, at least temporarily. (To test myself, I just started sing Votre toast, which also starts on C. Came in on a B. Oh well.)

Nope. Post-Wall. And on a much more sustained and distorted electric guitar. It’s similar in nature (but not in melody) to Tull’s Cap in Hand.

It has to be Learning To Fly, High Hopes, Take It Back, Coming Back To Life, Sorrow, or Keep Talking.

I listened to this very topic tonight, on the way home from work.


Assuming this isn’t a repeat of what someone said earlier, you should find this interesting.