Perfect pitch addendum

I recently heard on radio news that perfect
pitch, while rare in English speaking
countries, is not at all uncommon in
cultures with tonal language.

I know tonal languages don’t require you
to hit certain notes; I’m just reporting
what I heard on the news.

Anyway, that suggests perfect pitch is much
more ‘nurture over nature’ than Cecil’s

I did a little research on pitch perception during my college days and have come to feel that all people have the potential for perfect pitch. Whether we realize it or not, all of us are making certain kinds of absolute pitch judgements every day – it is absolute pitch that allows us to distinguish between different vowel sounds.

Sound in its most basic form is a pure sine wave. However, most sounds in nature are what we call complex sounds (it’s actually a good deal more complicated than that with various onset and decay characteristics and so forth, but we’ll deal with “steady-state” sound for the purpose of this discussion). A complex sound is made up of many different sine waves at different frequencies and amplitudes occurring simultaneously. One of the things we can do is deconstruct a complex sound into its various constituent pure sine waves and graph these pure sine waves by frequency and amplitude. This is called a Fourrier analysis or a spectrum graph. To see examples of spectrum graphs, take a look at the following graphs of the ee-vowel[/url"] and the [url=]oo-vowel. These are actually synthetic vowels rather than those produced by real humans, but they get the idea across and they’re the best I could find on short notice.

What we see in these graphs are a number of bumps indicating that those frequencies contain a higher amount of acoustic energy relative to the surrounding frequencies. These bumps are called “formants.” As you can see from the two graphs, the frequencies of these bumps are different depending on the vowel sound. In fact, it is the frequency of the formants that allow us to distinguish between different vowel sounds. For example, if we begin with an ah-vowel and slowly lower the frequency of the first formant, it eventually begins to sound like the aw-vowel. Indeed, speakers of a common language will generally agree that everything above a certain frequency sounds like “ah” while everything below that frequency sounds like “aw.” These frequency barriers allow for a fair amount of variation above and below the cut-off frequency, but pitch judgements with respect to the cut-off frequency itself are incredibly precise. So, as you can see, we are unconsciously making very precise absolute pitch judgements every day when we distinguish between vowels.

As you would imagine, these various frequencies that allow us to distinguish between vowels are learned. Research indicates that our ability to learn these frequencies, among other important features of speech, is best at a young age and diminishes greatly thereafter. This is one reason why people who grew up speaking and hearing a variety of languages have a much greater ability to produce the correct sounds for each language. For example, Asians speaking Western languages run into a familiar problem because they did not learn the acoustic cues that distinguish R from L at an early age – this distinction is not an important feature of their native languages. Interestingly, the ability to acquire perfect pitch is also best at a young age and diminishes greatly as we grow older. That said, I am convinced that we all have the innate ability for perfect pitch because it is part of how we develop language skills. Few people actually develop perfect pitch because so few of us are exposed to an environment that encourages the acquisition of those skills at the proper age. This actually explains Cecil’s observation that individuals with perfect pitch tend to develop reference pitches that correspond to those they grew up with (“mom’s piano”).

Really, when you think about it, making an absolute pitch judgement about the fundamental frequency would be a whole lot easier than the overtone frequency judgements we make every day.

Oops. I didn’t do the UUB coding right on my links.

The ee-vowel is at:

and the oo-vowel is at:

Cecil mentions some guy who could whistle up free phone calls. I’m skeptical of this claim - as far as I know, and please correct me if you know different, phone system signalling works using PAIRS of simultaneous tones. Was that guy maybe whistling and singing a really high falsetto at the same time?


Not necessarily. It’s sort of like the difference bewteen the shape of an object and the size of it. Strictly speaking, measuring the size is simpler, but measuring the shape is easier for humans; just look at it, and see what it is. Looking at the graphs, it looks like the vowels don’t just differ by some constant factor; their entire shapes are different.

It’s real. Of course it doesn’t work anymore but it did once. There’s even a magazine called 2600 which was named for the frequency of 2600Hz, which would make telehpone equipment think you had ended a call.

IIRC the dual tones only apply to the way pay phones signalled that you had inserted money.

no the 2600Hz actualy was (and still is in some back woods places) the signaling tone used by the telco switches. (the tones you are thinking come from a “red box”, and only work on payphones) it would basicly give you and outside line on the trunk, from there you could dail to anywhere in the world at no cost to you. this techneque is known as “blue boxing” because the little divice used to make the tone (among others) was called a “blue box”. the signaling in no longer in-band, i.e. it’s not on the same pair of wires as your voice.

as for the touch tones, they are actualy called DTMF, which stands for Dual Tone Milti-Frequency. and yes you would have to whistle two tones at once to get these.
not that i know about this or anything…


My understanding of perfect pitch conforms to Cecil’s column, but not to ABSOLUTE PITCH. Absolute pitch as I was taught, was the ability to reproduce a piece of music verbatim. Mozart, it was said, heard an opera performed, went home and wrote it out note for note.

I have never heard “absolute pitch” used with that meaning, and it doesn’t make sense (i.e., it’s not what the words mean).

“Absolute pitch” normally means about the same thing as “perfect pitch”. Some people make the further distinction that “perfect pitch” is perfect, i.e., “absolute pitch” means you can tell an A from a Bb, but “perfect pitch” means you can tell an A=440 from an A=444.

And it was a church service, not an opera.

John W. Kennedy
“Compact is becoming contract; man only earns and pays.”
– Charles Williams

The reason it would let you dial for free is because it would think you had ended the call and wouldn’t charge you for anything past that point.

In many of the music magazines (especially jazz) that I read there are ads from a fellow who claims that he taught himself perfect pitch and that he can teach anyone else. Cecil did such a good job investigating the ear candles, how about if he took a look at that perfect pitch ad?

Re Perfect pitch.

If you want your children to be able to best distinguish between similar sounds (l and r), have perfect pitch, etc. What can you do to encourage this? (ie, will encouraging them to learn another language help, or would playing music, or what?)

I’d like to, if and when I have kids, give them advantages like this, but without pushing them… just expose them to information and let them soak it up if they can/ want to.

Re whistling free calls.

I belive what was whistled was the loud steady 2600hz tone that signalled the end of a call, then a modified dialer was used for the digits which consisted of two tones at once, much the same as standard dialing tones, except a bit higher in pitch. (they sound shrill to me, compared to the regular tones.)

A brief rundown on the (obsolete) phone freaking…

Two switches communicate over a ‘trunk’ line, they play a 2600Hz tone when the line is empty so that they know if the other switch is there. When the tone goes away, the destination switch knows to listen for dialing. What you did was call a distant phone number, then play a 2600hz tone, this fools the two switches (or two of many) into thinking that the phone call they were carrying is gone, so they go into waiting mode, then the tone goes away and they prepare to accept the dialing information for the next call. Because a customer isn’t supposed to get here, and can’t, with the regular phone, command the switches, they don’t do the billing, so once you’re connected, you can dial for free.

But, that’s all obsolete now, unless you happen to live in a third world country. Even if your area uses very old switches for the customer service, likely the long-distance trunks will be newer.

btw, I know I took a lot of liberties with that, it’s just to explain how you can whistle and partly get free calls.

re mozart

besides the perfect pitch thing, that’s a really cool feat because i know colors pretty well, and if i saw someone play a long game of simon says, i couldn’t go home and write down the order of the colors.

A girl a my school (univ of n. texas) that had perfect pitch said she heard pitches like most people saw colors.

We live in an age that reads too much to be wise, and thinks too much to be beautiful–Oscar Wilde

Ahh there is also relative pitch, and that’s being able to distinguish sound intervals like 3rds, 4ths, fifths, .sevenths,…octaves and so forth, it can definately be learned, hey I know this stuff i’m a guitar god.


Actually, the intervals 7th’s etc, are easier to distinguish for me than the initial tone. Also, everyone i’ve ever known who says they are a guitar god, means they want to be a guitar god. It’s the guys that say “yeah, I play a little…” that have always amazed me.

We live in an age that reads too much to be wise, and thinks too much to be beautiful–Oscar Wilde

hey buddy im no roody poo! i’ve devoted years to the guitar and write my own music. I don’t label my self a guitar god, its the hundreds of people thats jaws drop when I play that label me it.


I have “perfect pitch.” I love to have people hold the phone to my ear and press buttons while I rattle off what number they are pressing. However, I see it more as a “envelope filter” difference among numbers along the horizontal than “pitch” difference.
To elaborate, I feel that the pitch of numbers 1, 2 and 3 are the same, but the resonances are different. It’s like humming a note with your lips shaped like a small ‘O’ and then slowly opening your lips up. The pitch doesn’t change, but the resonance does.
Anyway, my pitch makes it very difficult for me to sing in keys different from what I have first heard. But, when I was younger I watched Lettermen dial the phone on the air and I wrote down the phone numbers and called the woman in the hallway the next day!!!
If anyone can do the same things, email me. I’d love to hear how it evolved and how you use it.

Perfect Pitch is actually all relative. Being a music student we were forced kicking and screaming into a class calles Aural Theory. During our course of study we used prerecorded tapes that went along with our text. We noticed that when we tried to play along with the tapes and match pitch to the piano’s (which we weren’t supposed to be doing) we noticed that the tapes were a quarter tone lower than our “tuned” pianos.
Any musician knows that the piano is not a perfectly tuned instrument. A “perfect fifth” on the piano is not a “perfect fifth” on, let’s say, a string instrument.
We only have 3 perfect intervals. A P5, a P4 and a P8. (pitches are noted at the speed at which the sound vibrates) If we were to tune a note on a piano, and then tune the rest of the notes from that note, a perfect fifth would not be the same distance as on a violin. It’s imposible to tune a piano in perfect fifths, on a violin, you can.
Now that I’ve thoughroghly confused you…
Pitch has changed throughout the years due to human err and the tuning problem. What may have been C in Mozart’s day, may very well be B or A today.
Perfect pitch is a developed skill, usually developed as a child. I was told once that if you were to teach a small child a song in one key, and only play it for that child in the same key, that child would alwayse start off and sing it in that same key. Also, a lot of people who have perfect pitch taught themselves an instrument, usually piano.
There also is Relative Pitch, the ability to memorize pitches. If it is possible to memorize on pitch, then, it is possible to memorize every pitch, in a sense, producing a manufactured “perfect pitch”. And, if, with the descrepency of pitch from country to country, and from the descrepency of it changing over time, then theoretically, someone with perfect pitch in China would not have perfect pitch in the U.S. and visa versa.