Perfect Pitch

We navy Sonarmen were prized for our pitch memory; the ability to differentiate Doppler on a target. Our "ping went out and the target echo came back. If the target was closing there was an “up” Doppler. If opening, the Doppler was “down.” No Doppler indicated a stationary or a “beam” target. Degree of Doppler had to do with the angle and speed of the target.


How odd that this would come up now…just the other day I was reliving the agony of having had my choir teacher ask me to hum an A to get the choir started on an a capella performance, only to hum a C- and have everyone strain for the higher notes.

You see, he didn’t realize that all I could do was name notes when I heard them played on the piano…he took that to mean I could also do the “other” kind of perfect pitch and hum any note I was asked to.

I felt like a failure and was never able to explain properly that I could do one thing but not the other.

Welcome to the Straight Dope Message Boards, pingjockey and hpjeannie, we’re glad you found us.

For future ref, when you start a thread, it’s helpful to other readers to provide a link to the column in question. Yes, it’s in this week’s email so will be on the front page next week, but after a while, it slips back into the depths of the Archives. So, to save searching time and help keep us all on the same page (no need for people to repeat what’s already been said), the link is useful. No biggie, pingjockey, I’ve added it to the bottom of your post. You’ll know for next time, and – as I said – welcome!

There is a fascinating exhibit at the Chicago Museum of Science and History. At that exhibit you can press a button to hear a tone. When it stops, you press another button which produces a variable tone, and you turn a dial until you think you are matching the tone from memory. The lovely mrs was hundreds of cycles off. I was one or two cycles off. She thinks I have perfect pitch, but I do not. I play guitar by ear, tune it by ear, and I can recognize chords by ear correctly. But I don’t think I have perfect pitch.

In the last paragraph of Cecil’s commentary about perfect pitch, a story was mentioned about a fellow who could supposedly simulate touch tones because of his ability to whistle the note perfectly. The problem with that story is that touch tones are based on DTMF - Dual Tone Multi- Frequency. Touch Tones are actually two different notes combined together. That fella would have had to be able to whistle two tones at the same time. Even if his pitch was perfect, he still needs to produce two tones at the same time to make the system work.

Link to article

What is perfect pitch? When you pitch the accordion into the dumpster and it hits the banjo!



This skill is the relative pitch precision mentioned by Cecil in the column. As he says, most good musicians learn to match sequential or simultaneous pitches; it’s more-or-less required in order to play in-tune with an ensemble.

Perfect pitch would be being asked to dial in A-440 (or some other note) without a reference tone.
Powers &8^]

From a very skilled musician and choral director friend of mine, to whom I sent a link:

*Cecil is pretty much on the money with this. But he is perhaps a bit conservative in estimating both the advantages and the disadvantages. People who sing (and to a lesser degree, who play) challenging modern music, for instance, find perfect pitch quite a handy tool to have in their tool kit, for it makes the characteristically difficult intervals easy. (In part, this is because you’re not singing the interval per se, as much as you are just moving from one familiar note to another. In terms of advantages, that’s pretty much the only upside I can see. The disadvantages are huge. Pitch standards vary from context to context. (Did you know the two large organs at [our church] aren’t even at the same pitch?). And for much pre-modern vocal music, there is no pitch standard at all . . . the notes simply codify relative positions one to another. (“A” means the note a whole step above “G”–not 440 Hz.) But an even bigger problem is that pitches vary with tuning systems . . . a “b” in modern equal temperament (the octave divided into twelve equal parts) is very different from a “b” in, say, 17th-century meantone temperament where the half steps are not all the same size, and the system is based on pure thirds.

Historically then . . . and also practically . . . it seems it constrains much more than it helps, though I admit, if I had to sing Berg, I’d be glad to have it. I don’t have it, but relative pitch is what we are all trained to have, and it’s quite learnable.

Thanks for passing the article along. The Straight Dope is one of my father’s favorite reads!*

Perfect pitch can be good for playing timpani (kettledrums), though, because it is often necessary to tune one to a completely different note while the rest of the orchestra is playing in another key.

In a Cecil Classic* recently given billboard treatment, What Is Perfect Pitch, and What Good Is It?, Homer nodded. Cecil sadly, makes a common journalist error: getting a quote right (presumably), but misapplying its import. And it takes up an entire graf of column real estate, precious beyond a king’s ransom:
The people with perfect pitch I spoke to poo-pooed the new-dimension-of-music angle, but some of them were clearly being too modest. One University of Chicago music professor said he could conjure up an entire orchestral piece in his mind strictly from having read the sheet music. It was like reading a book to him. There were pieces he’d enjoyed for years before he’d physically heard them played. Snatches of seen-but-not-heard music would float into his mind the way we might remember an advertising jingle. He didn’t own a stereo and didn’t need one. He had an experience of music most people would never know.

True, this ability is impressive, but no more impressive, fundamentally, than reading chess or bridge (the game) diagrams. More fundamentally, if that’s English, a case can be made, and has been, for it’s shared nature with reading of any text.

Any good Western classical musician can do this as a matter of course, easiest with common practice tonal music (say, starting early 1600s), and getting harder and harder as harmonic or polyphonic complexity increases: following/reading the harmonic shifts in Wagner, say, is quite a bit different than following “Three Blind Mice.” Following “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” even keeping in your mind’s ear the entrance of each of your cousins, is eminently doable, but the entrances in, say, Ligeti’s Lux Aeterna–the spooky music in 2001, when the chimps first see and approach the black slab thing–is hard.

Now, consider the first two named music examples above. Most of us have a mental sound image of that. Choose your own favorite or memorable tunes, whether you are musically illiterate (literally) or not. Musicians merely learn to remember their symbols and any referents of mental-textual apparatus, using absolute pitch if they have it, but far more often, even for those with A.P., I would think, it is a learned recall of tone to tone relationships and tone to mental apparatus comfortable with, in most cases, with the standard pitch and score notation we know and love.

I do not have perfect pitch, but can read, sight-un-heard (heh) music similarly. Also, consider the converse, again with trained musicians in a different situation: when listening to music in a key or, to a lesser extent, some post-standard-practice music, and I don’t decide the correct written key or pitch heard. I will mentally follow the/a score, or cognize a different mental “transcription,” in terms of tracking where it goes, enjoying the turns and tricks, mentally naming them–“man, Schubert, yet again you’ve blown my mind/guts/heart with that modulation to flat-VI,” joined with, perhaps, “Schubert, that’s why you’re Schubert and we all love you.” True, and it’s not just me. I read chess columns that have similar comments, which strike me as humorous sometimes.

My not having perfect pitch, sometimes, when I’m in this mode, is that my mental toolkit (key) may not match the original physical pitches, and, say, it would’ve been better had I not thought “What a weird key area for Schubert to write in or stray into, I can’t remember any Schubert/19th century/trio with flugelhorn (whatever) going there; gotta revise my knowledge and take on Schubert.” It upsets me, intellectually, for reasons I won’t go into here, when I’m thinking about Schubert/19th century/trio with flugelhorn (whatever). I do that a lot because I have a musicological/historian’s bent; different people think about different things.

Obviously the University of Chicago professor has had tremendous exposure to musical sound and training in relating that to graphemes. How a score would be read by someone deaf since birth, trained in some way I have no idea, in such a system of a logical concatenation of markings is something I’ve wondered about for years.
*Not a zombie, mind you. Yet another sign of Cecil’s über-Humanity.

MODERATOR ASIDE: Leo Bloom’s post was in a separate thread; he asked that it be merged into this one, and so it has been.

Yo, Dex, I hope you’re getting time and a half for working today. Thanksgivnukka and all.

From another musician friend of mine, posted with his permission:

*[The column gives] a pretty decent answer. There has been a study recently - done at Harvard, I believe - that looked at the acquisition of perfect pitch, through training individuals who had taken a certain powerful drug that somehow enhances brain plasticity.

As someone who has pretty good relative pitch (biases out in the open), I think perfect pitch is a wonderful tool for a musician to have in his/her toolkit, but hardly a prerequisite. It can enormously helpful with certain kinds of music - extremely non-tonal and complex contemporary music in particular - but it is no guarantor of expressivity.

Here’s the story on the recent study:

It is a very interesting subject that perhaps more musicians would pay attention to. I have had experiences of walking down the hallway, being focused on whatever and hearing a pitch - a truck backing up, perhaps - and the name of the pitch jumps into my mind, corroborated by a trip to the closest keyboard. I’ve been doing the same warmup on the trumpet for years, starting on the same pitch. If I pick up the trumpet and breathe to play this little warmup tune, I can sing that first note accurately without being given that pitch. I probably could develop this ability away from the trumpet, but I’m not sure why I would. Perfect pitch can be seen as a bit of a parlor trick by those who don’t have it (me), but can be useful to those musicians who do. I think the most nuanced view might be that PP is a sensitivity that can be very useful to a musician. But ultimately a successful musician must also possesses great gifts of rhythm, communication, expression and creativity. It’s interesting also to note that aptitudes for rhythm and pitch have shown to be independent.