How Perfect Pitch Works

How Perfect Pitch Works

Perfect pitch is the ability to identify or produce a given pitch without a prompt from an instrument. For a musician, the benefits of perfect pitch are clear: it can help with intonation, memorization, and in a number of other ways which can augment your musical ability. Although many people have met someone with perfect pitch, it is extremely rare — affecting only one in 10,000 people. Finding out if a person has perfect pitch is as easy as playing a note on the piano, but figuring out exactly what causes perfect pitch is a little trickier.

Perfect pitch test: have someone play a note on the piano without seeing which note is played. If you can identify the note, you may have perfect pitch.

Nature vs. Nurture

Although scientists have not been able to identify with certainty exactly what it is that causes perfect pitch, they have found a number of correlations that predict higher rates of its occurrence. For example, exposure to music at a young age, especially to complex music, can increase the chances of developing perfect pitch. One study found that all music-listeners, even those who did not have perfect pitch, were able to identify notes of the C-major scale with much greater accuracy than other notes, possibly due to its prevalence in the Western classical canon.

Another example of the influence of early-life development is the high rate of perfect pitch among people who are native speakers of tonal languages, such as Chinese or Vietnamese. Both languages utilize tonal inflection to indicate meaning; in Cantonese, a single syllable can have up to six different meanings depending on its pitch and how it is inflected. Scientists believe that growing up in an environment where these “pitch-accent” languages are used and learning to use them yourself can train your brain to accurately recall specific pitches, and potentially develop perfect pitch.

A Chinese choir singing in Cantonese
A Chinese choir singing in Cantonese

Can I learn Perfect Pitch?

Even though researchers agree that perfect pitch is “learned,” that doesn’t necessarily mean that just anyone can learn it. The most prevailing theory is that while all infants have the potential to develop perfect pitch, there are genetic factors that make it more likely to occur in some rather than others. Both blind people, and people with Synaesthesia, a rare neurological condition in which sound can trigger visual “hallucinations,” have a much greater chance of developing perfect pitch than sighted or people without that condition. While adults can train themselves to have near-perfect pitch, the skill can only be retained with constant practice and ear-training.

Perfect pitch may be an excellent tool, but it is certainly not necessary for musical excellence.

Over the past 34 years, MidAmerica Productions has staged over 1300 concerts in Carnegie Hall and in historic halls all over the world. To have your ensemble perform in Carnegie Hall, call us at 212-239-0205 or visit us at www.midamerica-music.com.

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