Does Perfect Pitch really exist?

by Mark Isaacs

Perfect pitch really does exist but it is ultimately a curiosity – and a great party trick. As far as musical development goes, excellent relative pitch (let’s say “perfect relative pitch”) offers all that perfect pitch does as a useful item in the toolbox of musicianship. I wouldn’t put any real store at all on whether a musician has perfect pitch or not.

Perfect pitch seems to be a gift. I have never met a musician who claims to have acquired it by stealth in its fullest form, though I know people who have learnt one or two notes by rote. I’m not sure if great relative pitch is also something that appears as a gift, but it can certainly be acquired, and really should be. Perhaps the best thing about the gift of perfect pitch is that it spares you having to acquire really good relative pitch. Like any gift, it’s just one of a possible package of inbuilt musical aptitudes. My daughter is gifted with a rock-steady rhythmic feel that manifested precociously early and without any effort on her part at all. Despite my pitch gift, I lacked that one being bestowed on me freely; I’ve had to work hard on my time and continue to do so.

Because it generally appears so early (as it did in my case) it would seem that one is born with it. However, until one learns the names of the notes there is no way of demonstrating the gift. After I’d had a few piano lessons at the age of five, one night my mother was singing me a lullaby as she regularly did. When she finished the song, I told her the names of the last few notes she had sung. My father checked at the piano on a whim, and was astonished that I was right. He spent the next hour testing me and found he couldn’t fool me.

As a party-trick I’ve had fun with the acute form in which I have it, which enables me to generally identify all the notes in the weirdest chord that someone can come up with on the piano. I like to play back the exact ring-tone from the stage when someone thoughtlessly leaves their mobile phone on at a gig. All this gives the kind of satisfaction gained by someone who does terrific card tricks, or tells jokes excellently. The small pleasures of life.

It’s occasionally been useful in practical ways too. I bought an electric shaver and immediately regretted I didn’t buy the next model up, which had a meter that told you how much charge was left. I realised this feature would have been useful when packing for a short tour, in order to decide whether I’d need to take the charger or not. But I soon learned I didn’t need the meter, as the motor hum dropped in pitch as the charge wore out so I just learned the pitches and could tell from those how much charge was left.

Apart from my own laziness at the prospect of having to practice two instruments, perfect pitch was the reason I gave up the clarinet after a short spell in my early teens. At the very first lesson, I was shown the fingering for C, blew it and immediately apologised for the B flat that came out. I could never reconcile playing music that was written on the page in a different key than it was sounding. I guess I could have learned the kind of inbuilt transposition that I later did as an orchestrator, where I’d hear the French Horn part at pitch and transpose it up a fifth on the fly as I wrote it down. I could accept that chore as a writer but not as a player! In choirs I was in trouble if the piece was transposed, as my sight singing involved seeing a note and singing it. Good sight-singers without perfect pitch, who simply sang the intervals, were not bothered by transposition of course. So it can certainly be a liability.

As a very young musician doing a variety of gigs, I once agreed to play standards at a private party. The owner had the piano tuned, but as is often the case with very old upright pianos, bringing it right up to pitch would be too much strain on the frame. So the piano was in tune within itself, but a semitone down. A “piano in B”, as it were! After a few minutes attempting to play I had to abandon the gig. Playing by ear, I’d respond to what I heard and end up in a sonic hall of mirrors. To put it in the simplest case scenario of dominant and tonic, say my fingers would go to G7. I’d hear F#7 so my fingers would then in response go to the resolution of B major. But that would sound as B flat major! So, intending play G7 to C I’d end up with F#7 to B flat. This was compounded with more complex harmonic relationships. I just could not play that piano in any remotely coherent way and was almost physically nauseous trying.

It should be added that perfect pitch is not really “perfect”. Most people I know who have it round things up or down subconsciously to the nearest semitone. So microtonal gradations may or may not be registered. With turntables that ran at erratic speeds, I found that if the pitch was dead centre between two semitones, I could round it either way, and pretty much at will so that for example I could hear a piece in E major and then suddenly hear it in F. It would be like those optical tricks where a drawing can be seen two different ways, and you can flip which one you see wilfully.

Now that I am nearly 50 I am finding that my “perfect” pitch is drifting. I can sometimes be a full semitone out with a pitch that is actually accurate. This is widely reported as a common experience for the perfect pitch brigade with advancing age, but it’s very unsettling. Never mind – I may have to relinquish the smart-ass party tricks, but my time feel is heaps better!