What is “perfect pitch”?

Dear Cecil: Since she was a child, my mother has had something my family calls “perfect pitch": give her the name of a note — E flat, for instance — and she can hum it perfectly every time. Though the women in our family (for six generations!) have had a definite musical talent, we know of no one else who has this knack. What is this thing, anyway? How did she get it? And what can she do with it? Elisabeth E., Chicago

Cecil replies:

Perfect pitch, to hear musicians who don’t have it describe it, is a little like being able to make your ears wiggle — a cute stunt, but without much practical value. Others, however, say that having it is like going to color TV from black-and-white. Having looked into the question I side with the latter crowd. I spoke to several people with perfect pitch and though they were all pretty nonchalant about it I found at least some of them could do things that were the musical equivalent of a 360-degree slam dunk.

Perfect pitch, also called absolute pitch, has to be distinguished from perfect relative pitch — that is, the ability to sing or play accurately given a starting note. Relative pitch obviously is useful to professional musicians; most have it, and to a large extent it can be learned.

Absolute pitch is a different story. It’s the ability to sing in tune with some previously memorized standard, for which reason some prefer the term “pitch memory.” Contrary to wide impression, you’re not born with it, but it does seem to be something you have to learn early. One perfectly pitched singer I spoke to had begun his musical training at age four.

Perfect pitch includes two separate skills: the ability to name a tone once heard, and the ability to sing a named tone on command. A good singer without perfect pitch can approximate the latter skill because it depends in part on the kinesthetic (muscle) sense — i.e., how the sound feels in your head as you sing it. But we’ll assume your mom wasn’t faking it.

The terms absolute and perfect pitch misleadingly suggest you’re somehow in tune with the basic hum of the universe. Alas, the mundane truth is that your reference standard typically is “the pitch of your mother’s piano,” as one authority puts it. God help you if she didn’t have that baby in tune.

No joke. Perfect pitch is a mixed blessing for musicians. On the plus side, some burble about the “immediate sensory pleasure” that “adventurous modulation” brings the lucky few who have it. Some claim it adds a new dimension to music, with each note having a character all its own. For just that reason, however, some with perfect pitch find transposing a piece to a different key disorienting — like “seeing purple grass,” one writer says — because the feel of the new key is so different.

People with perfect pitch are often called upon by choirmasters and such to be human pitch-pipes. But if you arrive late for practice and the rest of the chorus is singing a quarter tone flat, you may find the experience excruciating. What’s worse, as you age, your eardrums lose their elasticity and everything you hear goes a bit sharp. Most people don’t notice the change, but for those with perfect pitch nothing sounds right anymore.

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.

Some have found other uses for perfect pitch. You may recall the “phone phreaks,” the protohackers who used to delight in copping free calls from Ma Bell. One storied hacker was a blind kid named Joe Engressia. Most phreaks needed elaborate equipment to create the precisely pitched Touch-Tones necessary to operate the switching equipment. Not Engressia. Blessed with perfect pitch, he could whistle them.

Cecil Adams

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.