Perfect Pitch Blog 01

Phil Music

Having watched Luc Besson’s new film Lucy, where Scarlett Johannson’s character has the ability to use an increasing amount of her brain, I left the cinema pondering the fact that I have Perfect (or Absolute) Pitch and it opens up music in a deeper cognitive way for me. I don’t know why or how it works but if I did do a PhD in Music, this is a contender. Perhaps this is the beginning!

Apparently, 1 in 10,000 have this ability. How and why can I perceive or transcribe an orchestral or film score in real time in my mind’s eye or perform it back as it happens or later in the correct key? How can I join in with pop songs that I’ve never heard before? What is the balance between nature and nurture?

What are your own experiences about pitch, hearing music in everyday sounds and how does it impact on your enjoyment or understanding of music? For once, I’ll leave a comments box on this page to start a dialogue. Friends on Facebook have already raised interesting points and I will share some of those where possible, if that’s ok.

In the beginning

I started playing piano when I was about 5 years old, on an old honkytonk left to us by neighbours (my childhood neighbour happened to be future author Josie Lloyd) and I could pick out tunes that I heard by ear. I was taken to the local church organist to ask about piano lessons. I was considered a bit young but we tried 15 mins every weekend. Daphne Hilliar was (and still is) an excellent teacher and she allowed me to play any piece of music as long as I learned it correctly – the classics, The Beatles, jazz, Paul Simon, etc. My piano lessons included learning with a colour system, now called Lisa Childs Piano 1 (more of this next time) and short bursts of theory and aural which I believed made the three elements join together. By the end of primary school I was playing chart hit requests on the piano at breaktime with a crowd of friends around me. It felt good to be accepted. I enjoyed concerts but not the pressure of the local music competitive festival (which I have since adjudicated!). My music lessons helped me understand music more technically yet I already had this indescribable connection through my acute musical hearing. I stayed with my teacher for 13 years and only missed one lesson as a child on purpose! I couldn’t get enough.

Pros (for me):

  • I can name notes (or identify pitches and assign letters) and chords instantly without reference. The note-name game was a fun activity in my teaching career to keep the pupils amused!
  • I can name a key of a piece and understand the role of each note I play both aurally and theoretically e.g. how important the 3rd is (major/minor), the rise and fall of suspensions and the impact of dissonance and chord extensions. I remember that the Eroica symphony is in Eb and Eine Kleine is in G but that is a by-product of memory and experience.
  • I can sing in tune and am a good singer according to my friend’s relations at a recent wedding! I’d never profess to being a great professionally trained singer but it helps me train my choir (Ipswich G&S) and record parts and demos etc.
  • I can identify pitch errors or dodgy intonation and quickly tune my double bass or guitar and would easily get the school orchestra tuned without reference notes.
  • Transcription of music is a natural process and is only limited to my ability to write out or play in music at a finite rate on paper or using software. (Sibelius is my current score-writing package). If only I could plug a USB cable into my brain and download the entire score!
  • I think Auditory imagery is the ability to see sound in one’s mind. This I will talk more about in blog number 2 but I made the above picture to show my concept of notes flying around me – I don’t actually see or feel this but I will try and convey this idea of tonal streams with some graphical work and film references.
  • When asked by my friend and musician/teacher Andrew, about the balance of Visual, Auditory and Kinaesthetic learning styles, I more see the notation as an extension of the conceptualisation of the sound, whereas Andrew says he is better visually with sight reading and not learning things by ear. For him, the notes make the sound whereas for me (when listening to music) the sounds make the notes. When teaching at Shenfield High School in the 2000s, within a few minutes in their first music lessons, I could get Year 7 students to play 8 bar rhythms from notation flashcards because of firstly associating Tea and Coffee with the notes and making the syllables into movement. This is not a new teaching technique but it highlights the importance of the sound of music rather than traditional (initial) barriers of staff notation. (cf. Julie Andrews in Salzburg!)

Perfect Makes Practice

This made it easy for me to succeed in music lessons, GCSE and A-level Music and ABRSM exams. I had Grade 5 Piano by end of primary school and played guitar and recorder and took up classical and jazz double bass thanks to my class teacher David Leveridge and also Martin Hathaway, then a sixth former at Chelmer Valley High School. On my 16th birthday I had my ALCM diploma (post Grade 8) and then on my 17th birthday I failed (yes, failed!) my LLCM (Teaching Diploma). A good ear doesn’t mean that you’re experienced and academically brilliant. I passed the 3 hour theory test but not the 3 hour history paper due to a lack of knowledge and experience for my years. The practical piano performance was stressful due to a bomb-scare in London and no trains. However, it’s worth knowing I chose my path through academia using my strengths and avoided the weaknesses. My good ear and passion for hard work (and increasing OCD) made my BA Hons enjoyable with some easy-to-do modules. I came top of the year with a First Class degree and went off to study MSc Music Tech at York. But enough self-congratulation!

Double Edged Sword / Cons:

I’m often distracted by the array of pitches of bubbles in a can of Diet Coke, the whir of machinery, a cat’s miaow or the regional dialect of Wood Pigeons. Currently I can hear a child playing (Eb E F Eb E F), a baby crying (Ab), a regularly pitched hammer (several overtones), a number of motorbikes and a plane descending through a number of semitones.  Common pitches are trains (G Eb), facebook alerts (C A), oh, and those wood pigeons (5/4 Db C… B, Db C… B, Db C… B, Db). 

Former degree pupil and now a Head of Music, Rob, reminded me of the time when I harmonised the plane passing over during a lecture “Classic!” he says. 

I use my ear to reduce or distract myself from stress. The more notes I have to process, the less my brain works on other things e.g. listening to the constant stream of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells or trying to transcribe enjoyable and/or complex music is a welcome tool. I also enjoy the “intelligent” analysis of music such as finding the three note motifs in Back to the Future (G C F#) or Wicked (F E C). I’m a musical sci-fi geek with OCD so I enjoy that!

  • However, I find it hard to play in Baroque pitch or to listen to out of tune instruments. I suppose it’s because I have learned the Western scale of tempered tuning at A=440 Hz. (See Dollhouse reference below).
  • Whilst sight reading and remembering music is easy (a practised skill though), transposing on the fly can, ahem, have its ups and downs! It’s easier for me to play it in a new key rather than using the transpose button on a keyboard as my hands follow the sound and when I jump to a G chord (in sound) and play those GBD keys, the resulting notes would be transposed – ouch!
  • I only play concert pitch instruments although I have dabbled with a Bb Clarinet and Eb Alto Sax. As many of you know these are built to be in different transpositions so that they are “easier” to play certain scales (in a nutshell). That is hard for me to do as a player but a bit of maths and knowledge lets me adjust. How do wind players with perfect pitch cope with naming notes for transposed instruments or concert pitch? What do you say when you hear 440Hz? A or B for example?
  • Poor intonation, choirs that sink over time and different tuning systems (such as Mean or Pythagorean) can make me feel odd but I wouldn’t say unwell. Listen to this track from the soundtrack to Dollhouse by Mychael Danna and Rob Simonsen. The alternate tuning of percussive/gamelan instruments symbolise the disjointed world of brainwashed “Actives” where their minds are not quite their own. I understand it and enjoy it but it does raise the hairs at the back of my neck!

Silence Isn’t Golden

I suppose John Cage was right with his infamous piece 4’33” – there is no such thing as silence. I believe that 4’33” which equals 273 seconds relates to 273 degrees Kelvin.  This equals zero degrees Celsius i.e. “nothing” but it’s not Absolute Zero; When you perform this music which has each of the three movements as Tacet (don’t play), sound is still happening all around us and that is the music of that unique performance.

I often try to test myself to think: can we actually process more than a single line of sound at once – but in effect, do we flit (almost) vertically between notes, parts, notes of chords – in the way that animated cells are the persistence of vision in a flick book or movie? When I hear a soundtrack I perceive the instruments (I suppose most of us do) and then the concept of that note with the length of timbre as it’s played. However, I can then process that into an imaginary score. Perhaps I do jump back and forth or concentrate on certain parts (e.g. a repeated rhythm or ostinato in Back to the Future, knowing that it repeats (like a plate spinning)) and then analyse the other parts around it… This is rather like peripheral vision unlike the Cocktail Party effect where we focus on one conversation across the room and filter out the rest.

Can you learn Perfect Pitch?

Should this be “can you develop your auditory memory?” – Yes, I believe you can. Rob, the music teacher, says “I often get the urge to harmonise the hand dryers in public toilets or sing modal runs over the hoover. I don’t have perfect pitch but through practice and constant work as a music teacher (particularly A level) and gigging, I can hear something and then transcribe it pretty well the next day.”

Another contributing friend, Jason, to whom I always looked up, back in the day of our local musical pit bands and his impressive transcription skills, says he decided to learn perfect pitch and has around a 70% success rate. He’s a talented chap and is currently playing on tour with Portishead. Nicely done, sir!

There are many a small ad or website, such as where you can pay for a set of lessons on CDs. I’m not saying these are the only way to do it but it’s worth investigating (no sponsorship though!). For me, I’m going to delve deeper into Neuroscience with some tips from Jeanne and Gabi and look at the following:

In the next blog post: Auditory Imagery, Music and Colour, OCD, Dyslexia, Autistic Spectrum Disorder and Synesthesia – and a response to any comments.

Thanks for reading!

(Comments box removed due to 120 spam comments in a week!)


Perfect Pitch Blog 01 — 11 Comments

  1. Fascinating insight into a differently wired brain.. keep it coming and yes, go for the PHD I reckon, Phil – I will be interested in your thoughts in the next blog especially as C is dyslexic ..

  2. Fascinating reading, looking forward to more. There was a time when I felt very inferior for not having “perfect pitch” so I tried to train myself to recognise certain “notes”. This was when I was playing regularly in an orchestra, but now that I mainly do accompanying on keyboard/piano I find that my brain has got lazy and lost what little I’d learned.

  3. A really interesting read, Phil. Although I don’t have perfect pitch, I have, like you been able to play tunes by ear from an early age. However, this has sometimes been to my detriment as the rhythms weren’t always entirely accurate! Years of aural training at school and college have helped me develop relative pitch andbI find sight singing easy. I kmow exactly where the C above middle C falls in my voice and therefore I can work out what a note is by relating to it. On the downside I find that I notice more and more when something is out of tune and there’s poor intonation within an instrumental or choral ensemble. Perhaps it’s just a symptom of getting old!

  4. I suspect that ‘perfect pitch’ is a problematic concept due to a couple of issues; firstly, A=440 has become a standard relatively recently, and before that there were a variety of standards, and a lack of super-accurate tuning to ensure that whatever standard was used was accurately applied. Did people who had ‘perfect pitch’ in the past have the same ‘perfect pitch’ as people today, even though they were identifying different frequencies as he same pitch name? Secondly, instruments with tempered tuning are tuned differently to those that are not. Surely tempered tuned instruments are not ‘in tune’ in the same way, and being able to identify notes played on TT instruments are based on very good relative pitch rather than perfect pitch? Thoughts?

  5. Hi Tim, good questions.
    A=440Hz has been in general use since the International Organisation of Standards’ agreement in 1955, which is about 60 years. I think the main element of perfect pitch is the ability to recognise the same pitch and describe it. I could have learnt that the sound of “A” was called FISH but I would be able to call it FISH when I hear it. We’ve been conditioned to know ABCDEFG and the accidentals. This is based on the tempered scale. That is why non-western scales sound odd to us. However, perfect pitch is prevalent in Asian countries – possibly not always the same 12-semitone tuning for scales. Before the A440 standard, I assume people could recognise “their” notes but not every note was the same. I disagree that that perfect pitch people resort to (only) using relative pitch to work out pitches on TT instruments however relative pitch is something that can be learnt once the rules are established e.g. knowing the sound or theory of intervals. TT instruments can be in tune or out of tune but should still follow the convention. That’s why we tune up. As an orchestral musician, almost all oboists use a tuner on their stand when tuning up so that it’s A440 although Baroque Pitch is still used by those sorts of performers – some conductors may have a preference for A=442 etc. but this is just awkward!! Cheers.

  6. Hi Phil.I wasn’t trying to assert that PP people ‘resort’ to using relative pitch on TT instruments, but that PP people used to non TT might be using RP more if listening to TT, I didn’t make that clear before, sorry! I guess that a better way of thinking about PP might be to consider it as an environmental conditioning, developed into PP with the addition of better memory facility (however that is experienced). Perhaps a better question might be focused on the memory and recall process rather than the pitches themselves. I wonder if PP people have better facility to recognise anything other than pitch?

  7. Hi Tim, no probs. All good discussion. I’m pretty hot on remembering phone numbers, info and patterns etc. It’s not necessarily a photographic memory but something like that. Perhaps my OCD has led me to an ordered brain! Can’t help but keep things in order like CDs & DVDs – or things can be a complete mess though!

  8. I wonder if any research has been done that investigates a connection between OCD and PP? Or perhaps autism and PP…humans seem to have a good memory for pitch; Dan Levitin’s work in this area showed that people could sing a remembered tune very close to the original pitch – not just the relationships between the pitches. Most people couldn’t tell what the pitches were, but our brains seem to store the actual sounds pretty well. When we ‘sing’ a song in our heads, imagining say, Frank Sinatra’s ‘New York, New York’, we hear him singing, not our own voice. I suspect we remember pretty much all of what we hear…pitch, timbre, tempo…brains are amazing things!

  9. Yes Phil, PP is a fascinating topic! Please do a PhD on it if you have the time to, and I’d love to be one of the very first readers to read your dissertation!

    Regarding PP, I incline to believe that it is more related to “memory” and the “recall” process, and the “environmental conditions” like your friend has described. I remember asking Yuanfan Yang (BBC Young Musician 2012 Keyboard winner) if his dad also had absolute pitch like he did as he also appeared to be a music lover (but more into traditional Chinese music). His answer was a quick “No”, followed by explaining his father had never had any formal musical training to enable him to name any pitch.

    The personal experience you have described in your blog is more than just about PP; I think what you can do in music also related to your superior recall capability. Like playing Chinese whisper, you probably are those who can repeat a long sentence without altering a single word, but some of us probably just can’t.

    I also incline to think that people who know they have PP from an early age would tend to create abundant opportunities (unintentionally) that help to reenforce & retain their talent – it’s like a virtuous cycle.

  10. Yes Tim I agree. Autism and PP research is linked in my second blog. My friend’s children when younger would return from school singing the hymn from assembly in the correct key, hours later. I agree – we hear the components of a piece of music in our memory – not just the notes and key. I will look to link OCD research – I’m sure it has an affect for me.

    Thanks Louisa. I’m pleased you read this! Interesting points above. Like TF, the recall aspect is the main element I believe but there is the labelling aspect too. I think a PhD may follow if I have time to follow the psychology and neuroscience science aspect. I loved our PsychoAcoustics lectures at the University of York. They opened up new doors.