How to Know If You Have Perfect (Absolute) Pitch

The Difference Between Perfect Pitch and Relative Pitch

Perfect Pitch is also known as Absolute Pitch. It means that if you ask a person to sing the note A for example, they can produce the pitch with perfect, absolute accuracy without the aid of an instrument. And they can produce any other pitch you may request of them with the same accuracy.

Relative Pitch is knowing where one pitch is, (for example C) and then as a result be able to find any other pitch (such as G flat) based on knowing the distance of the second pitch from C. The difference is that Perfect or Absolute pitch is the ability to produce any pitch name at will, while Relative Pitch is based on generally knowing where one pitch is, and then the ability to find other pitches as a result.

Relative pitch may not include the ability to recall a pitch accurately. It is usually based on having a single pitched played, then being able to find other pitches based on the distance of the first pitch to another. However, there are people who possess Relative Pitch who can recall a pitch (or perhaps some pitches, but not all) and then from there accurately produce other pitches.

Relative Pitch is Generally a Learned Ability

With training, very good Relative Pitch can be learned over time. For some, it may be developed a little easier than it is for others. Usually well developed Relative Pitch can be learned through music lessons and performance opportunities.

The Musicians by Caravaggio
The Musicians by Caravaggio

Can Perfect Pitch be Learned?

There is some debate as to whether or not learning Perfect or Absolute Pitch is possible. However, most authoritative sources agree that it is generally not a learned ability. It does seem that it can apparently be further refined as music experience and learning intensify. Some people with Perfect Pitch can identify how far sharp or flat any pitch may be, rather than only possessing the ability to identify it.

Recent research in Australia suggests that babies recognize their mother's voices as well as the pitch and timbre. This may mean that many, if not all, could be born with Perfect Pitch, but through disuse, lose it within a few years. This idea is consistent with the how children also learn their native language within the first few years of their lives, and children in multi lingual families seem to be able to switch back and forth between languages without difficulty. However, the ability to learn languages with relative ease seems to be greatly reduced over time.

There is a theory and speculation that Asian children who speak a tonal language, such as Chinese, have a greater propensity to develop Perfect Pitch because of the sensitivity to tone given to words (high, medium or low), which also relates to pitch. As a result, there are studies being conducted to determine if it is true that Perfect Pitch occurs more frequently among these groups than in western groups of children. More information on this subject can be found here.

There are courses which purport teaching Perfect or Absolute Pitch. While these courses can help develop pitch recognition, it does seem doubtful that they can actually teach Perfect Pitch. Beware of such advertisements. Such claims should be accompanied by a money back guarantee. These courses may, however, help to develop and refine other pitch recognition skills associated with Relative Pitch.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Having Perfect Pitch

While there are many items to list on both sides, here are a few of the more important issues in each category—

Advantages:

• help in memorizing music

• help in tuning instruments

• recognize pitches not in tune

• help singers and singing ensembles find a pitch without pitch pipe


Disadvantages:

• difficult when working with out-of-tune instruments or groups.

• ability lies in identifying absolute pitches not in relationships between intervals.

• creates difficulty in transposing music. (Can be overcome by highly developing ability to transpose.)

• difficulty in transposing music while performing. (Again, can be overcome by developing this skill.)

Other advantages and disadvantages also exist and can be found by doing Google searches and reading additional resource material.

Relative Pitch and Perfect Pitch are Both Valuable Musical Abilities

While a small portion of the population possesses Perfect Pitch, and it seems to be highly sought after by many musicians, neither of these abilities should be placed above the other in terms of musical benefit . Both are very beneficial to the world of music, and both are needed. These abilities compliment each other, and thus work harmoniously together. Which ever one you may possess is a benefit for yourself, and the world of music. In simplest terms, one is incomplete without the other.

Additional Resources and Related Articles

Smartwave Software makes a great game aimed at helping people develop their pitch recognition skills. It can be downloaded here.

Other related articles about music and music publishing include: "Learn to Read Music in Ten Minutes," here, "DIY: Publish Your Own Sheet Music," here, "How to Find a Sheet Music Publisher," here, "How to Write Parts for a Transposing Instrument," here, "How to Play Piano with Nine and One Half Fingers," (humor), here, and "A Piano Parable for Christmas," here.

Famous People with Perfect Pitch

Can Perfect Pitch Be Taught?

Washington Post

Here is complete list of articles and topics by Daniel Carter.

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Comments 35 comments

Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 6 years ago from The Ozarks

Daniel, I found a lot of new information in this hub. I never realized that there could actually be some situations where perfect pitch might be a disadvantage to those people who have that gift. Do you think that when someone with perfect pitch improves his understanding of relative pitch this might affect his ability to tap into perfect pitch?


Smireles profile image

Smireles 6 years ago from Texas

Interesting reminder of a long ago discussion. My son is a musician and when he was in college we went over the differences between perfect pitch and relative pitch. Good job.


Daniel Carter profile image

Daniel Carter 6 years ago from Western US Author

Yes, Aya, I do think that if a person with perfect pitch can remove their reliance on pitch somewhat to include a greater scope of how music is constructed and flows, then it becomes more applicable and useful overall. In most cases. those with perfect pitch have somewhat limited abilities based on their perception of everything being based on pitch and its accuracy. Those with relative pitch actually seem to have greater musical gifts in regard to be able to see how music works and functions, and relationships between not just pitches, but harmonic constructions overall, as well as being able to accept and understand musical interpretation without getting hung up on pitch accuracy.

However, as I mentioned, one really is not without the other. They seem to be interdependent on each other to make music a full, rich experience.

Smireles, thanks for reading!


Kathleen Holyoak, Compsoer/Arranger 6 years ago

Dan, I really enjoyed your article and would like to add a few thoughts from personal experience. From what I have always understood, PP is inherited. My grandmother had PP but nobody else in my family does nor any of my children. A person will not know they have perfect pitch unless they have had enough music lessons to read music . . . otherwise they wouldn't be able to identify the names of the pitches. My brother and I started piano lesson when I was 5 and he was 11. When he practiced and played wrong notes, I was always correcting him as I listened from another room. He became very annoyed with me and therefore grew up hating to practice. Can you blame him? My piano teacher discovered my PP at a piano lesson. Having this ability allowed me to learn faster. As I listen, I have a visual image and "see" the notes of the score in my mind. When I attend a concert and a vocalist hits C two octaves above middle C, I silently applaud and therefore feel appreciate their talent more than someone without PP.

Memorizing was also effortless! When my piano teacher assigned me a new tune, I would always ask her to play it for first. She didn't realize that was my lazy way of learning it faster. Once I heard it, I immediately knew how it was supposed to sound so I didn't have to work to learn the notes or rhythms.

Whenever I hear sounds, I identify those with a pitch. . . the doorbell, a musical toy, and any sound that makes a pitch. Hearing people sing off key drives me bananas but I have learned through the years to tune them out. I was once asked to accompany a choir on a very old grand piano on a concert tour. The piano was so old it was not tuned to A440 but rather, 1/2 step lower. As I looked at the music and played notes 1/2 step lower, it threw me into such a frenzy I froze and could not play. When I see music, I also HEAR it in my mind so I was thinking two notes instead of one. Do you get the picture? PP is a blessing but yet a curse at times like this. I hope others will share their experiences and apologize for taking so much space on your blog. I always enjoy your articles. Please keep writing. How about an article for parents: WHAT IS THE RIGHT AGE TO START MUSIC LESSONS FOR MY CHILD?


Daniel Carter profile image

Daniel Carter 6 years ago from Western US Author

Kathleen, thanks for your keen insights. Always much appreciated!

I have no idea what the right age to start a child in music lessons!! LOL It varies SO MUCH from child to child! But I'll look into it....

Thanks again!


Heather Janse 6 years ago

Very good article. It has been an interesting ride as the child of a parent with Perfect Pitch. I am a singer, and never learned to play the piano. In fact, I really hated practicing because my mom would call out my wrong notes from the kitchen while I practiced. I loved her ability because she could transpose and play anything that I ever needed to sing. I would say that because of her, I learned relative pitch. I always hoped that my pitch would be perfect, but hearing notes and being on key always came naturally to me- without effort. I thought everyone was like this. Now that I have children of my own, that don't sing on key- I realize this is not the case. This can be taught, but it's not as easy for them as it was for me.

Following up on the "age to start music lessons question". We all know it varies from child to child. One thing I have learned, is to let your child play the style and type of music that interests them the most. This sparks the desire to keep on playing. My oldest son is learning to play guitar. Many teachers will only start with classical music on the acoustic guitar. My son wants to play rock on the electric. He is excited to learn because he is playing music that is desirable to him. The same is true for my 13 year old niece. Her desire to play piano took off when she started playing current hits from the radio. I love to hear her play the theme from "The office" of another popular hit. Just my two cents.


Daniel Carter profile image

Daniel Carter 6 years ago from Western US Author

Thanks, Heather, for your insights. All of these comments are very helpful and I think will be a great aid to other musicians with questions.

My kids and myself all took to popular music first, then learning classics after, and I can say that this is the best way to keep a child's interest in music in the beginning.

Thanks for your great comments!


Tess 6 years ago

I am a friend of Kathy's who directed me to this site. So, tell me, is playing by ear, (the ability to hear a piece then play it as it is heard), perfect pitch? I know a blessed few who do not read a note of music but play better than I do after a 110 years of lessons and playing!

Enjoyed the input...thank you.


Daniel Carter profile image

Daniel Carter 6 years ago from Western US Author

Playing by ear can be based on either perfect of relative pitch. I have good relative pitch and have always played by ear. I have a few friends with perfect pitch who also play by ear. Playing by ear means that you are able to hear pitches and harmonic progressions and duplicate them on an instrument (most likely, piano, in this case). The ability to read music or not doesn't effect being able to play by ear. It's an independent skill. In fact, many who can play by ear at a young age often have difficulty reading music, because they rely so heavily on being able to hear and play. That was actually my case when I was young. It took a long time to be able to read music as a result.


loveofnight profile image

loveofnight 6 years ago from Baltimore, Maryland

this is a very interesting hub and thoroughly done as well. i had no idea that all of this went into a pitch. i guess i just assumed that you open up and let it out. thanks for an interesting read.


trose 6 years ago

This is all very true. I have relative pitch and have always wanted to have been born with perfect pitch! I had a couple friends with perfect pitch that were able to zoom through the ear training and sight-singing classes in college. But, they got very annoyed with instruments playing out of tune and simple things like the doorbell... There's pros and cons to each!


Daniel Carter profile image

Daniel Carter 6 years ago from Western US Author

Thanks for reading loveofnight and trose! Also, welcome, trose, to HP and also glad to connect with another musician!


Sherry Summers 6 years ago

I am an audiologist and the ear/brain connection always fascinates me. I did my thesis on auditory processing and it was interesting how some of the children in my study with an auditory processing disorder might not even be able to hear the difference between two similar pitches. This was an enjoyable read. As a barbershop singer it helps to have what I believe to be relative pitch...but to have absolute pitch...wow...it's just bizarre and mind boggling to me that people can actually visualize where the notes are on the scale. I remember driving in my music director's car two years ago to a singing competition and everything was a 'note' to her...such as the road noise. She would name the note! Maybe she has perfect pitch! Thanks Dan...sure enjoyed this discussion!


Daniel Carter profile image

Daniel Carter 6 years ago from Western US Author

Thanks for reading and the great comments, Sherry!


Enelle Lamb profile image

Enelle Lamb 6 years ago from Canada's 'California'

I believe I have 'relative pitch' with a natural 7th (for harmonies.) My father had perfect pitch hearing...he could tune pianos and organs by ear, yet, as he puts it, couldn't sing his way out of a wet paper bag! LOL


Daniel Carter profile image

Daniel Carter 6 years ago from Western US Author

Fascinating bits, Enelle! Thanks for reading and your comments.


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa

Excellent Hub. As a music lover I have always wished that I had perfect pitch. My brother had a very clever ear. At age five he listened outside the door of my aunt's music teaching room where she wasd teaching on of her pupils. At the end of the lesson she took the pupil out to meet his parents and when she came back my brother was playing what she had just been teaching! He went on to become a professional musician and could play in many different styles.

Thanks for this very interesting article.

Love and peace

Tony


Daniel Carter profile image

Daniel Carter 6 years ago from Western US Author

Thanks for sharing the story, Tony. It's always fascinating to hear about others' rather remarkable talents.


28lorelei 6 years ago

As mentioned in this post, hearing things off-key drives people with PP bananas. I have a solution to that: transpose it in your head, for example think of the music in a different clef or something. Also, teach yourself to play on a transposing keyboard, and stop cringing away from off-key stuff. Once u have done this, you PP will help you transpose things.


Daniel Carter profile image

Daniel Carter 6 years ago from Western US Author

Learning the ability to transpose is a terrific skill for any musician, and so your suggestion is well noted, 28lorelei. Thanks for reading.


daddyjb profile image

daddyjb 6 years ago from North Carolina

This article started quite a conversation. I think perfect pitch is still a mystery, but I think it can be learned to some extent. All it is, is pitch memory. If you can associate a pitch strongly with something else, you have the potential to recall the pitch when you hear it again. I wish I had this sort of memory! It would help my playing.

Hub up!


Daniel Carter profile image

Daniel Carter 6 years ago from Western US Author

I believe in theory you are correct, daddyjb, but in practice, I don't think it's that easy, or many, many more people would have perfect pitch. Perhaps part of the reason why is because of what we naturally gravitate to. Those who have a great affinity to music will obviously spend more time working on such a skill, while those who don't have such an affinity may not. However, there are still those who effortlessly have the gift for no apparent reason. So I'm not sure how much skill is required in some cases, while developing skills in others will definitely improve one's chances of having perfect pitch.

I have good relative pitch. Not in all cases, but in many I can listen to a piece of music and tell what key it's in. I don't know why. Other times it seems a bit more fleeting.

Thanks for reading and the thumbs up!


BennyTheWriter profile image

BennyTheWriter 6 years ago from Northeastern U.S.A.

Amazing hub here. Like you, I have fairly good relative pitch. Absolute pitch is something I've always wished I had, always thought it would make me a better musician, but now I see it's not everything it's cracked up to be!


Daniel Carter profile image

Daniel Carter 6 years ago from Western US Author

Yes, I thought the same thing for a while, but after working with many musicians with perfect pitch, I saw the difficulties of having it as well as the benefits! Thanks for stopping by, BennytheWriter.


Ingenira profile image

Ingenira 5 years ago

It's interesting to know the benefits and difficult of having perfect pitch. My son has perfect pitch while I don't. He is having so much problem with out-of-tune instrument. However, he has no problem in transposing music, maybe he was taught to do so. He was able to do transposition at 5 years old.


Daniel Carter profile image

Daniel Carter 5 years ago from Western US Author

Yes, Ingenira, perfect pitch does have it's drawbacks, but as with any gift, it can be a benefit or a curse, depending on how you look at it, and how you are able to work with it. It's very difficult for me to listen to out of tune instruments, and I don't have perfect pitch. But I think the problem is compounded for people who do have it. Thanks for stopping by!


vocalcoach profile image

vocalcoach 5 years ago from Nashville Tn.

For over half of my life I have taught "Ear Training" to musicians as well as college music majors...and I have never found a better article to discribe the difference between perfect and relative pitch. Marvelous hub! I am sending your hub to most of my students and bookmarking it as well. And, I love "The Musicians by Caravaggio" image. How wonderful to have found you here on hubpages.

Consider me your fan and follower.


Daniel Carter profile image

Daniel Carter 5 years ago from Western US Author

Thank you, vocalcoach! So much appreciated, and I appreciate the good referrals as well.

I look forward to getting to know your writings as well!


Sam 4 years ago

I have always been able to reproduce songs in the original key they were written, such as songs on the radio. I have never had much musical training, though, and have struggled with music theory. However, I can reproduce and identify some notes as I have learned in my later years what the notes actually are (if that makes sense). I can sing the C-major scale without an external reference, and easily identify the note A.

I get really frustrated when people sing in a different key than the song was written, and used to have trouble transposing, but have gotten better at it. I also get really frustrated when singing in a choir that is relatively in tune with each other, but slowly goes a little flat or a little sharp from the original key.

Is this perfect pitch? It is difficult to tell because I was not able to link my pitch recognition to what they actually were as far as notes until a later age.


Daniel Carter profile image

Daniel Carter 4 years ago from Western US Author

It sounds like you may have perfect pitch, but it may be advanced relative pitch. I don't have perfect pitch, but when someone is playing the piano and it's in tune can often tell what key they are playing in. I can also identify pitches here and there as I get into a piece of music which gives me more clues about it. However, perfect pitch is the ability to recognize *any* pitch, whether single or, in chords, and in fact, be able to identify them all. If you can identify any pitch you hear, you do have perfect pitch. What you have described, though, does lead me to believe that you probably do have perfect pitch.


Kathleen Holyoak profile image

Kathleen Holyoak 2 years ago from Paradise Valley, Arizona

I read this article a few years back when it was first published, but enjoyed reading it a second time just as much! It's interesting also to read the comments from others. Keep writing, Dan . . your articles are not only informative but insightful and makes a person want to learn more and more about music and I can't imagine what this world would be like without it.


Ben 23 months ago

One thing that I have never really understood is this: If a person is born with "perfect pitch" and has complaints about the tuning of other instruments, what is there perfect pitch based on frequency wise? So in other words, if you take two people with perfect pitch and one of them grew up with a piano tuned to 440hz(for the A above middle C) and the other's piano was always tuned to 415hz, wouldn't they have different concepts of pitch for the same note? To take it a step further - thinking about things like microtonal music makes me wonder: let's say a person with "perfect pitch" grew up listening to non-Western music only - wouldn't they think the Western scale was completely out of tune as well?

I'm just having a hard time reconciling perfect pitch when notes are arbitrary in the same way let's say color is. Our concept of "red" is based on some sort of reference we were provided at some point and those references will likely vary from person to person causing us to identify different shades of red as true red even if we both have perfect vision. Am I missing something here? It's the "a person with perfect pitch is often annoyed by out of tune things" idea that is odd to me - even in Western music on a piano you can do things that affect the pitch of each note relative to each other( just intonation, pythagorean tuning, meantone temperament) and it seems like a person with perfect pitch's concept of whether it's in tune is based on some arbitrary reference point as well. Thoughts? This is something that I have silently wondered for a while.


Kathleen Holyoak profile image

Kathleen Holyoak 23 months ago from Paradise Valley, Arizona

Dan Carter, writer of this hub page, should probably be writing a reply to this, but I am going to step in since I have perfect pitch. Also, he and I are cousins so I am sure he won't mind. Right, Dan?

Yes, PP is inherited and we don't know if we have it until we have enough musical training to know the names of the notes on the music staff. To reiterate my comments preceding this, my music teacher discovered this when I was five years old at a music lesson. I was waiting in another room when she told my brother (6 years older) to play through the song he was supposed to have memorized while she finished her lunch in her downstairs kitchen. When he got stuck and couldn't remember what to play, I started calling out the notes to him without even thinking. My teacher came running up the stairs and was amazed but I thought that was something everyone could do. Because she wanted to make sure I had PP she tested me further. She played notes on the piano from the other room and asked me to tell her the names which I identified 100% correctly. I had been playing the piano for about 6 months at the time. So . . . to further explain, when I hear a note, I have a visual image in my mind of that note on the music staff, making it very easy to remember.

Instruments which are out of tune and also singers drive me crazy but through the years I have learned to tune them out or just not allow myself to get too bothered by that. It is definitely something you have to learn to live with. Also transposing instruments drive my bananas.

When composing music with transposing instruments, I have to write the instrumental part in one key and then transpose it to the key of the transposing instrument. For instance, a Bb clarinet sounds the pitch of Bb when they finger the note C. Understand? I guess it wouldn't matter to the player if he didn't know the difference but for me it was hard to learn a transposing instrument in college.

Now you asked about if the A I recognize is 440. Yes! However,

I also recognize any of the notes even if they are lowered vibration as A as you mentioned but they sound terribly flat. I remember on a choir tour many years ago the choir performed in a church that had a grand piano tuned 1/2 step lower. It completely discombobulated me . . .why? The reason is because when I look at a written note on music paper, I automatically hear the pitch in my head. Also, when I go to play a piano and see the black and white notes, I expect to hear the correct notes that are tuned in correct pitch. When they are pitched 1/2 lower my brain goes haywire and I could not accompany that song on that piano!

Not that long ago I was having a discussion with Dan Carter and Dave Zabriskie. Both are genius composers but we had a very interesting talk about PP. Dave does not have perfect pitch but when he and writes music he thinks in colors. "Colors?" I had never heard of that. I believe he said that the key of C is orange so he blends the colors of the notes when he writes music. (Dan, now that would be a VERY interesting hub article I'd love to see you write.) Dave also said that when he taught ear training to college students (music theory class) that the students who were raised with out-of- tune pianos associated the names of the notes to those pitches. In other words, if someone was raised with a piano 1/2 step out of tune, all the notes they hear and recognize will be 1/2 step lower and it posed a real problem for them. So, yes, if our concept of the color red is based on some sort of reference it might vary with people according to their experience. If you asked that person to sing C (middle C), they would sing that pitch 1/2 step lower.

My daughter and her husband bought one of those electric mattress pads that fit under the fitted sheet. It was freezing cold that night so when my husband and I we went to bed I was looking forward to a nice, warm bed. However, it drove me crazy because every few minutes it would automatically start buzzing a pitch in the range of Bb and I found it impossible to sleep! I had to get up and unplug it and the next morning informed my daughter she had a singing mattress pad and we all laughed! Interestingly enough my husband didn't even notice it and had no problem sleeping.

Does any of this help you better understand people with PP?


Daniel Carter profile image

Daniel Carter 22 months ago from Western US Author

Kathleen, thanks for your great response to Ben's inquiry. Very much appreciated.


Kathleen Holyoak profile image

Kathleen Holyoak 22 months ago from Paradise Valley, Arizona

You are most welcome and I hope it helped.

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