The Messy Secrets of Perfect Pitch

Inside the science of a skill revered in much of the music world. /

The kid was standing with his back to the piano, eyes closed, humming intervals quietly to himself while a single note slowly died on the piano’s strings. A small crowd of our friends stood behind him, leaning across the piano to peek at what note had been struck.

“E-flat,” he said. Cheers erupted from the crowd.

A moment later, another note, another short interval, and then, “A.” Cheers again. Another note: “C-sharp.” More cheers. This went on for several minutes. He never missed.

If you ever wondered what theater geeks and music nerds did on a Friday night during their high school years, this is a fair glimpse. I confess to being present and being impressed, though I should also admit that this was not my scene. I was there because of a girl. But I was a musician and I’d heard of “perfect pitch.” But I’d never seen anyone exercise it before.

When someone says “So-and-so has perfect pitch,” they could mean one of several things. They might mean that this person can do what the kid was doing in the scene described above: they can hear any pitch and tell you where, in the 12-tone series of notes that makes up the Western scale, that pitch falls. In this sense, perfect pitch is a matter of recognition.

On the other hand, perfect pitch might refer to the creation of pitches. So when someone says, “Whitney Houston had perfect pitch,” they mean that her voice and her ears were dextrous and precise enough to always sing in-tune with whatever music was accompanying her, or in perfect intervals with herself. People say this about other musicians, too: horn players and cellists and slide guitarists.

Another way to describe these abilities is “absolute” ...

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Issue 43 / March 3, 2016
  1. Editor's Note from March 01, 2016

    Issue 43: Perfect pitch, big-wave surfing, and double DNA. /

  2. Moving Mountains

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  3. My New Life as a Chimera

    Living with two sets of DNA. /

  4. To a Robin in Lent

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  5. Wonder on the Web

    Issue 43: Links to amazing stuff.

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