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I don't have perfect pitch, but there are certain things I can do that I've been wondering if there's a name for.

Given the name of a piece I've heard reasonably recently, I can sing it in my head in the correct key, and with a little bit of fumbling, hum it or play it on a piano or violin correctly. I'm certain that I'm not cheating, but I can't do it without the fumbling, or without at least thinking very carefully about which pitch it should be.

Also, given a pitch, I can come up with a list of pieces whose melody begins with that pitch. When I try to do this with key instead of the first note, I'm often wrong.

I can also usually tell if a piece had been transposed, even if I hadn't heard the piece in the original key in a long time.

Clearly whatever this skill is is quite useless (unless I liked to sing -- which I don't), but I've always been a bit curious about it. I don't think it quite fits under the definition of relative pitch, and it's definitely not perfect pitch, because I can seldom identify pitches when they're played without context. Something about pitch memory maybe?

Also, I've never been able to articulate this very concisely to my friends, so I've never had a chance to ask: is this something that's common for musicians without perfect pitch?

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My new tags aren't perfect but I'd prefer to leave off the psychology tag -- I think it would encourage more of this sort of question. –  Matthew Read Sep 19 '11 at 16:10
@Matthew Ah, yeah, I wasn't too sure what tags to use. Thanks for the edit. –  Rei Miyasaka Sep 19 '11 at 20:04
I am inclined to believe that if "perfect pitch" exists at all as a phenomenon, then the person probably possesses it in the absence of musical training, and therefore knowing the name of the note can't be the only criterion. –  horatio Sep 20 '11 at 21:36
Seems pretty useful as a skill! –  Agos Sep 23 '11 at 7:21
This reminds me of an article a friend of mine published regarding perfect pitch. Warning, this is a link to a pdf. njacda.com/PDF%20files/R%26S/R%26S%20YSADec2010Guarente.pdf –  Babu Jun 10 '12 at 13:40

3 Answers 3

up vote 6 down vote accepted

I think what you are describing is known as "partial pitch". This is when the starting note of a well known or recent melody can be retained, or a note that's often played for tuning up purposes. I developed it myself for the pitch of my tuning fork, when after a couple of weeks practice I would not strike it all day, then test myself in the evening by humming the pitch and then striking the fork. I became much more accurate with just that note. I understand that violinists etc get this.

If you had perfect pitch you would be painfully aware of inaccurate pitch, which is why it's sometimes considered a bit of a curse. I am quoting a violinist acquaintance on that, by the way. You haven't mentioned this so I've presumed it's not something that bothers you.

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Yep, that definitely sounds like me. Thanks! –  Rei Miyasaka May 15 '12 at 9:21

I would say it sounds from your description that you do have perfect pitch as you can identify the pitch, and any transposition from the original, but you just can't articulate it.

I think this is not uncommon. I know more people who can hear differences or similarities in music than are able to sing or play them without some "fumbling"

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I think what you're describing fits Perfect Pitch pretty neatly. Let me explain my reasoning behind that (and please, refute or correct me if I've misunderstood you)

People without perfect pitch (like myself) are often capable of relative pitch, which allows them to

  • identify the intervals between given tones, and
  • pitch each note in a melody according to its distance from the previous note.

My emphasis on that last part. We (people without perfect pitch) have to have a pitch to start from. If someone without perfect pitch picks that starting note, it's likely going to be not quite right (and I bet that you would notice that right away if you heard someone doing it), thus throwing the whole thing off.

With alot of practice, those lacking perfect pitch can often come very close to a particular note - which sounds like what you're referring to as "pitch memory" - (for instance, I can often come close to identifying G2 because it's close to the bottom of my range - I have a reference point!), but not with the certainty you've described - even with all the "fumbling" in the world.

These two statements are what really seal the deal in my mind that you do have perfect pitch:

Given the name of a piece I've heard reasonably recently, I can sing it in my head in the correct key


Also, given a pitch, I can come up with a list of pieces whose melody begins with that pitch.

For someone without perfect pitch, being able to come up with the starting pitch of a song would usually require conscious effort to memorize that pitch, or repeated exposure to the pitch over time (as mentioned in the comments) - although, the difficulty someone has with this task would likely vary from person to person.

NOTE Some of this explanation is based on my experience and conversations with other singers / musicians, so I won't say it's universally accurate.

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This is contrary to my own experience. I sing in a choir; I doubt that any of us have perfect pitch, but many of us will recall the pitch of a piece after several rehearsals, not just within the next hour or two but within the next week or two. –  reinierpost Sep 19 '11 at 16:30
@reinierpost thanks for the quick feedback! I was concerned that what you're saying might be more common than I thought (which is why I put that note on the end). I don't think it changes my answer in general, but I'll edit that section if others corroborate with you. –  jadarnel27 Sep 19 '11 at 16:48
I'm inclined to agree with reinierpost. I can generally recall how songs are sung but I don't have perfect pitch, though I used to have A440 "memorized" for tuning purposes. I also agree that OP probably has perfect pitch, though I'm not sure I really believe it's truly a have/have not distinction. –  Matthew Read Sep 19 '11 at 20:10
@MatthewRead: Thanks guys, I've updated the answer to reflect these thoughts and be a bit more general. Feel free to tweak the wording if you can make it more clear =) –  jadarnel27 Sep 19 '11 at 23:17
@Matthew I can only accurately recall A440 if I picture my violin tuning routine as a 4-note "melody" (A, AE, AD, DG). The pitch alone doesn't come to me. Maybe most people are capable of applying perfect pitch only in certain contexts, and for me (as well as reinierpost's choir), it's only with melodies. That, or my shoddy relative pitch is throwing me off -- and there are definitely some aspects of relative pitch that I really need to work on. –  Rei Miyasaka Sep 20 '11 at 22:28

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