Sometimes I'll be singing a song, and then I'll play a recording and discover I was singing in the same key. Does this mean I have perfect pitch?

2 Answers 2


The Levitin Effect

The ability to intuitively sing a song in the key your originally heard it is known as the Levitin Effect.1 It is a cognitive ability separate from absolute (perfect) pitch insofar as the latter does not seem to be a prerequisite for the former.

As stated in the Wikipedia article, the first description of the phenomenon is credited to Daniel Levitin in his 1994 article "Absolute memory for musical pitch: Evidence from the production of learned melodies". Reproduction of the effect was confirmed in a 2012 study, "Comparative replication studies of the "Levitin Effect" in five laboratories". Further research can be found in the 2013 paper "The Influence of Music-Elicited Emotions and Relative Pitch on Absolute Pitch Memory for Familiar Melodies".

To test yourself for perfect pitch, ask someone to play some pitches for you, and see if you can name them (no peeking, of course). Also, see if you can name the individual notes in a chord. Of course, you cannot know the names of any pitches during the test. Good relative pitch would allow you to name any notes played after one pitch is identified.

1 Note that the Levitin Effect does not require the exact pitch. It includes pitches within two semitones of the original. See his 1994 paper, linked above.

Forty percent of the subjects sang the correct pitch on at least one trial; 12% of the subjects hit the correct pitch on both trials, and 44% came within two semitones of the correct pitch on both trials.

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Thanks to @Athenasius for pointing out that the Levitin Effect allows for two semitones difference from the original pitch and for advice on how to test for Absolute Pitch.

  • Interesting question and answer. I've just tried it with a song I wrote around 50 yrs ago, and it was spot on - only ever sung it in one key. Need to re-do it a few more times, yet. However, with so many other songs by others having been sung/played by me in many different keys, it's an almost impossible task for those!
    – Tim
    Commented Aug 29, 2020 at 8:11
  • You learn something new every day! Or some days at least. I’ve heard musicians without perfect pitch and non-musicians alike sing tunes in their original key many times. I’m sure it happens more often with a song that has been listened to many times and is “recorded” in the brain. It might also have something to do with where in the voice the song sits, like a a vocal muscle memory. Commented Aug 29, 2020 at 15:19
  • 2
    This is a common question, so thank you for making a standard response. A couple clarifications: (1) The "Levitin effect" actually applies to a broader sense of "near hits" -- that is, while there are some people who get exactly in the correct key, there are a much larger number of people who get within a semitone, and most people can get within 2 semitones. All of this is a result of the "Levitin effect." (2) The test at the end doesn't work well with those with good relative pitch; after given one named pitch, a person with a decent ear can name others or break down chords.
    – Athanasius
    Commented Aug 30, 2020 at 16:45
  • @Athanasius Thanks very much for this. I've updated the answer. Please let me know whether or not my revision to the Absolute Pitch test sufficiently addresses the relative pitch problem.
    – Aaron
    Commented Aug 30, 2020 at 18:59
  • Fascinating stuff. I can usually specify an A pretty accurately, but not always spot on, if I think about it for a while. I just tried my Levitin Effect out for the Alabama Song by the Doors, and it was just right. Go figure. Commented Aug 31, 2020 at 13:23

@Aaron 's answer is astonishing. Besides, I also have absolute pitch and I can say it is something to be developed, not accomplished. You can either develop the Absolute Pitch you have or lose it partially if you don't practice. It can work faster or take longer to recognize the notes or even start failing sometimes. Absolute Pitch is not a dead-end: it can become better or worse in a matter of time.

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