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When someone has perfect pitch, can it get "out of tune"? I've heard of musicians who had perfect pitch but as they got older they didn't have perfect pitch any more, or maybe it just got "de-tuned": so that if you played middle C, the pitch produced wouldn't match their internal expectation of what middle C should sound like.

Can that really happen?

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  • If it does, and I'm sure it can do, that must be Hell for the musos it happens to. At that point, they'll always be playing 'out of tune', surely.
    – Tim
    Commented Aug 29, 2020 at 8:01
  • @Tim Indeed! I once tried improvising duets with a musician who had this problem, and it was near impossible for him, because he had to "transpose" his parts on the fly.
    – Aaron
    Commented Aug 29, 2020 at 9:05
  • I have absolue pitch and yes: it is possible losing absolute pitch if you don't listen to tuned music for a long period or if you use drugs. Commented Aug 29, 2020 at 14:00
  • This happens to me! Everything sounds about a half or quarter tone sharp. It’s really annoying have to tune a guitar to what sounds like F-Bb-Eb-Ab-C-F. It hasn’t really affected my ability to detect song keys, except between, say, E/F or Bm/Cm. Yes, I made an account just to post this :) Commented Nov 16, 2021 at 0:06

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Perfect pitch does not always remain perfect. There are studies and anecdotal discussions observing this phenomenon. For example:

Personally, I know two musicians whose perfect pitch has changed: one a working professional pianist in his 70s (as of this post); the other an amateur multi-instrumentalist in his 40s (again, as of this post). In both cases, they described difficulty playing, because the pitches coming out of their instruments no longer matched what their inner ear expected. (The instruments were in tune, of course.)


From @Richard in his answer to Unlearned Perfect Pitch / never had it?:

To quote Gary Karpinski in his Aural Skills Acquisition:...

Finally, it seems that many with AP find that at some time during midlife their perception of AP begins to "shift," eventually mapping once-learned pitch-class names onto incorrect pitches (Vernon 1977; Ward 1999, 280–81).

In a footnote, he mentions that this shift often occurs in the sharp direction, so that A440 will start to sound like B♭. Furthermore, this shift seems to stretch with age: the older someone is, the wider (and more "off") their AP may become.

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    This is caused by the stiffening of the basilar membrane inside the ear, which is an important component in pitch detection. It is the auditory equivalent of people needing reading glasses as they age because the lenses in their eyes stiffen and can no longer easily focus at short distances. Commented Aug 29, 2020 at 18:46
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    @ToddWilcox This would make a great answer, especially if you can post a reference.
    – Aaron
    Commented Aug 29, 2020 at 19:01
  • The second link (to the Athos et al paper) mentions the increase in elasticity and decline in the number of mesothelial cells in the basilar membrane as possible mechanisms for altering pitch perception in old age. Commented May 20, 2023 at 15:10

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