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My understanding is perfect pitch is something people are born with. How does it manifest before musical training?

If the whole point of perfect pitch is someone could hear a pitch and then say it's a C or a C4, they could only name those after some musical training to learn the names like C, C#, etc. In other words, naming the pitch is not the actual ability, it the demonstration of the ability.

How else might the ability be demonstrated? What else can the person do without musical training? Are they especially sensitive to out of tune music? Can they sing back tunes with no effort?

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    [OT] My experience is that perfect pitch is more a damnation than a blessing... Including having to deal with people obsessed with their own perfect pitch ;-) Feb 23 at 20:33
  • Anecdotally, a younger sibling without training was able to sit at the piano and play the pieces being learned by an older sibling, always in the correct key. Another child with perfect pitch was, according to his mother, quite sensitive to out-of-tune music.
    – Aaron
    Feb 23 at 20:36
  • @musicamante, I can see how perfect pitch isn't necessarily a big deal. All musically meaningful things are about relative pitch. Feb 23 at 20:36
  • Also, Diana Deutsch has found evidence of perfect pitch among tone-language speakers, who consistently pronounce specific words at specific pitch levels.
    – Aaron
    Feb 23 at 20:37
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    @ToddWilcox cf. my all-time favorite Onion article.
    – Richard
    Feb 24 at 0:04
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According to this study by Ross, Olson, Marks, and Gore, people with absolute pitch but no musical training are significantly better than average at reproducing heard tones (possibly in incorrect octaves), even when several distracting, different tones and/or noises are heard in between when they heard the tone to reproduce and when they could start reproducing the tone with a sine wave generator. This ability to accurately reproduce tones still persists even when told to reproduce tones 20-80 cents away from notes in A440 12TET, according to the study.

Now those people who accurately reproduced tones could still have phenomenal pitch memory and no actual absolute pitch, and they could have light-speed versions of the Levitin Effect apply to them. But it's also very possible that those people, at the very least, have strong potential for gaining or realizing they have absolute pitch.

Those people would be fairly likely to sing back tunes with little effort.


Intriguingly, I often figure out the key and/or tonic of music I listen to (and have no sheet music for and no ability to see anyone play an instrument) before figuring out any of the music's individual notes, so it's possible that possessors of absolute pitch with no musical training can categorize music by starting note or tonic without being able to name any notes. ...Of course, this categorizing skill could be the Levitin Effect in action again.

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How else might the ability be demonstrated?

Presumably you could call out names of songs that the person knows and they could immediately sing the first note or whole tune of the song in the original key, even though they didn't know the names of the notes. You could check against the iTunes or Amazon or YouTube version.

I can do this to some extent. I came to music theory and playing relatively late in life. If I hear, say, a microwave oven humming, I can often say, "Oh that's the first note of ..." or I simply find that I am humming the tune.

However I can't say what the name of the note is unless I happen to have seen and memorised the sheet music for that particular song. I suppose I could develop this skill by learning a different song for each possible key! Had I learned music theory and an instrument at an early age, I'm guessing I could have been good at this and could have named the notes as well.

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  • Some of that sounds like the Levitin Effect music.stackexchange.com/questions/tagged/levitin-effect (I just learned that term today) Feb 23 at 22:19
  • I have not studied this in any depth. I suspect that people who are able to name notes instantly are always those who have learned note names and an instrument from an early age - probably in a musical family. As with language, there are critical windows for learning such things. There are some accounts of children brought up without language who have learned it as a teenager but never achieved natural fluency. I first had guitar lessons when I was 19 and learned notation at the same time. This is considered very late. I'm not going to study this because I'm happy with my relative pitch! Feb 23 at 22:30
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My understanding is perfect pitch is something people are born with. How does it manifest before musical training?

A person's experience and exposure to sound and music begins in the womb. It's reasonable to suggest then, that the more music heard, especially when the mother sings along, the more inclined the newborn will be to music and sound, and especially to the mother's voice.

As such, yes every person is born with a degree of experience and ability to recall sound, notes, music.

Learning, exercise, training, practice - still apply. Personally, as a guitarist of 15+ years, I can remember and hear notes in my head, and I can hear the C Major scale without any effort - fluently. I can recall the riffs and chords I've played over and over and hundreds of times.

We are born with the ability to recognise sounds, music, notes..., and we learn to recognise and identify sounds precisely according to the ideal (pitch perfect) and theory of music.

Naturally, every person is different and is born with different abilities and talents, motivations, and influenced by environmental factors. So, if you were born into a musical family, you might then become interested in music sound creation, and from an early age, you would develop the ability to recognise perfect pitch from an earlier age.

It is a practical skills (and an ideal) - and it can be demonstrated if, for example, a person can recognise changes in scale and notes instantaneously whilst improvising. It's reasonable to suggest if a baby was trained while in the womb, they may be born with very effective pitch recognition and vocalisation ability - and with formal learning thereafter, leading to skill, judged according to some objective assessment method and common (industry) standard.

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