When I was about 11 years old, my music teacher tried to test me and started playing notes on the piano, expecting me to name them. I knew he was trying to see if I had perfect pitch, but I got them all wrong. Funnily, though, every time he played a note it really, REALLY reminded me of a song; I just didn't know which one. I was a little frustrated about it and decided to practise so the next time he tested me I would get it 100% right.

Over the course of about two months, I allocated an individual song (or phrase of a song) to each note to help me guess it, and it worked! After a month or two, I nailed it and always got it right. At first, I could only do it with the piano. After 4 years I can name each note as soon as it's played or sung and the notes on the piano even remind me of people's voices for some reason.

The strange thing is, I can only do this with isolated tones: If I listen to a song that's not live I can't name a single note! If I'm lucky, a certain chord of a song may remind me of another song, so I can name the KEY of a song, but I can never name notes unless they are isolated. I don't know whether this is because my relative pitch takes over because it's stronger (I can easily tell intervals by relating to other songs I know) or because everything happens too fast. Also, if a song has been transposed even slightly I notice it straight away and it bugs me, but I find that I get used to this after a while.

I know that this isn't perfect pitch because it is something that I developed and learned through "training" but what else could it be? What on earth do I have, apart from relative pitch?

  • 2
    Related: music.stackexchange.com/q/203/15. Also, welcome to the site. Be sure to read through the help documents, as your question could use some editing. – Andrew Feb 18 '15 at 0:23
  • When I was your age (played the guitar for 5 years), I was waiting in the lobby of the music school I attended back then and realized that I was naming the notes I heard being played, just like that out of the blue. The reason for that is that I always think of the names of the notes that compose the melody of what I'm playing. Perfect pitch can be trained and developed to a high degree, keep it up and find your way, you'll get there. (Not claiming that I am there, just verifying that it can be done :) ) – – Deus Deceit Feb 18 '15 at 2:09
  • So there are people like me out there, yay!! :() Yeah, I will keep training, and thank you for your response Deus Deceit! :) – RefTyphoon Feb 18 '15 at 10:48

To me this sounds like untrained 'perfect pitch'. I have a pretty solid sense of relative pitch - i.e., give me a note and tell me what it is, and then as long as you don't go through any convoluted chord changes I can still tell you the names of notes.

Unfortunately that method only gets you so far (try following some John Coltrane solos). Thus 'perfect pitch' comes in - being able to tell an exact note by name just by hearing it. The ability to do this is, for me, exactly the same as being able to hear the exact pitch of a note from a particular song. If you know what note that song starts with, then you have instantly identified the name of that pitch.

There is a training required to go from one to the other, and for me, the ability to hear a pitch 'on cue' like that is very fleeting/unreliable, so I've never trained the ability. It sounds like if you develop your ability in relative-pitch, then learn the keys of some popular songs, you could then claim yourself to have 'perfect pitch'.

In reality I think few people who claim to have such an ability really have it to a frequency-perfect degree, but I do not doubt there are people like that out there in abundance.

  • Thanks for your advice- I might actually try that... The only problem is that I can only name the notes in songs if they're really isolated and by themselves... But, as you said, it requires practice, so I'll still keep trying :)) Thank you so much for your answer :)) – RefTyphoon Feb 18 '15 at 10:46

I fully believe that there is no such thing as "perfect pitch", at least as it's typically described. It's just memory, plus a lifetime of hearing music.

Pretty much every orchestra musician has heard tuning A so many times that they can just sing it back to you with no reference pitch. I'm a brass player, so the Bb arpeggio is seared into my brain in the same way. One of my first memories of getting a pitch stuck like this came from rehearsing the beginning of the William Tell overture over and over again in middle school, so that opening concert C/written D is permanently embedded too. String players and guitarists have the same thing with their open strings.

Combine that with some intervals and now you can name every pitch.

It's not some crazy innate superpower, it's just brainpower (which is our evolutionary advantage) plus lots of attentive practice.

  • There have been studies done on perfect pitch, associating the ability with a distinct brain structure to other musicians. – Natalie S Feb 18 '15 at 8:15
  • That's a good point, I guess... It would probably be easier for me as well to use relative pitch more... But thanks so much for your answer!😄 :) – RefTyphoon Feb 18 '15 at 10:38

There are essentially two types of perfect pitch. The strict definition would be a person that without hesitation, can name any given note or notes. They are not transposing from a reference point, they just simply know. They can hear someone smash their whole forearm and fist on a keyboard and tell you all of the notes that were played. This is extremely rare and often accompanied by another relatively rare phenomenon, synesthesia.

The other type of perfect pitch is much more common and it sounds like you would fall into this category. This is relative pitch. I consider what you describe to be very strong relative pitch. According to this wikipedia article on Absolute Pitch (another name for perfect pitch), what I think of as very strong relative pitch is also referred to as pseudo-absolute pitch, which is relative pitch so strong that you effectively have perfect pitch. This is still not perfect pitch though.

I might recommend checking out Oliver Sacks's Musicophilia. He discusses perfect pitch in the book and synesthesia. This article also brings some insight to the topic, such as one individual describing the C has a C-ness to it and F# has an F#-ness to it. This clearly doesn't make sense to the average person. He makes the further distinction that transposing from one key to another can be less than appealing to someone with perfect pitch. I have also heard that people with perfect pitch just about cannot listen to something that is tuned in between where we place notes, ie, not tuned to A=440.

I would also like to mention that I'm not entirely sure how perfect pitch presents itself. Presumably you need to know the names of the notes before you are able to identify them, so there is obviously some amount of training before you can identify this phenomenon. But you can also assume that these notes already have a feeling for the person with perfect pitch, ie, they can recognize and identify the different notes but can't relate to others what they are because they have not yet learned the names of these notes. They most likely have some sort of abstract concept of what they are and those that are synesthetic, they often associate a very specific color with each pitch or something similar with another sense, such as a specific taste.

So I feel that you have strong relative pitch and it sounds like if you keep training, that you could end up having pseudo-absolute pitch. I would say that you are rather lucky, so if you intend to focus seriously on music as a career, I recommend developing this skill to its fullest. Not only will it come in handy in college level ear training classes but it is endlessly useful in performance, especially any sort of improvised music like Jazz.

  • Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my question so detailed :) I sure will look at what pseudo-perfect pitch is, and I will do anything to improve my sense of pitch. Thanks so much :) – RefTyphoon Feb 18 '15 at 19:55
  • @RefTyphoon - I had only just now heard of pseudo-absolute pitch when I looked at the wikipedia page. So I can't be sure if that is any sort of definition or agreed upon term. Wikipedia is after all not always 100% accurate. – Basstickler Feb 18 '15 at 20:05

It's sort of "acquired" perfect pitch. I think most of those with perfect pitch whom I know have that. Basically, if you ask them for a particular pitch, they strike their imaginary tuning fork and transpose from there.

Your variant is actually already more extensive than that. You said "At first, I could only do it with the piano.". Now if that means "with the piano", namely one particular piano, it may even be that you picked up on cues that are not actually the basic pitch but rather sound quality, resonances, overall character. It's somewhat like the CIA having the technology to reconstruct a document when given the sound recording from a mechanical typewriter.

But as your ability extends to other pianos and other instrument types, it becomes more likely that it's the actual pitch that your ability is working with.

  • Thank you so much for your answer! 😄 I was so happy to get all these answers so quickly, and I will think about what you said.:) – RefTyphoon Feb 18 '15 at 10:35
  • And yeah.. I also feel like it's more acquired pitch, especially since it always improves... :) – RefTyphoon Feb 18 '15 at 10:42

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