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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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    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
  • 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
  • @Babu Thanks, that's informative. It explains why I can easily guess a few pitches every time (A, Bb, C, D, E) but have to think more carefully about everything else -- they're probably the keys that I play most often. – Rei Miyasaka Jun 10 '12 at 23:09
  • @horatio I've heard somewhere that people who speak pitched languages (e.g. Chinese) are a lot more likely to have perfect pitch. I wonder if for those studies they surveyed people with musical training only, or if they came up with some other criteria that can apply to anyone that speaks the languages fluently? – Rei Miyasaka Aug 1 '12 at 4:04
  • I ran across this because I am the same way. I'm able to hear a song in my head, quite clearly, then vocalize the notes, and I just checked - I was precisely in the correct key. I've been able to do this since I was a kid. If I bothered to look up the key or work it out on my guitar, I could use almost any song as a reference and be able to in fact name almost any pitch, relative to the notes in any song that I can clearly hear in my head, which is almost anything I've heard more than a few times. – user5666 Feb 2 '13 at 7:14
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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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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. – Josh Darnell Sep 19 '11 at 16:48
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    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
  • @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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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"

3

An alternative term, absolute pitch, is also used:

Absolute pitch (AP) is the ability to produce or recognize specific pitches without reference to an external standard. People boasting AP have internalized pitch references, and thus are able to maintain stable representations of pitch in long-term memory. AP is regarded as a rare and somewhat mysterious ability, occurring in as few as 1 in 10,000 people. A method commonly used to test for AP is as follows: subjects are first asked to close their eyes and imagine that a specific song is playing in their heads. Encouraged to start anywhere in the tune they like, subjects are then instructed to try to reproduce the tones of that song by singing, humming, or whistling. Productions made by the subject are then recorded on digital audio tape, which accurately preserves the pitches they sing avoiding the potential pitch and speed fluctuations of analog recording. Lastly, the subjects' productions are compared to the actual tones sung by the artists on the CDs. Errors are measured in semitone deviations from the correct pitch. This test, however, does not determine whether or not the subject has true absolute pitch, but rather is a test of implicit absolute pitch. Where true absolute pitch is concerned, Deutsch and colleagues have shown that music conservatory students who are speakers of tone languages have a far higher prevalence of absolute pitch than do speakers of nontone languages such as English. For a test of absolute pitch see the Absolute Pitch Test developed by Deutsch and colleagues at the University of California San Diego.

Wikipedia also redirects the entry for "perfect pitch" to "absolute pitch" and suggests they're the same thing:

Absolute pitch (AP), widely referred to as perfect pitch, is a rare auditory phenomenon characterized by the ability of a person to identify or re-create a given musical note without the benefit of a reference tone.

So although traditionally "perfect pitch" seems to emphasize the ability to recognize a pitch, recreating/singing a pitch without reference also counts. If hearing a note instantly reminds you of a song, then I think you are identifying that note, just by the song name, not the note name (that you may or may not happen to know).

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    +1 for "absolute" (which contrasts with "relative"). AP is IME usually called "perfect pitch", but "perfect pitch" is a misleading term for AP, because it suggests accuracy (without identifying the skill) rather than the skill of identifying pitches absolutely. – Rosie F Feb 13 '18 at 8:11
3

I have perfect pitch, and I don't think what you are describing fits the perfect pitch description. You have to have heard the piece reasonably recently, whereas, for example, I last heard John Williams' theme from 'Superman' five years ago and I can still sing it in the correct key.

I have a friend that describes a situation very similar to yours, and I told her that she probably has very good relative pitch; as an accomplished musician, she needs to be able to remember various notes and be able to play in key without cycling through various keys to get there. This doesn't mean, however, that she could play an A without having been giving one by a tuning fork or an instrument.

So in conclusion, I think you just have very good pitch memory, instead of perfect pitch or normal relative pitch.

  • +1 for pointing to a difference between perfect pitch and good pitch memory – David Bowling Jul 28 '18 at 18:18
  • Interesting that you'd mention that... I'd often wake up with an old song on loop in my head, and it'd tend to be in the correct pitch, but fade throughout the day, the way dreams do. For example, this morning, I woke up with Chumba Wumba's I Get Knocked Down and Beethoven's Romance, neither of which I'd heard since my childhood, and having checked with a piano and then on YouTube, they're in the right pitch. It'll be gone by the afternoon. I think it may be that perfect pitch provides your brain a "universal language" with which to relay pitch whereas for someone like me it's more fragmented. – Rei Miyasaka Jul 29 '18 at 15:58
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I know exactly what you mean, because it's similar for me. Conventionally, we distinguish between "perfect pitch" and everything else dualistically: either it's perfect or it's nothing. But- as in many cases describing real-world phenmomena- it's not that simple. There are degrees of "perfect pitch". For instance, I can specify an "A" (or any other tone), at the very worst, within a quarter tone, and usually much better. Friends of mine can do it within a cent every time= much better than I.

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It's called "a good start". To compare it with visuals, having depth perception does not imply that you can accurately estimate how fast objects may be coming at you and cite a number. It means that you have the basic abilities needed to learn this kind of thing without reverting to secondary cues.

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