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I do not have perfect pitch, but I heard that people who have it might have difficulty when a piece of music is not tuned to the usual 440 Hz pitch standard; it sounds out of tune for them.

But this makes no sense to me. As long everything is in the correct relation to each other why should it sound out of tune? It certainly sounds different, and someone with absolute pitch must easily tell the difference, but why might it sound "wrong"?

This is also very confusing with the notion that perfect pitch is a trait people just have, but the standard pitch 440 Hz is in essence just an arbitrary definition. So why should this ability be dependent on some arbitrary chosen standard pitch?

Let's make an analogy, most people can see and differentiate colours. Now suppose people define, very accurately on a physical level, what a standard red, green and blue are (like the 440 Hz standard tone). And from then on every monitor or TV uses just these standard R,G,B colours to combine other colors. Apart from contrast and brightness, the colours on every monitor or TV should then look the same. But then if someone manufactures a monitor (i.e. tunes not to 440 Hz) the colours would look somehow shifted, but does this imply that the colors look "wrong", or does people then have difficulty using this monitor? I guess not... they just might note that it looks different, but that's all.

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    As stated, your question merely embodies a tautology. Not being cursed with perfect pitch I am inclined to dismiss the premiss of your question as basess: such people might experience the total pitch of the performace as out of tune, but I see no reason why it should be perceived as out of tune within itself. Unclear what you're actually asking here. – user207421 Mar 8 '17 at 10:27
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    To a person with perfect pitch, the phrase "out of tune" is ambiguous. It can either mean "out of tune with itself - so it sounds bad" or it can mean "played at a pitch that isn't close to A=440 (plus or minus a whole number of semitones) - so it sounds musically nice but vaguely irritating". Exactly how irritating the latter type of "out of tune" is depends very much on the listener. – Dawood ibn Kareem Mar 9 '17 at 4:51
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    Perfect pitch is defined by this - it's the ability to accurately judge the frequency of a tone (or sound). Why would you be surprised that people who can judge absolute frequency accurately would notice that the frequency is different than it's supposed to be? That's the whole point of perfect pitch :) Your TV analogy is not very good, since colours change all the time depending on lighting, so our eyes and brains are very capable at maintaining "correct" colours (the good old "yellow/blue?! dress" is an extreme example, as are many colour/contrast based optical illusions). – Luaan Mar 9 '17 at 9:22
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    Your analogy actually works perfectly. The point is that many people would notice that the new monitor was slightly off. In the real world, monitors are all slightly different and people who care about colour rendition buy a device to calibrate their monitors to produce specific absolute colours, just like people tune musical instruments to produce specific absolute pitches. If your monitor is miscalibrated, colours will look slightly wrong and, for example, colours on the screen won't match colours on a print. If you're a publisher or photographer, that monitor would indeed be hard to use. – David Richerby Mar 9 '17 at 9:43
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    I know someone who has perfect pitch in the sense that they hear the musical notes (i.e. not Hertz directly), but unconsciously switches back and forth between A=440Hz and A=415Hz depending on what they used more, lately. There is nothing special about 440Hz. (should this be an answer?) – Nobody Mar 9 '17 at 17:06

10 Answers 10

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As someone with absolute pitch and trained in A440 12-tone equal temperament (i.e. the usual) with plenty of vocal music as a backup, I perceive notes that are several cents out of tune as "off" because I am not used to them. I have difficulty listening to music containing those out-of-tune notes unless the music is atonal. (Granted, I don't like listening to atonal music for the most part, probably because of my absolute pitch, but I did find out that I didn't think of quarter-tones as unpleasant in an atonal piece of music I listened to once.)

My experience with this:

as long everything is in the correct relation to each other why should it sound out of tune?

If I find that the out-of-tune notes are in tune with each other, I figure that the music or instrument is out-of-tune and may be able to accept the music more. (I'm interested in hearing what B quarter sharp major sounds like, for example, but not in the context of a C major piece.) If I find that only some notes are out of tune, I figure that the performance is off-key or the instrument was not tuned properly.

I'll have to note that I will not detect music as out-of-tune if it's not several cents off (unless the in-tune note is played at the same time--in that case, everyone can hear the beats that get produced). This probably does make listening to vocal music easier, as people probably go for Pythagorean tuning instead of 12-tone equal temperament within a specific key because Pythagorean tuning uses perfect ratios (e.g. 3:2 for perfect fifths) and 12-tone equal temperament doesn't unless they're octaves.

As for why blatantly non-A440-12-tone-equal-temperament pieces sound wrong to me, I believe this is because of my musical training. A432 sounds slightly off to me, but I suspect that if I were trained in A432, it would be A440 that sounds off instead.

To use your colour analogy, the monitor with the not-perfectly-RGB pixels is just like the out-of-tune musical instrument--the colours look different, the web-safe colours don't display properly, and this time, everyone notices. The extreme example is the dead pixel where one of them is black instead of RGB--people start throwing out their monitors or getting them repaired at this point. (You are right--"people define, very accurately on a physical level, what a standard red, green and blue are"!)

(Caveat: I developed absolute pitch starting in Grade 8 (age 13)--I started with middle C as a reference, needing to use classical music for key references, and writing sorely thin transcriptions by ear. I've read before that absolute pitch developed this way may not be true absolute pitch, and needs constant maintenance or else it will be forgotten. On the other hand, I can instantly recognize soloing on the dominant of minor keys (an unorthodox mode), can recognize modes increasingly well, and can figure out when polytonality (2 or more keys being used at the same time) occurs...)

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    Just out of interest, have you ever listened to, say, baroque music played on A415 instruments? Does it sound "off" to you? Would it make a difference if you'd previously heard the same piece played with A440? – Bob Mar 7 '17 at 17:40
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    I don't have perfect pitch. But a friend of mine who does, who often plays at A415, says that after a couple of days she hears 415 as being A, not G#. I don't have perfect pitch, but I can sing an A440 pretty accurately if I think about it, and the same thing happens to me. But I suspect that everyone's experience is different. – Scott Wallace Mar 8 '17 at 11:20
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    I can't even tell if the current note is higher or lower than the previous one. – Strawberry Mar 8 '17 at 12:02
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    Aww, no one ever called me 'special' before :-) – Strawberry Mar 8 '17 at 15:02
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    The difference between A=440 and A=415 is 1.0127 semitones. Your tuning would have to be super-accurate and your sense of pitch to be amazingly sensitive for this to be distinguishable from 1 semitone. I've never encountered anyone whose "perfect pitch" can detect a difference of 0.0127 semitones. To me, anything played at A=415 just sounds exactly "one semitone too low", and I can't imagine that anyone else with perfect pitch would hear anything different. – Dawood ibn Kareem Mar 8 '17 at 22:00
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I don't think I agree with what you have been told.

Perfect pitch is the ability to memorize, and recall, pitches. Now just because you can do it doesn't mean that you always actually do it.

If someone with perfect pitch hears a note and it is slightly below A440 what does that mean? Is the note an out-of-tune A, an in-tune A for a baroque orchestra or a note that the composer has indicated needs to be slightly flat in a modern piece? In one context it is "wrong" and in the other contexts it is not "wrong".

And yes perhaps 440hz is perhaps arbitrary but if you can memorize and recall pitches then 435hz, 430hz etc. would be no different would it?

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    Thanks for your answer. Maybe someone with this ability might share his/her experience. What is said in the question, that people with perfect pitch hear non-440hz tunes out of tune I heard (from musicians without it) and read a few times, so it seems to be a widespread believe. – StefanH Mar 7 '17 at 11:20
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    That's a bit misleading. "Perfect pitch" specifically means an innate ability to identify tones the way all of us can identify colors. Many musicians who don't have perfect pitch have trained themselves to recognize a few pitches based on a lot of repetition. – Carl Witthoft Mar 7 '17 at 12:35
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    This answer is technically correct, but if you spend most of your life around pitches tuned to this standard, and you have perfect recall of those pitches, then yes surely a sub-semitone offset is going to be noticeable, and potentially irritating. A relatively overly-yellow streetlight kind of winds me up, if I'm honest. – Lightness Races in Orbit Mar 7 '17 at 19:56
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The 440Hz reference point is a convention, but it's very consistently used. This means that if you can sense it, you will likely form your entire understanding of harmony and music with this included (e.g. people with perfect pitch often report different keys having a distinct "feel") - and why wouldn't you? Humans learn by finding patterns, and so if you perceive all music to be using a fixed set of pitches, that's a pattern that your brain has no reason not to assimilate.

As an analogy: I can see colour, so my understanding of driving includes the colour of traffic lights. If I drove into a different county and their traffic lights were slightly different then I would find it frustrating that "yellow" now meant "go ahead" and I would spend my entire time on edge.

I would expect this effect to be stronger for performers attempting to play/sing along to the music, because their muscle memory will be very strongly linked to their perception of the pitch.

As an analogy for the muscle memory: piano keys are a standard width. It's an arbitrary width, but it's so consistent that a pianist could play on an unfamiliar piano with their eyes closed, using muscle memory to find the intervals. If I sat down at a piano and the keys were 90% the width, I would find it unsettling and difficult to play. Same with playing a violin that's too small, or a clarinet where the keys are in the wrong place.

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    I have come across quite a few keyboards with different key widths, sometimes toy ones admittedly, but some harpsichords and small keyboard instruments. It was not as difficult to adapt as I expected. – JimM Mar 7 '17 at 10:54
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    I've come across them once or twice, and I found it weird. With a bit of exposure I could get used to it, but until then I was very aware of the different key size. If I were feeling judgemental, I might say it were the "wrong" width. :) – cloudfeet Mar 7 '17 at 11:01
  • Also an analogy with colours :) So its an interplay between perception and muscle memory, just came to my mind: could you be a good musician with bad hearing but having expectionally good muscle memory O_o – StefanH Mar 7 '17 at 13:16
  • Reminded me of the commercial with blue traffic light for surprise factor. – Ozgur Ozturk Mar 8 '17 at 15:07
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    actually, some cultures (e.g. japan) don't distinguish as strongly between green and blue as the english speaking world. this is supposedly because they use the same word for both in everyday speech. in those cultures, green traffic lights are sometimes shown as blue and that's not considered strange. source: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… – james turner Mar 8 '17 at 15:45
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An addendum, rather than replacement for the two existing answers...

I don't have perfect pitch, but I have good relative pitch.
I have two friends with 'perfect' pitch.

The thing is, 'perfect' isn't actually perfect. It's good, but it's not an absolute. I can recall evenings in the pub listening to old 45s which were either playing at the wrong speed or had been tweaked up a bit at mastering to tighten them up. My two friends could amuse themselves by shouting the chords at each other... a semitone out from each other. One was perceiving the closest pitch to be A, the other B♭.
They were both 'right' for a given value of 'right'.

On the other hand, both of them are perfectly willing to accept a vocal or instrumental passage which to me clearly is suffering from tuning issues against the rest of the track.
10 cents out & I find it painful, neither of them are bothered in the slightest.

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    Are your friends musicians? And what you mean by "tweaked up a bit [...] to tighten them up", sorry I am no english native speaker. Did that mean the pitch of the song was changed (and similar by playing it fast the pitch shifted), do you mean that? – StefanH Mar 7 '17 at 13:19
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    Almost all of my friends are musicians, yes ;) It used to be quite common to simply speed up the tape a bit when cutting a record on vinyl. It gives the track a little more punch & definition.... & of course, makes it play slightly sharp. There's always the added complication that people would just tune to whoever's guitar seemed to be closest in tune with itself & work from there, unless there was a piano in the studio. – Tetsujin Mar 7 '17 at 13:25
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    @Tetsujin - and there was always the chance that the studio piano wasn't at concert... – Tim Mar 7 '17 at 13:28
  • "play [slightly] sharp" means "slightly out of tune"? – StefanH Mar 7 '17 at 13:29
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    @StefanH in my usage, "sharp" != "out of tune" in this context. If I tune my guitar a quarter-tone sharp and then everyone in the band tunes to that, the band is not out of tune, but it's playing a little sharp. On the other hand, if I go to sing a note and what comes out is a quarter tone higher than what I'd planned on, that would be out of tune. (even if it happens to wind up at a pitch of 440 Hz, and even if it was notated as an A) – Jon Kiparsky Mar 9 '17 at 21:55
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Some people with perfect pitch may be irritated by music not at A=440 Hz. They're going to be irritated a lot when hearing modern recorded commercial music, and some not-so-modern stuff too!

Others can recognise a variance from A=440 Hz, but they aren't obsessed with it. Like looking at a photo or movie with a slight colour cast. At first sight it's noted, but it doesn't stop them enjoying the content.

As already stated, many people confuse perfect pitch with well-developed relative pitch. This is a skill that every musician requires. It can be learned and developed.

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Not everyone perceives things the same. In particular, not everyone perceives the relative pitches of a song in a vacuum, only compared to each other.

The human ear is a fascinating device. Utterly fascinating. I found out recently that the most favored theories to date is that the cochlea is actually an active amplifier of sound. It has cells that appear to not just resonate at certain frequencies, but to actually actively provide energy into the fluid of the inner ear to make the sounds louder. We do active EQ on the frequencies we hear with a startling Q factor. Beautiful device.

If one's ear has been tuned for A440, those external effects like the effects of the active cells in our ears matter. This gives them a reason to perceive a A443 as "off." Some people tune their ear in this way, other's don't. Neither is right nor wrong.

You give the example of a TV where the colors are all off, but off in a consistent way. You may think that nobody should care, but a graphic artist who deals with white balance as part of their daily life may pick up the color issues immediately. Why? They're paid to be able to look at a piece of work and, in their heads, predict what it will look like in many different lighting conditions. Their job causes them to care.

I can give an example in my life where perfect pitch lead me to consider an alternate pitch as "wrong," though in my case it was a half step, not a few cents. I was in highschool choir and we were singing a song that was pushing the limits of the high ends of our voices. To reduce strain, our teacher chose to teach the song a half step down. Right before our performance, she tried to raise it back up to the correct pitch. Unfortunately it didn't work so well. There was one point in the song where there was a large interval up to a high note. Every time we tried the song, we dropped back down half a step right there.

What had happened was the strongest singers in the choir all had perfect pitch, and instead of memorizing the interval for that jump, we had basically memorized the muscle positions for our own vocal chords which nailed that note. Our own vocal chords became an anchor for the old pitch. In the end, we performed the song a half step down because the leads simply couldn't make the transition to the correct pitch fast enough.

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A singer friend who has perfect pitch told me years ago that a typical problem is that when he is given written music to sing along some instrument and the instrument is tuned off 440, he has to transpose the music to be able to sing it, so the effort is a lot greater for him.

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    This is what I find. I like to be told "It's printed in E. We're singing it in F," although I can work that out. But listening to music in the wrong key is a lot easier. – Andrew Leach Mar 8 '17 at 11:18
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I kinda have perfect pitch. Your question is difficult to answer, because there are variations. Like, if a door shrieks, I can't immediately say 'That was a G with a slight glissando to a D at the end'. However, if I hear a piece of music, or 'musical sounds' in general, I just hear "well that's a G" without having to think about it.

I don't have any problems with relative pitch though. I feel something is off, but certainly not overwhelming. I can for example thruly enjoy Jimi hendrix jamming along with an out of tune guitar, because musically it makes sense. If I were to write it down though, it would take me a while to adapt to it and transcribing would certainly not be effortless.

I do however go crazy when I hear 'synthetic' notes, like singing with autotune or slighty out of tune square waves (think ring modulators and the like). Too perfect really upsets my musical hearing.

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People with perfect pitch are able to perceive absolute pitches much the way most people perceive differences in pitch. So non-standard absolute pitches can affect them the same way non-standard differences in pitch affect you.

0

Perfect pitch should really be called learned pitch because that's all it is: learning which pitch associates with a given symbol. I would equate it to recognizing colors, most people can name the general color they see (green) but painters would be able to name the more exact color (emerald). Similarly in music, most people can tell when a note is high or low and musicians that have spent time associating those notes with symbols are able to name the symbol.

All this is just to say that 440 is what musicians have spent time learning so anything outside that would cause difficulty. If you spend all your life listening to western pop and try to listen to a completely different genre, it can be difficult to feel the groove of the music.

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    Re: "perfect" and "learned" pitch, the standard term used today among music theory circles is "absolute pitch" (or AP for short). – Richard Mar 10 '17 at 2:41

protected by Dom Mar 8 '17 at 2:51

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