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I myself have perfect pitch and I don't feel cursed because my upright piano has been slowly getting out of tune over the years. I have genetic perfect pitch. In other words, it is my DNA and not my ear training that caused me to have perfect pitch. I can hear pitch in noise and tell exactly what pitch and octave it is in. Other than the difference between violin and viola where it is only at low notes that I hear a difference, I can tell exactly what instrument the note came from.

If anything, I think that perfect pitch is beneficial when it comes to an instrument being out of tune. If you have relative pitch, you could adjust it sure but you might not get the pitches right, just the relations. If you have perfect pitch, you can tell exactly how much it is out of tune and in what direction and adjust it accordingly so that it is at exactly the pitch needed.

I have tuned a guitar a few times before and have always been able to get it to the right pitch. I get 2 strings in tune and then I get a third string in tune and it knocks the tuned strings out of tune. I keep going until all the strings are in tune. In this case, perfect pitch is extremely helpful.

So why does everybody say that a drawback to having perfect pitch is knowing that an instrument is out of tune? Is it really a drawback when in fact perfect pitch is extremely helpful to get the instrument back in tune?

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    I assume people mean that it's annoying to have perfect pitch when an instrument is out of tune but you can't tune it yourself, e.g. because it's a piano, or your neighbor's violin, or a whole orchestra and you're an audience member. – Your Uncle Bob Mar 27 at 3:53
  • How much does it matter if several guitars are in tune with each other, but not at concert pitch? I think it doesn't matter.. – Tim Mar 27 at 6:21
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    When you say the piano's 'out if tune', surely you mean it's not at concert pitch. Being 'out of tune' would affect anybody listening, not just those with absolute pitch! – Tim Mar 27 at 7:12
  • @caters: I didn't realize that it's you who asked this question when I posted my answer. I've read your profile two months ago. There you say: I'm knitting. I'm knitting DNS ... Then I saw your sympathetic compositions and I told you: go on knitting. (I hope you got it as a friendly joke). But now I ask you seriously: Are you knitting music theory too? ;) – Albrecht Hügli Mar 27 at 9:59
  • So,.... what particular "A" is your perfect pitch set to? See , for example, replete's answer – Carl Witthoft Mar 27 at 12:48
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I think there are two misunderstandings in your question: in the title you're asking:

Is an instrument out of tune really a drawback to having perfect pitch?

Then in the bottom we read:

So why does everybody say that a drawback to having perfect pitch is knowing that an instrument is out of tune?

This is quite a different question.

I never heard somebody say that this would be a drawback for this case. It must be a drawback for all who don't hear it.

(If you want to make a transfer for your whole life: you are not unhappy if you don't know how great your misery is.)

Having perfect is a drawback as you suffer from the instruments out of tune, that's what most people say with perfect pitch. They even suffer when they play violon and don't play the right pitch, but this happens to all musicians with a good ear and relative pitch. Latter also suffer when a LP has got "effect" and is not turning round. Also they realize when the pitch of their brass instrument (as a D or Db of a trumpet) or a some strings of a piano is not fine tuned.

But only people with perfect pitch may notice that the tuning of the recordplayer is not "perfect" or that the pitch of an orchestra is different form 440.

Is it really a drawback when in fact perfect pitch is extremely helpful to get the instrument back in tune?

Of course in this case perfect pitch is not a drawback at all but an advantage! And also musicians - like me - with a good relative pitch can tune a guitar or a brass band without problems. But with absolute or perfect pitch you won't be a better musician at all. So you will be gifted to become a good piano tuner.

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Caters, an awful lot of drivel has been written about perfect pitch by people who don't have it. It is true that it can be a nuisance, and that it can lead to other faculties not developing. This is well documented in education. I had to work quite hard as a teenager to overcome its interference in transposition, which people without it handled much more easily. Later, playing on instruments with different tunings like A415 and even A466 has further eroded the hold it originally had on me.

The point is that it should be the servant not the master. So long as the faculty is tamed, it is a help not a hindrance.

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Perfect pitch can be a drawback when someone who has it listens to music that is out of tune. You can't control the tuning of a recording or someone else's voice, for example.

Arguably an extreme version is listening to works tuned in A415 (a tuning used in the Baroque era, or so I've heard); since A415 sounds like an A flat, this results in cognitive dissonance when the name of the piece and/or its sheet music does not match the heard music and its perceived key.

Yes, as someone with perfect pitch (but not your genetic kind), I've been distressed when listening to music with A415 tuning. While that tuning doesn't prevent me from liking the music, I start questioning why the piece says it's in, for example, "G major" when it sounds like it's in F sharp major.

Depending on how strong your perfect pitch is, it might not help you get your instrument back in tune that well. I cannot tell you how many cents flat or sharp your notes are; I can only tell you whether you're significantly flat or sharp from A440 (or so off that you're hitting quarter tones or close enough to them). Whenever I've tuned the plastic ukulele at my sister's place by ear, I generally manage to tune the strings so they are in tune with each other but not necessarily to A440. (I can barely play a ukulele.)

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    Is this similar to hearing a piece played at a different speed? Yes, it's different, but maybe only academically so. – Tim Mar 27 at 6:25
  • If you listened to a piece, and perceived it was in, say, key E, only to find out later it was 'Symphony X in F', what difference would it make? – Tim Mar 27 at 7:15
  • @Tim A fundamental difference. It'd mean you'd misunderstood the whole basis of the harmony, which is fundamental with tonal music. A visual analogy which is perhaps relevant: an old oil painting looks dull and gloomy because dark brown dominates. But that's only patina. If that is then cleaned off, we see the colours that the painter intended. It makes a big difference to learn that, with what you were used to, you'd misunderstood the maker, who had in fact intended something different. – Rosie F Mar 27 at 8:45
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    @RosieF - I understand what you're saying. My point is that the whole basis of that harmony, perceived in an 'incorrect' key - unknown at the time - wouldn't be any different harmony (except in pitch) from the original written key. One would believe it's in a certain key - but so what? Hotel California was actually written in a different key from the Bm it's usually heard in. Does that make it wrong every time someone with absolute pitch hears it? Point being, ignorance is bliss. Hear something without being told its proper key, accept it as such? – Tim Mar 27 at 9:02
  • "You can't control the tuning of a recording..." Duuude, this isn't 1950! Toss that recording into Audacity or other digital processing tool and you can adjust the pitch however you like! – Carl Witthoft Mar 27 at 12:53
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Your question suggests you haven't played much with other people. For example, in a symphony orchestra, your personal definition of "A" is irrelevant. The conductor, or more likely the orchestra Union, decides what frequency to tune to, the oboist tries to get to that pitch, and everyone must be exactly in tune with the oboist.

Even for a solo instrument (guitar, e.g.), being "in tune" means all strings are matched to each other. What value of "A" you use is irrelevant when there's no other instrument to match with.

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The faculty of learning absolute pitch can be useful. But there is a hindrance if you learnt it from a piano which was a bit flat, so your absolute pitch is not "perfect". So it was with me, and I would sometimes be unsure of the key of the music I was listening to -- until I learnt again with music at/near A=440.

  • I don't think this is what he's asking. – Carl Witthoft Mar 27 at 12:52

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