What is perfect pitch?

Music CulturePractical knowledge

According to Wikipedia:

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.

The thing to understand here is that a person with perfect pitch can associate all sounds with a note. This person is thus able to tell you that the bell of your neighbor’s bike is a B.

Does perfect pitch have a connection with our hearing ability?

A human being can normally distinguish more than 3000 sound nuances. Our ear can hear sounds from 20 to 20,000 Hz. These are the frequencies, from the lowest to the highest, that the human ear is able to hear. But, this frequency range is only reached by babies, then it decreases over time. Thus an adult will have a frequency range from 20 to 17,000 Hz.

So, one would think that perfect pitch is linked to this frequency range which would be wider in the case of having perfect pitch. Well, no, a person with perfect pitch does not have better hearing.

What is the perfect pitch?

This ability has nothing to do with hearing more frequencies, but being able to recognize a C without an auditory reference.

But where does perfect pitch come from?

The difference is not originated in the auditory system, it is in the brain. People with perfect pitch will naturally associate a noise with a note. It is an automatic process performed by their brain. As soon as a sound is heard, the person will associate the corresponding note with it. While a typical person will need a point of comparison to eventually find the note of the noise heard.

To date, scientists have not been able to determine whether perfect pitch is innate or acquired in childhood. There are two theories, but neither has clearly established the origin of perfect pitch.

Theory: Perfect pitch is acquired

The use of the term “acquired” specifies that the person will acquire it through a learning process. These scientists claim that perfect pitch is obtained from childhood. It would be constructed when a baby learns to associate sounds with words. A baby discovers the existence of sounds in his mother’s womb, but is not able to differentiate them until he is 12 months old. Then he discovers the learning of speech, a stage during which he will vocalize the sounds heard. It is during these several months periods that the child would forge his perfect pitch.

Theory: Perfect pitch is genetic

Scientists defending this theory claim that a perfect pitch gene exists. People with perfect pitch would therefore share the same gene. It would be related to the child’s brain development.

In this case, perfect pitch would therefore be hereditary and could be transmitted from parents to children. It would be innate from birth and would not require training!


Each theory is based on different findings. Thus, scientists who support the acquired perfect pitch theory say that it is more developed in some countries. Apparently, people’s native languages influence learning perfect pitch. For example, tonal languages such as Thai or Vietnamese would facilitate the acquisition of perfect pitch. These are languages in which the same sound can define several different terms. The words are differentiated by a different tone. Being born into a family with musical background would also be a factor in the development of perfect pitch.

On the side of genetic theory, it would seem that the absolute ear is transmitted from parents to children. And that this has an impact on several generations.

These two theories are to be taken with a pinch of salt, because nothing is really established! What is clear is that the area of the brain concerned with perfect pitch is that of language.

Active perfect pitch VS Passive perfect pitch

What do you mean? Apparently, there are two types of perfect pitches. This is a distinction that was made by an Anglo-Saxon study. Some people with perfect pitch are able to always play and sing on key without a reference note, while others are not.

Passive perfect pitch

People with so-called “passive” perfect pitch can identify each note they hear, without prior reference. But they are unable to accurately vocalize a requested note if no reference is given to them.

Active perfect pitch

Conversely, people with so-called “active” perfect pitch are able to identify and name a heard note, and can reproduce the pitch of a note without any reference. That’s why we say that they will always sing on key. If they are asked to produce a D, they are able to do so without any difficulty. They can always determine the pitch and accuracy of a note.

What about relative pitch?

Perfect pitch vs Relative pitch

A person with perfect pitch will recognize and identify the notes played without any reference points. This person is able to guess the note played just by hearing it.

A person with relative pitch is able to discern note pitch and accuracy using a comparison point. Relative pitch requires musical knowledge. This is the ability to recognize a G through a previously played C. It is clearly linked to what we learn in music theory, it is also what allows a violinist to tune to an A. Relative pitch allows you to reproduce songs by ear or to improvise. Every musician usually has relative pitch.

Relative pitch is learned and worked on through practice!

How do I know if I have perfect pitch?

Here are a few tips to help you determine if you have perfect pitch. You have perfect pitch if:

  • You are able to name a musical note played with a musical instrument or object (example: a bell)
  • You are able to sing a particular note without any reference note
  • You are able to name several notes played one after the other
  • You can identify the key of a musical piece

Can you have perfect pitch without knowing it?

The number of people with perfect pitch differs from one country to another. It is estimated that 1 in 10,000 people have perfect pitch. And among them, some of them are not necessarily aware that they have perfect pitch.

If you have a musical background, and you have perfect pitch, you should be able to name the note of a given sound. If this is not the case, it is because you probably don’t have perfect pitch.

If you have never been trained in music, you will not be able to recognize the notes played. Simply because you must first have a musical background to identify the note of a sound played. It is a bit like learning a foreign language, you can hear Chinese, but you can only understand it if you have a certain number of concepts related to that language. Without knowledge of that language, it is impossible to identify sounds and associate them with terms. The same applies to music!

Very often, people who don’t know they have perfect pitch are able to recognize the pitch of a sound and determine its accuracy. But since they do not have the knowledge to identify the note, they cannot name it.

Below, you can find a little test to see if you have perfect pitch.

Can you develop perfect pitch?

If we refer to theory 1, as an adult, you can no longer develop perfect pitch because you are too old. However, you can work on note recognition and identification through musical training. But in that case, we will be talking about relative pitch, not perfect pitch.

On the other hand, you can try to influence your baby’s perfect pitch training. That is because it is acquired from the mother’s womb until the age of 3 during language learning.

According to theory 2, mentioned above, which refers to the existence of a perfect pitch gene, no, you cannot learn perfect pitch. That is because it would be hereditary, and therefore transmitted from parents to children.

Images and sources: Wikipedia, THNKR, Trenalon, Unsplash tadas mikuckis, joel muniz, humberto chavez

Tags: electric violin, violin, violinist

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