Can your bass player do that?
May 10, 2010 3:16 AM   Subscribe

Do I have perfect pitch?

I play the double bass in a band and when tuning our instruments before rehearsal, the guitar guy would always ask me to give him an A, in reply to which I would sing the letter "A". This turned into a running gag and soon we discovered that my A was in near-perfect pitch every time. I tried it again at home and without reference (that is, without hearing anything being played shortly before) and I always seem to get it right. I can do other notes as well, though I'm still practicing, and what's more, I can name individual notes when played on the piano (or another instrument, for that matter). This works reasonably well for notes of the C major scale, for others I'm sometimes a bit off.

So what does that mean? I've read that only 1 in 10,000 people have perfect pitch. So I guess what I can do has been acquired and is probably more common? (I've been playing all kinds of instruments since I was a kid, in case that matters. Not professionally though.)
posted by cronholio to Media & Arts (33 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Why would you assume that what you can do is common?
posted by Jaltcoh at 3:22 AM on May 10, 2010

Response by poster: Statistics.
posted by cronholio at 3:27 AM on May 10, 2010

posted by Jaltcoh at 3:29 AM on May 10, 2010

Response by poster: Well as I said, people with perfect pitch are quite rare, so there's a 9,999 in 10,000 chance of me not having it. If you watch videos of people with perfect pitch showing off their skill, you'll see that they can immediately sing or name any note, and name even individual notes in a chord, which is not the case with me. I figured that I may have simply memorized the pitch of an A and everything else is just relative pitch. Of course, memorizing an A would be a case of perfect pitch but isn't that something anyone could do if exposed to that note often enough? Like, if you hear a note and say, ah, that's the note this-and-that song starts with.
posted by cronholio at 3:43 AM on May 10, 2010

Isn't your argument that statistics proves that you having perfect pitch would be uncommon?

I know I misread it that way and had a response all written to defend that side of things.

Anyway, I asked my wife (who is jealous by the way) and she says you don't have perfect pitch since you can't get everything. But that you're still better off than most people.
posted by theichibun at 3:49 AM on May 10, 2010

Response by poster: Ah, sorry, I read it again and it sounds ambiguous indeed. I meant that if few people have perfect pitch, chances are that I don't.
posted by cronholio at 3:53 AM on May 10, 2010

If you could run a 4:15 mile, would you insist you weren't a good runner because ther are people who can do it under 4:00? Of course not. The people you see in video clips are just very well practiced at the skill you share. What you have is perfect pitch. It's still a little raw. Don't worry about statistics or whatever, you have the skill.

(I used to be able to tell when people were out of 440 concert tuning without any reference, when I was playing in band every day in high school. With some mental gymnastics, I could tel what note was what, too. Many years later, I find myself not able to do these things very well, or at all some days, due to lack of practice.)
posted by notsnot at 4:10 AM on May 10, 2010

There are degrees of perfect pitch. You're somewhere in there.
posted by Obscure Reference at 4:11 AM on May 10, 2010

Wouldn't people be somewhere along a continuum, with some people being tone deaf and others having perfect pitch?
posted by fixedgear at 4:26 AM on May 10, 2010

Were you exposed to a tonal language early in life? There is research suggesting that growing up speaking a tonal language, such as Mandarin or Cantonese make it much more likely to be able to perceive absolute pitch--much more common than 1 in 10,000. So it isn't a settled issue whether "either you have it or you don't." It is possible that it is learnable, although for many people, it may require training really early.

I'm not sure where you got the 1 in 10,000 statistic anyway. Is it among practicing musicians, or just the general population? Based on students in my classes of music majors, there are usually at least one or two in a class of 30 or so.
posted by umbú at 4:49 AM on May 10, 2010

Best answer: Indeed, there are degrees of perfect pitch-ness. You appear to be well within the realm of people who can claim to have perfect pitch.

Here's a nice definition - you can judge for yourself if you fit it - it seems clear to me:

Via wikipedia:
"Absolute pitch (AP), widely referred to as perfect pitch, is the ability of a person to identify or recreate a musical note without the benefit of an external reference."
Also, I'm not sure what the statistics have to do with anything; this isn't a game of chance. For example, it's extraordinarily unlikely that you are the person with username "cronholio" - the chances are 6 billion to one. Surely you that wouldn't lead you to conclude that you must be someone else, right?
posted by Salvor Hardin at 4:57 AM on May 10, 2010 [1 favorite]
posted by miyabo at 5:23 AM on May 10, 2010

Best answer: A music professor I had claimed that you could learn a tuning note by playing it again and again as a practice regime and be pretty close. I think this is where you are, especially since A is one of your main tuning notes.

For example, I know I don't have perfect pitch, but I can sing a decent Bb, because that's the main tuning note used for Bb trumpet and the default tuning note for most amateur concert/big bands. I can also whistle a good solid Eb arpeggio, which is the opening line from the Hummel trumpet concerto, because I have played that line thousands and thousands of times.

Yet, I don't have perfect/absolute pitch. If you play any arbitrary note I can't tell you what it is nor can I hum/whistle/sing any arbitrary note. Does this sound familiar?

While I'm at it, I recommend "Musicophilia" by Oliver Sachs. Or maybe not - it's a fascinating read about how music affects our brains and vice versa, but it also covers an astounding number of pathologies that profoundly affect musicians, so now I have a whole new set of things to be scared about if I get thumped on the noggin. At any rate, he covers absolute pitch pretty well.
posted by plinth at 5:24 AM on May 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: In my nerdy band/orchestra youth, it was common for people to be able to recognize notes when played. Less common was the ability to produce notes at correct pitch, but given my experience, I would say that what you describe is more common than 1:10,000.
posted by Tooty McTootsalot at 5:26 AM on May 10, 2010

This is totally non-scientific conjecture on my part, but if the rate is 1 in 10,000 people who have perfect pitch, you have to keep in mind that there are a lot of people who are not musicians. I would guess that the odds of having perfect pitch are higher if you are a musician, either because you were drawn to music as a result of having that particular talent, or because surrounding yourself with music has trained you to be able to recognize or generate specific notes.
posted by Nothlit at 6:13 AM on May 10, 2010

I'm also a bassist.

A long time ago, I had basically "memorized" A by thinking of the main riff in "Owner of a Lonely Heart" by YES (the first note being an "A"). The riff in "Crazy on You" by Heart also features a very prominent "A". I could (still can) tune to a pretty exact "A" by thinking of those riffs, but there's no way I could claim to have perfect pitch. I suppose I could do that with some other open strings (using "Good Times Bad Times" by Led Zeppelin for an "E", for instance), but I certainly don't have the whole scale down.
posted by holterbarbour at 6:14 AM on May 10, 2010

A comment on your use/misuse of statistics: If, hypothetically, someone I hadn't met told me over the phone that only 1% of the people in his town had blue eyes, I would say there was a 99% chance that he didn't have blue eyes. But I'd change my mind after meeting him and seeing he does, in fact, have blue eyes. I wouldn't be saying, "But there's only 1 person in a hundred in his town has blue eyes, so he probably doesn't have blue eyes" while the truth was literally staring at me in the face.

So yes, if I didn't know anything about you, I would guess you didn't have perfect pitch. However, from what you've described, it sounds like (eh?) you have at least some form of "relative pitch." The fact that you're a musician also supports this. I don't know where you got your 1 in 10,000 statistic, but I would guess it's higher for the musician population than for the general population.
posted by Busoni at 6:15 AM on May 10, 2010

When I sang in choirs, once upon a time, I had F quite well-memorized as well. I realize that memorizing a note fits into a broad definition of "perfect pitch," but having known musicians with levels of pitch-acuity that far outstripped mine, it seemed silly to describe my ability as "perfect" anything.
posted by desuetude at 6:27 AM on May 10, 2010

I have the same thing as holterbarbour, except with Beatles songs. I can get my bass tuned to listening to Day Tripper, Lady Madonna, Dear Prudence, and Rain in my head (though oddly, I usually just use Lady Madonna).

I most definitely do not have perfect pitch, but a good memory and decent relative pitch, and it's very helpful.

You definitely want to read This Is Your Brain On Music if you are interested in this subject.
posted by quarterframer at 7:28 AM on May 10, 2010

I surprised myself with being able to do that with 440 as well, along with a Bb on a mellophone. The A, I'm sure, was tuning up a violin thousands of times, and the Bb was because of high school pep band. We had to play "The Hey Song" so many times that the first prominent note made a rut in my brain.

I think neuroplasticity's got to have something to do with it. When you've used that A440 path in your brain so many times, it's just got to come more easily to you. (Oliver Sachs probably discusses something like this in his book; I haven't been able to get my hands on it.) Since I play the violin less now, it's harder for me to automatically find it. Another thing I noticed was that I can almost always tell when a note is in tune with the normal Western scales, even though I usually can't name it. This has led me to sometimes tune my fiddle by ear and get it to a really nice self-tuned state that's uniformly half a step flat.

Brains are weird and awesome.
posted by Blau at 7:33 AM on May 10, 2010

To Busoni and Salvor Hardin: His use of stats was not necessarily irrational by any means. He was unclear on the exact definition and scope of perfect pitch, and thus, deduced that if the facility is so rare, there may be a better chance (in the Bayesian sense) that the definition doesn't include him than the chance that he actually has it.

Others are right, though, cronholio, that being a musician puts you in a reference class that gives you a lot more information than if you were a random member of the public—the figures for musicians are more in the 5-20% area (see here, e.g.).

And indeed, it's a spectrum—a major classical pianist once told me that he doesn't have absolute pitch, except that he can always conjure up the organ intro to "Light My Fire" in perfect tune. As the Radiolab segment shows, it turns out that lots of people have that version. In any case, you're good enough that you surely meet the commonsense definition of "absolute pitch," especially with more training. Count me jealous!
posted by abcde at 7:50 AM on May 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

There are people (some of whom are quite respectable) who maintain that you can "learn" absolute pitch and it's not something that you either have or do not have at birth (or at the point of first-language acquisition, if you're looking for a way to explain the tonal languages but still claim it can't be acquired by adults).

According to those people, you have probably reached stage 1 of acquiring absolute pitch. If you were to go ahead and practice the skill more (which would include working on your relative pitch) then you would eventually be as good as anyone who just seemed to have been born with it.

Personally, I have found that I can recognise certain notes if I work at it consistently for a while; there are indeed, certain qualities ('colours') to certain notes that I only find when I'm looking for them. Unfortunately I've never been disciplined enough to get beyond a very, very basic stage and about 75% accuracy. Good luck!
posted by HopStopDon'tShop at 8:14 AM on May 10, 2010

So you always find your a. Now, if you can sing intervals (or train yourself doing it) you (will) have perfect pitch, because you will be able to derive all your notes from that reference. That easy.
posted by Namlit at 8:18 AM on May 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

I have this ability too - I can always recall songs or melodies at the correct pitch, which enables me to reproduce certain notes at the correct pitch by 'playing' the song in my head and singing the note. With relative pitch I can then get most of the other notes too. It always sticks out to me horrendously when something's being played in the wrong key (that 4% pitch shift between NTSC and PAL kills me).

However, I'm much worse at naming notes that are being played, unless I can compare them in my head to notes that I'm certain of. I figure I have some aspect of perfect pitch, but haven't practised enough to reap all the benefits of it.
posted by bent back tulips at 8:25 AM on May 10, 2010

I just wanted to add some data points to the spectrum. I've never considered myself to have perfect pitch but rather to have really good "pitch memory" -- I can, like abcde's pianist, conjure up reference pitches pretty reliably, but it's a conscious act of remembering. This ability has actually degraded over time; as a trumpet player I play instruments in 5 different keys and it's wreaked havoc on my sense of "absolute" pitch.

This is, for me, in marked contract to one of my professors, who was plagued by fire engines and elevator doors -- imagine, he said, walking down the street and involuntarily thinking "Eb 1/4-tone flat, F#, Eb 1/4-tone flat, F#..." as the ambulance goes by. Also, perfect pitch is not necessarily accompanied by any relative-pitch skills at all, so if the choir you're singing with drifts a little, you're screwed. Beyond that, apparently his high register was all flat (again, the perfect pitch was so strong that it defeated his relative pitch) -- his explanation, which I found very convincing, was that you tend to acquire perfect pitch in the key of the piano in your childhood home.
posted by range at 8:27 AM on May 10, 2010

My understanding of perfect pitch means that you know all the notes. It is different from having memorized all the notes.

Sort of the difference between having memorized the multiplication tables, and knowing how to multiply.

I would posit that the people who can recreate an A from having memorized the tone of an A from some song aren't by definition showing perfect pitch- they are using an external reference that they memorized. Not taking anything away from them, just that it doesn't fit the definition that the 1 in 10,000 comes from.

There is also the concept of precision versus accuracy. People with perfect pitch have both.
posted by gjc at 8:35 AM on May 10, 2010

Response by poster: I realize that perfect pitch is just a label that means different things to different people. So, in some way, I do have it, and in others, I don't. I'll certainly keep on training.

And thank you all for sharing your experiences. I'd love to hear more of your stories, and I'm probably not the only one, so keep 'em coming.
posted by cronholio at 8:40 AM on May 10, 2010

Here is a little FAQ about my perfect pitch. As far as I'm concerned, you have it.
posted by dfan at 10:00 AM on May 10, 2010

I alway considered perfect pitch as being able to name/sing any given note. I don't have a good enough sense of pitch to play violin or double bass but I've learned to tune a ukulele to a pretty accurate ADF#B through years of practice.
posted by bonobothegreat at 10:40 AM on May 10, 2010

I used to be sad that I didn't have perfect pitch (I have a few tuning notes memorized, and can even produce them accurately, but I can't name random notes that I hear).

I do, however, have really good relative pitch and can very easily figure out most pop/rock songs, transposed into keys that I find more advantageous.

The day that I stopped being a little bit sad that I didn't have perfect pitch was the day that I met a friend, who DOES have perfect pitch. This guy gets completely flipped out if stringed instruments were tuned without recourse to an electric tuner (so that they are all perfectly in tune with each other, but are probably about a quarter-tone off from concert pitch) and says that it sounds like nails on a chalkboard. When songs are transposed from one key into another, he either doesn't recognize the song or throws absolute maniacal fits because the song is being played in "the wrong key." It's like having perfect pitch has condemned him to not be able to appreciate music -- I think of his condition as if there was a person who flipped all out and couldn't look at any paintings in which the color of the sky didn't perfectly match one specific little box on the Pantone chart.
posted by kataclysm at 11:33 AM on May 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

I don't mind if pieces are being played in the wrong key, except if I'm trying to follow along with the score. Then it drives me nuts.
posted by dfan at 12:27 PM on May 10, 2010

Singing an A(440) together with no prior pitch given is a very common exercise for choral groups at the start of warmups, because one can definitely learn to produce a pitch on command, with no reference, by the physical/aural sensation of it. From there, one can get to any other pitch by knowing intervals. So I can after years of practice produce a decent A, and I can pitch many songs I practiced frequently without aid of tuning device, but that is far from perfect pitch, to my mind. It's a pretty common thing for singers to do.
posted by lysimache at 1:23 PM on May 10, 2010

@abcde: Man, did I mess up Bayes' theorem again? Dang. From now on, the real probability of anything is the opposite of what I think it is.
posted by Busoni at 2:48 AM on May 22, 2010

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