Perfect Pitch: No Measure of Musical Ability

To what extent does perfect pitch have any bearing upon one’s musicianship or ability to appreciate music?

Michael Kaulkin
Feb 27, 2014 · 7 min read

I once saw a YouTube video of a dog demonstrating perfect pitch. A lovely Golden Retriever sat at what looked to be a makeshift, paw-friendly piano keyboard . Opposite and off screen, a woman played a penny whistle and addressed the dog in German. The woman would play a pitch on the whistle, inviting the dog to play the corresponding note on its doggy keyboard. Without fail, the dog would play the correct pitch on the keyboard, even making distinctions among octaves. There is no way to determine whether this was rigged or staged somehow, but I choose to assume that it wasn’t.

Despite the possibility that it’s a hoax, it is an undeniably impressive presentation, fun to watch and, for me, thought provoking. With my musician’s mindset, my first reaction was, “Wow, this dog has perfect pitch!” I was impressed in a way similar to the way people often react to humans with perfect pitch. But, after watching this for a while it dawned on me that what is impressive here is not that the dog has perfect pitch, but that it has the visual memory and dexterity to express it on the keyboard. (And that it speaks German — ausgezeichnet!) We all know that dogs have a sense of hearing that is superior to that of humans. It should not be surprising that, for a dog, an F and an F♯ might be two completely discrete objects, whereas most humans would not be able to discern one from the other out of context, meaning without another known, named note to relate it to. For the dog, context is not a factor. Comparing these two objects must be the same as for humans visually comparing, say, an apple and a vacuum cleaner.

To what extent does perfect pitch have any bearing upon one’s musicianship or ability to appreciate music? Is this dog a better musician than I, if I don’t have perfect pitch?

Some humans have this ability to discern musical pitches as distinct objects, and others don’t. For those who do, it is a natural ability akin to having a good sense of direction or being good at visually judging spatial relationships. Among those who don’t, many are capable of acquiring it with time and practice.

In discussing what we loosely call “perfect pitch”, there are two categories that are actually quite different from each other.

Absolute Pitch

This is what the dog probably has: the ability to recognize pitches as individual objects, each with their own properties. For people (and —who knows — dogs) with this ability, each pitch is immediately recognizable as different from the others, and can be named without hesitation. It is akin, I suppose, to most of us being able to recognize and identify colors. I have had many students with this ability.

Although most people consider Absolute Pitch to be a gift, it is also a major obstacle to overcome as a part of musicianship training. The keys to the understanding and appreciation of music and what makes it tick are found in intervallic relationships between pitches, not the pitches themselves. One should be able to effortlessly transpose a melody to any key, and express it and analyze it without even using a staff, clef or key signature. Students with absolute pitch usually find this very difficult at first.

Pitch Memory

This is something that any musician can and should strive for on an ongoing basis, and I will admit that I have not fully mastered it, myself. Over many years of training and day-to-day work as a musician, I have effectively memorized certain pitches and can either sing them on demand, or identify them upon hearing. I would imagine that most guitarists, whether they realize it or not, have memorized the sounds of the open guitar strings, and could easily recognize, say, an “E” if they heard one. In my case, it has a lot to do with how the “feel” in my voice, as my musicianship training has always been heavily voice-based. It is still not as reliable or, well, absolute, as Absolute Pitch must be, but it is constantly improving, as I make an effort to pay attention to it.

While many teachers seek to train students’ Pitch Memory at the beginning stages (usually calling it “perfect pitch”), I consider it something highly advanced and not something to push until relative pitch has been fully mastered. In most cases (as in my own) it will happen naturally.

For our purposes, I will continue to use the term Perfect Pitch to serve as an umbrella for both of these abilities with the understanding that one is innate and the other is acquired. Whereas absolute pitch is something one either has or doesn’t have, pitch memory can and should become a part of musicianship training for any musician. Either way, it must take a backseat to the mastering of relative pitch.

To what extent does perfect pitch have any bearing upon one’s musicianship or ability to appreciate music? Is this dog a better musician than I, if I don’t have perfect pitch? The common assumption is that people with perfect pitch are better musicians than those without. Who knows? I don’t think there’s any way to prove this to be true or untrue.What I can say with absolute certainty is that some people with perfect pitch are better than some people without, and vice versa. Most musicians probably do not have perfect pitch, and there are a great many superb musicians out there. At the same time, there are people with perfect pitch who have no musical training and/or no interest in music. There is also a dog.

…putting things in the perspective of human history and a global scale, our names for pitches are basically arbitrary and ephemeral.

Considering that the range of human hearing, measured in vibrations per second (Hz), is between roughly 12 Hz and 20,000 Hz, one could make the case that there are around 20,000 identifiable pitches. Thankfully, our Western Music notions of naming pitches evolved between the time of Pythagoras, the Greek philosopher and mathematician of the 4th Century B.C., and the rise of Equal Temperament in the 16th and 17th Centuries, coinciding with the rise of the keyboard, by which time we had fully established our seven letter-named pitches and their sharp and flat neighbors. The exact tuning of these letter-named pitches has always been a moving target and remains so despite a 1953 resolution of the International Standards Organization that seeks to impose 440 Hz as the international standard definition of the “A” above middle “C”, which is the pitch used as a basis for tuning instruments. This standard is adhered to in the United States, but orchestras around the world have their own tuning preferences.

Moreover, consider that our Pythagorean, Western notion of how to divide the octave into scales is only one of infinite solutions. Looking at musics from around the world we see a number of very sophisticated tuning systems that defy our Equal Temperament 12-note naming system. The point is that, putting things in the perspective of human history and a global scale, our names for pitches are basically arbitrary and ephemeral. And so, while I may be able to know a B♭ when I hear one, it’s only a B♭ because people decided to call it that, and relatively recently at that! So, what does it matter, really?

Everything about music that matters has to do not with the pitches themselves, but the distance between them, or intervals. Take, for example, this famous melody from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story:

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It begins with that soaring minor seventh, resolving gently, as it should, by a half step and then rolling out a relaxed cascade of thirds. The second phrase reaches to begin a major ninth higher than the first, and proceeds to return to the same cascade of thirds as the first phrase. This melody is about the reaching and relaxing of intervals and the use of repetition. Perhaps it’s also about avoiding the tonic. It’s not about reaching from a B up to an A.

Now, is this melody any less effective if I present it like this?

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When we talk about the emotional content of music, it’s always about intervals. A single-line melody like the one quoted above is packed with emotional content all derived from the composer’s choice of intervals, and to an extent, rhythm. Then of course there’s harmony. That shiver you get from a Neopolitan chord in a Beethoven piano sonata? Intervals. That really cool spot in Sibelius Symphony No. 5 ? (You know the one I mean.) Intervals.

It’s true that composers usually choose specific keys for specific reasons. Sometimes it’s because of a certain quality they feel the key has, and sometimes it’s based on what works best for the instruments being used. A good sense of pitch memory certainly informs a sophisticated listener’s reaction to music that is heard, but the basics are needed first. In teaching musicianship, particularly at the beginning level, we’re concerned with developing the student’s mastery of intervals, melodic shape, patterns, form, inner hearing and musical memory.

As for the dog, the video demonstrates that perfect pitch, on its own, is an innate ability possessed by some and not others that has little connection to musicianship or musical ability. Now, when they make a video of that dog taking four-part dictation of a Bach chorale, heard in one key and written down in another, then I’ll be impressed!

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