As a teacher, or parent of a musical child, it’s highly likely that you’ve come across the term ‘perfect pitch’, in fact, you may be one of the 1 in 10,000 people who have it! If so, you would be joining the likes of Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Michael Jackson and Ella Fitzgerald - but what does it actually mean, why is it beneficial, and if your pupil or child doesn’t have it, is it something they can learn?
What is perfect pitch?
Perfect pitch, better known as absolute pitch, is the ability of a person to identify and recreate a given musical note, without the benefit of an external reference, out of any tonal context. For example, a note is played, and someone with perfect pitch is able to name it right away, or someone with perfect pitch is given a note name, and they are able to sing (or play) it straight away.
Perfect pitch can help musicians...
see and feel notes before they’re played, meaning that they play in the center of very note.
recognise modulations, making playing the wrong notes less likely.
play in tune
with jazz improvisation
with composing music
with harmonising melodies
with memorising musical material
with difficult intervals
with transcribing solos
with imitation (repeating what someone else has played)
However, having perfect pitch can…
make listening to something out of tune very difficult
make performing with someone who is out of tune very difficult
make playing an out of tune instrument very difficult
be challenging for musicians who have perfect pitch in one key, but read music in another key
Can you develop perfect pitch?
It is thought by some people that the only way to have true perfect pitch is to be born with it. Several scientific studies have concluded that training after the age of nine years old rarely leads to perfect pitch, and claim that there are no known cases of adults successfully developing perfect pitch. However, other studies have concluded that perfect pitch can be developed with having a musical, innate ability, through pitch recognition training.
Seeing as the learnability of perfect pitch is hotly debated, and that its limited benefits are often disregarded by professionals, educators and students, something called relative pitch is often seen as more desirable. Relative pitch allows a musician to identify a note by comparing it with a reference tone, and is more common among musicians than perfect pitch.