Have they cracked the secret of perfect pitch?

Have they cracked the secret of perfect pitch?


norman lebrecht

January 09, 2015

Neuro psychologists at Zurich University think they have found the area of the brain that gives us, or withholds, the ability to identify a note on hearing it. Now they are trying to work out why. It seems there are two theories…. Read summary here (in English).

new brain


  • James of Thames says:

    I have perfect pitch. To me, recognizing the note A is no different than recognizing the colour red.

    • Martin Haub says:

      What “A” do you recognize? Is it A-440, A-442, A-438? Or are they close enough it’s all the same? Can you perceive the difference between 440 and 442? If so, why? Is there a geographical/cultural aspect that would have a person with perfect pitch learn one A from another? Just curious. When you hear a bad orchestra play out of tune does it make you ill?

      • Amy says:

        I have it, too. The color analogy is pretty apt, and I’ve used it myself in describing the sense to others. To push it a little farther…just as you sometimes recognize yellow as “lemon” or “butter” yellow, but still use the same word for the general hue, that is how I experience pitch. I hear something with the quality of “D” and can distinguish it from C or Eflat clearly. (Although, I can be fooled, too: a piano tuner at the music school I attended was fond of pranking students with perfect pitch and would alter the very key I was pressing – it was interesting! I suppose that might be a little like holding a pair of socks up in the light to decide if they’re black or navy…)

        Singing in a capella choirs from a score can be a challenge if the pitch slides significantly from what is written….but to Martin’s comment above – hearing a “bad orchestra play out of tune” should affect any musician with ears.

      • James of Thames says:

        Having perfect pitch doesn’t mean I’m some sort of human tuning meter. The note A exists in a sort of generalized plane and there is a bit of latitude because the exact position (tuning) of the note can vary slightly depending on its context, its relationship to the notes around it. But yes, I perceive the A as being in the general area of 440 hz, give or take. In ensemble music there is always a slight but continual adjustment of pitch happening, but it tends to be quite subtle, even to the players. Of course, hearing out of tune playing or singing is painful, but it’s not so much a question of how far the performers have strayed from the nominal tuning A as how well the players adjust intonation in the moment the notes are sounding.

  • ruben greenberg says:

    As a clarinettist, I find that it is well-nigh impossible to have absolute pitch, as we don’t play the “real” notes; ours are transposing instruments. At any rate I’ve encountered more oboists and flautists with absolute pitch than clarinettists with it.

    • Brian says:

      Not apropos of absolute pitch, but, I’m curious, when you are playing pieces like LvB 1st and 2nd symphonies written for Klarinetten in C, do you transpose at sight, pick up the appropriate instrument, or do they provide parts already transposed. Assuming you’re not playing in a HIP band. (My experience with the instrument doesn’t go beyond school and the Bb version.)

      • ruben greenberg says:

        Brian: In answer to your question, C parts, we usually transpose without any problem. That said, the C clarinet has a very different timbre and these days, people tend to actually play C parts on the C clarinet in order to get the appropriate tone colour.