Perfect Pitch: Why Is It Important?
Questions and Answers
What is perfect pitch?
Perfect pitch, also known as Absolute Pitch (AP), is the ability to name a note
without reference to external reference pitch. A person with perfect pitch might
be able to hear a note played on an instrument (or even a whistle, wind chime, or
passing tone of someone's speech) and instantly name it as an F-sharp or a B-flat,
Perfect pitch is best understood as a spectrum of abilities. At the highest end of
the spectrum, absolute pitch is an instantaneous and immutable phenomenon, requiring
no conscious thought on the part of the person possessing it. The skill can't be
turned off. Despite claims to the contrary, most people probably cannot acquire it
after early childhood.
How rare is perfect pitch?
Perfect pitch is considered rare, although due to different standards of testing,
there are no accurate or reliable statistical studies of the phenomenon. It is
sometimes said that, in its highest form, perfect pitch ability occurs in as few
as one in 10,000 persons in the general population, almost always among people who
have had musical training before the age of six. However, the statistics may well
be skewed to reflect populations who have musical backgrounds or the training to
Why is perfect pitch relevant to a discussion of savants?
Perfect pitch is more common in the special needs community, particularly among
people with congenital blindness. It also appears frequently with Williams
Syndrome or individuals with Optic Nerve Hypoplasia and other “midline defects.”
Science is yet to understand why this is the case. Most musical savants have a
high degree of perfect pitch. They benefit from teachers and music therapists who
possess the skill themselves or who are conscious of its idiosyncrasies. (In and
of itself, however, perfect pitch is not an indicator of savant musical ability.)
People with perfect pitch are the ultimate “ear musicians,” and the trait offers
considerable musical advantages. Unfortunately, many music instructors are ignorant
of perfect pitch and, unwittingly, use teaching strategies that hinder (or even
destroy) the perfect pitch possessor's desire for and commitment to musical study.
It is important for parents and educators to recognize perfect pitch ability in
children, and to find educators who are conscious of it.
I have a son or daughter who is musical. I want to know more about perfect pitch. How can I test for it?
Susan Rancer, a gifted music therapist working with the special needs community for
nearly 30 years, recently published a booklet called “Perfect Pitch, Relative Pitch:
How to Identify and Test for the Phenomena.” The very readable booklet breaks bold
new ground and is designed for parents and educators.
As a child, Rancer, who herself has perfect pitch, was frustrated by teachers who
never fully grasped her ability. In her booklet, she describes various behavioral
characteristics and traits peculiar to those with perfect pitch skills, including
difficulties reading printing music (despite normal reading abilities in
The booklet offers insights for everyday musicians as well as to teachers working
with the special needs community. It is available for a $10 donation (plus $1
shipping charge). An $11 check (US funds) made out to “FD Hope” may be mailed to
Susan Rancer, 200 Estates Drive, Piedmont, California, 94611. All proceeds benefit
research and education about Familial Dysautonomia, a genetic disease that took the
life of Susan's son David at age eleven. (Rancer may also be reached at
What is the biggest misunderstanding about perfect pitch?
The most widely held myth - recently reprinted in the New York Times
- is that people with perfect pitch have difficulty transposing music into
different keys. In fact, the opposite is true. Nearly everyone with perfect
pitch can effortlessly transpose music into any key. (However, without
special training and practice, it is indeed difficult for individuals
with perfect pitch to transpose written music at sight into
Music runs in families. Is perfect pitch an inherited trait?
We don't know. Researchers have noted a higher level of perfect pitch among European
(Ashenazi) Jews, as well as in certain Asian populations. A genetic research study on Absolute
Pitch (AP) is underway at the University of California in San Francisco, in the
hope of finding the gene (allele) linked to perfect pitch ability. UCSF researchers
have issued a plea to families in which perfect pitch has been noted among several
members. The initial screening for the UCSF study takes place through a
online auditory test.
The organizers of the UCSF genetic study readily concede, however, that perfect pitch
abilities appear only among those who began early formal music training. If there is
a genetic component to perfect pitch, it must be activated through early musical
experience and training.
Is perfect pitch a learned trait?
Deutsch (UC-San Diego), who possesses perfect pitch herself, has conducted
some of the most interesting and provocative research on this subject. She relates
perfect pitch to speech and speech acquisition, and has conducted experiments with
speakers of Asian tonal languages. Deutsch makes the surprising suggestion is that
almost anyone can learn perfect pitch provided they are encouraged to do it while
very young. “The real puzzle about perfect pitch is not why so few people possess
it, but rather why most people do not,” Diana Deutsch said in a December 2001 Discover
magazine interview. “Everyone has an implicit form of perfect pitch, even
though we aren't all able to put a label to notes.”
Researchers in early infant development, such as psychologist Jenny
Saffran and her colleagues at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, have
tested this phenomenon and observed that infants are almost universally able
to make precise distinctions between pitches. Infants later lose this ability,
perhaps because it may be a distraction in the course of acquiring normal
communicative speech. In other words, if they aren't learning music early on,
perfect pitch skills aren't particularly useful after a certain point.
“Infants … enter the world with a structure or hard-wiring that helps them learn,”
has said. “What's interesting here is we may not have dedicated hardware just for
language. The structure is probably general to many complex forms of learning,
Why is perfect pitch relevant to the special needs community?
Perfect pitch may be a normal developmental ‘window’ that is open, early on, in all
of us. Under normal circumstances, that perfect pitch window closes. But for some
people in the special needs community, that window of ability remains open much
longer, or remains open indefinitely.
By recognizing perfect pitch abilities, therapists and teachers may access many
unexpected developmental areas. By capitalizing, for example, on perfect pitch
transposition skills, and by posing challenges (and puzzles) which even very
low-functioning individuals with perfect pitch can solve, therapists may open a
new means of communication with their clients. Concepts about perfect pitch might
one day be taught more widely to music therapists, and may be incorporated into
standard educational and therapeutic protocols.