Perfect Pitch

For a good portion of the world’s population, perfect pitch is a strange novelty, or an unheard-of phenomenon. For me, it’s part of my everyday life, and has been possibly since birth.

What Is “Perfect Pitch?”

Perfect pitch is the generally-used term for the ability to recognize (and often reproduce) correct musical pitches without an external reference. (Actually, in musical terms, “perfect” pitch references the ability to recognize pitches; absolute pitch covers both recognizing and reproducing pitches.) People with perfect and/or absolute pitch don’t necessarily hear BETTER–we just hear DIFFERENTLY.

Who Has Perfect Pitch?

It’s estimated that possibly 1 in 10,000 people have perfect pitch, most never discovering it due to lack of musical training. (Far more people can recognize played pitches as opposed to producing the pitches themselves, however.) But this isn’t just a musical phenomenon–it’s actually something that many people all over the world possess. While perfect pitch-wielders are scattered worldwide, it’s decidedly more common in Southeastern Asian countries, where a word or phrase said in two different pitches can mean two very different things (so you have to recognize the audible difference between those two pitched words).

Is It Genetic?

This apparent region-specific concentration of perfect pitch has led me to wonder if the perfect pitch gene (if such a gene exists) is a dominant gene; for instance, my father has it and my mother doesn’t, for instance. (Mom does, however, seem to have relative pitch, so there may be just a gene combination there that resulted in me having perfect pitch.) There are still currently ongoing studies to figure out the actual spread of perfect pitch, however, so we may learn in time just how widespread it is and whether it’s genetic or not.

My Theory

Since sounds are processed first by the inner ear’s organ of Corti, and then analyzed by the brain’s temporal lobe, it has long been my theory that perfect pitch requires a finely-tuned organ of Corti and a set of temporal lobes that is ready to receive such higher-definition signals. (This article seems to back me up, saying that the temporal lobes or planum temporale are generally enlarged in perfect pitch holders.)

My Personal Experience of Perfect Pitch

Almost like having a better cable box, my ears hear pitches, and my brain automatically identifies them–in fact, if I start focusing heavily on identifying a pitch, I can get anxious about it and psych myself out of the correct pitch. Perfect pitch is an instinct that shouldn’t be second-guessed–when I don’t second-guess it and get all obsessive about it, it’s always right.

For instance, I can be at a Wendy’s and hear the fries alarm going off, and I’ll say “I wish they’d turn that E-major chord down a bit–it’s a bit piercing.” Or sometimes I’ll be outside and hear a truck motor rumbling down the road, and I’ll think “Wow, it’s making an exact low C-sharp.” (One hilarious experience: standing outside hearing a plane roar by, a truck rumbling along, and an air-conditioner humming atop a building. The three together made a low, growly B-flat minor chord :P)

When I First Knew I Had It

As I related last week in my synesthesia post, my experience hearing the piece “Musicbox Dancer” by Frank Mills was perhaps the first inkling anybody had that I might have perfect pitch. But it wasn’t until seventh grade that I really began to hone in on the gift and really try to see if I still had it.

Dad would often have the radio on in the car, and he’d play “Name That Note” with me, identifying the keys of the various songs we listened to. As I grew up, I started to hear that certain radio stations’ versions of songs differed slightly from the CD versions I had at home. For instance, when I was nearly twelve, I noticed that the Spice Girls’ “Wannabe” sounded “lower” on the CD player at home than it did on the radio. Dad listened to both versions, and confirmed that while my favorite radio station played the song in C major, it was actually recorded in B major–no fault in the CD player could have accounted for it, since we tested it in at least 3 different players. My perfect pitch had picked up on an industry “secret”–radio stations often play songs at 17 turns a second on the player instead of 16 turns a second on normal players. This speeds up the song just enough to help them fit in more songs per hour, but it does generate a half-step-up difference in key.

By seventh grade, as I neared my thirteenth birthday, I began to memorize certain parts of the choral music I sang during school hours, and compared them to notes on the piano. We had a piece we were doing that I knew was in F minor by the key signature; thus, I could mentally compare the notes with the chord of F minor on the piano, and so on. Memorization is not what perfect pitch is all about, but it does help define a musical ear to get to “know” where pitches are in relation to each other. At the end of seventh grade, I knew I had it, and I began to use it to help my fellow altos and me stay on our part.

Everyday Usage

Perfect pitch, for me, is something I try to use every day if possible. I listen for the keys of music playing on the radio (keeping in mind that it will usually be a half-step lower if I want to buy it on iTunes later); I hear the rumbling symphony of truck motors and car horns on the highway, isolating each note as I drive along. Sometimes, I’ll even listen to people who “sing-speak” (their speaking voices actually have some pitches associated with them), and at the risk of being horribly inattentive and rude, I’ll determine what pitches they’re using when they speak.

I definitely do use my perfect pitch musically as well as in everyday life, though. Sometimes, I use it to help me find harmonies to popular music; I’ll sing a soprano descant part along with Lady GaGa, or challenge myself to pick out a seamless alto part to Katy Perry’s soprano. In choirs, I’ll hum our starting note while the introductory music plays loud enough to disguise the sound, and in solo performances, I’ll sing a cappella parts with no trouble, knowing that I can trust my perfect pitch to tell me when I’m going out of key.

For me, perfect pitch is like a hidden facet of life that I am blessed enough to be privy to, and I know only God is responsible for this. I enjoy it, and try to take care of my hearing so that I can keep using it for a long time. And in the meantime, it’s fun to pull out as a party trick (or ten)…

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