With many more informative links and a better structure, this refreshed post about perfect pitch is ready for anyone to read. Click and learn more about this interesting phenomenon, and the ongoing research about it!
Today, I’ll confess something that’s been rolling around in my brain: At my local Choral Society practice a few weeks ago, I was called on to produce a pitch…and seemingly missed it, by a half-step. I was supposed to produce an A-flat, but I hummed a G.
Though it may seem as though I’ve lost my gift of perfect pitch, the reality is far, far more complex. In fact, the following story strikes to the heart of any artist’s worst nightmare–crippling self-criticism. It’s a cautionary tale for anybody with artistic talent of any sort.
In The Moments Afterward: Self-Accusation Galore
“Has my perfect pitch failed me at last?” was all I could think after it happened, and has been all I can think of for the past month. After all, I have lived in fear of such a moment ever since it was discovered that I even had perfect pitch when I was 13 years old. I knew it was the wrong note the second I began to hum, but I honestly couldn’t figure out quite what was wrong with it until the pianist played a real A-flat and I discovered I was humming a G instead.
God, it felt as though someone had punched me in the stomach! I missed a note?! “What do I call myself now, ‘the girl with imperfect pitch?'” I questioned myself, bitterly. Now, to some, it may sound ludicrous, but this has been a gift I’ve defined myself by, something I’ve labeled myself with. The potential loss of that designation threatened my very identity as a musician, or even as a person.
Finding the Elusive Mistake–Was It Really a Mistake?
The moment I got home, I began to quiz myself, using the keyboard down in the basement. I shut my eyes, turned around from the keyboard, and reached behind me to strike a random note; I named the note I believed it to be, then held the note down until I could turn back around and see what note I had actually struck on the keyboard.
Every time I did this, I was right on the money, no matter what octave. Then I tested myself using intervals, singing the interval between the first and sixth notes of the scale, which is considered the hardest interval to hear correctly in musical ear training. C natural to A natural? No problem. B natural to A-flat? Nailed it–I checked it with my keyboard to be sure. Every six-note interval I hummed and then tested with the keyboard was exactly correct.
Over and over again, I have tested myself, every night for the last month; it’s been one of the many reasons for my incessant insomnia. And every time, I get the notes right; it seems my perfect pitch is just fine.
…So, the maddening question remained: what happened that night at Choral Society practice?
What Could Have Caused This?
I have racked my brain for days and weeks, trying to discover the reason. I produce the correct tones and label them correctly when I test myself; why, then, would an error show up at practice? I tried to take everything into account, trying to discover the reason why I hummed a G instead of an A-flat when I KNEW it was wrong. Some of the reasons I came up with:
- That week, I had been recovering from mild laryngitis, and my voice had not been working properly most of the night
- Many people were talking and singing snatches of song around me, causing me to lose focus
- I was trying to show off and got smacked down by a prideful mistake
- I second-guessed myself too many times and ended up with the wrong note
The first two reasons were little more than excuses, to be honest; that kind of stuff has never really gotten to my ability to produce pitches before. But as I dug deep and came up with the third answer, I thought I may be onto something. And then, there was the last reason…which, as I thought of it, rang with truth, although I didn’t quite recognize it yet. I largely ignored it, and kept looking for a physical reason my pitch naming had been off.
The Answer is Staring Right at Me
Without realizing that I had already answered my question, I finally discussed this problem with my boyfriend over a late lunch one day this past week, confessing to him my perturbation and distress, my worries that I had potentially lost the ability God had so graciously gifted to me.
My boyfriend, “Logic Man” himself, attacked the problem with his calm reasoning (which is one reason I talked to him about it). He advised that the best course of action was to have someone else test me if I didn’t believe my own test results. He also said that probably no one else had worried about it like I did.
“But they all were there–they all heard the mistake!” I found myself arguing. “They all HEARD that it was wrong!”
“You heard that it was wrong,” he replied. “They may not have been able to tell, and even if they could, why would they remember such a petty thing?”
“Because I’m not supposed to miss notes,” I replied, and I was beginning to cry by this point. “It’s supposed to be PERFECT pitch, not ‘imperfect’ or ‘most-of-the-time’ pitch. If it’s gone–”
“You said yourself you’ve tested your ear over and over,” he said, in that calm but firm way of his. “It’s not gone.”
That stuck with me, as I drove home and began to work on other things. I HAD tested myself, over and over, and gotten the same results–my perfect pitch manifested itself repeatedly, correctly identifying musical notes. …But I had done so in the safe confines of my own home–i.e., not in the presence of other individuals who could hear, and who could potentially critique me.
I’ve never had stage fright, to my knowledge, and I have always been confident while performing onstage, whether I’m singing, acting, or playing the piano. But an unlikely parallel flashed into my mind as I thought about this; I remembered being called on to answer a question in math class.
In math classes, I was always terrified to answer questions aloud for fear my answer was incorrect–I knew the jeers and insults I would get from my classmates if my answer was wrong. Thus, I began to get paralyzed with anxiety about my math homework, knowing I would be called on to read out at least one of the answers in class. Some days I got the whole blasted assignment–all 30 questions–wrong because my anxiety held me hostage. Yet, when I was unhurried and doing work that would not be called out in class, I answered most problems correctly.
I began to put the pieces together. I had been doubting my perfect pitch for at least two years, afraid that I was losing it due to hearing damage or sickness or whatever else. And then I was called on suddenly to check a pitch, like checking my math homework. I remembered how I second-guessed and third-guessed and fourth-guessed myself in the seconds before I produced that fateful G…and I remembered how I KNEW WITHOUT A DOUBT it was WRONG the moment I began to sing it. Instinct was veritably screaming in my head that it was wrong wrong wrong, yet by then I lacked the confidence to trust it.
Second-Guessing, Self-Doubt, and Anxiety
Second-guessing ourselves is something many of us do, even without realizing it. But it’s a dangerous, anxiety-causing practice, which worms its way into your confidence and begins to eat it away. In my case, I had been doubting my perfect pitch ability because of my second-guessing, and it had quite honestly become a source of great anxiety–living in abject, paralyzing fear of the moment I miss a note. (That might sound stupid, but as I said, this is a large part of my identity and it means a great deal to me.)
Once I started doubting myself and losing confidence in my ability, even with no proof that it was faulty, I began second-guessing the pitch names that my brain came up with by instinct. Soon, even the easiest pitches to guess became anxiety machines–“am I SURE this is the right note? Am I ABSOLUTELY POSITIVELY SURE?” I always thought.
There was the answer. Anxiety, the thing which had tormented me during all my math and some science classes, had finally attacked me on another vulnerable front: my musical ability. It had caused me to doubt things that should never have been in doubt, and in so doing had wrecked my self-confidence. “What if I’m losing my gift?” I had wondered over and over again. In that light, the fateful G seemed like a self-fulfilling prophecy, but it was really an example of anxiety holding me hostage, making me second-guess myself so much that I was kept from producing the correct answer.
The bottom line: My gift is not lost…but my self-confidence is, because of second-guessing and nothing else. Seems so little and simple, when you define it like that, but it can have a very big impact indeed, as I found out that night.
Why Do I Call This a Cautionary Tale?
I believe this kind of self-doubting anxiety can strike any artist, not just a musician, and not just people with perfect pitch like me. Self-doubt can ultimately lock away our ability to function creatively; it can make us dread making our art, or make us judge our art too harshly. We become irrationally afraid that we’ve somehow “lost our touch,” that “the Muse is gone,” that we are mere shells of the artists we once were.
My story, silly and meandering as it may sound, is a warning. If you are an artist of any sort, don’t you ever let anxious self-doubt get to you. It may seem like a small and paltry doubt at first, but if you let it grow, it will eat your confidence for breakfast and defecate depression before you know it. Soon, you’ll feel too anxious to do your creative work, to do the things you once loved…or you might find yourself making a very silly error, as I did, because you’ve second- and third-guessed yourself. If you get too anxious about your gift being gone, you might just fool yourself into believing it’s true.
Last year, I referred to colors and music as being completely intertwined in my head–it’s a positive condition known as synesthesia, or as I like to refer to it, my “brain feature.” Every time I listen to music, my inner sight explodes in colors; it has always been this way, even when I was a very little girl and wasn’t as involved with the production of music as I am these days.
Though I’ve shared this particular picture with you before, here is my complete, colored piano scale, created by my combination of perfect pitch and synesthesia:
This pitch-color connection is an instantaneous response to music, something I don’t have to think about to “see;” it’s just there. And today, I thought I’d share some of that experience, in the form of created images capturing the colors of various musical chords.
(Before we begin, please excuse the relatively low artistic quality of these images; I can’t quite seem to recapture exactly how each chord “looks” to me when it is played, but I have done my best. :P)
To me, B-flat, whether major or minor, has always had a little shade of darkness to it on the “left” side of the pitch; it’s not sad or evil darkness, just kind of shaded. Here, the B-flat major chord is described, with shadowy teal, light blue, and bright green (B-flat, D, and F, respectively).
The 80s called and said they want their pastel palette back. LOL! This is how B minor looks in my head–a wash of lilac and white in the background (the note of B, with the lightness of the major chord), with a little light blue (D) and deep blue-green (F-sharp) mixed in. It’s a gracefully beautiful key, but also somewhat reserved and icy-feeling.
C major has always appeared bright and colorful in my head–almost too colorful! The golden-yellow C, the pale pink E, and the bright red G are a bit jarring together; this color combination is probably why I associate C major with childhood, especially toys. But you can’t say C major isn’t cheerful enough! 😛
In stark contrast to the brightness of C major, C minor has always seemed broodingly dark, even a little slinky, especially with the red of G combined with the red-orange of E-flat and the gold-to-black gradient in the background. (The added darkness in the background is nearly always present in my head when minor chords are played, excepting B minor.)
This is the only key for which very bright silver sparkles appear scattered across the background; I’ve done a poor imitation here, but this gives some idea. The bright green of F and the rich blue of A-flat do not overpower the deep violet and silvery shimmer of the background, which is possibly one reason this is my favorite key to hear music in.
I love both the major and minor keys of C-sharp, and with good reason–the tones are beautiful, as are the color combinations in my head. In its minor form, C-sharp’s violet is darker, with less emphasis on the sparkles in the background, and the light-pink E adds a more monochromatic dimension to the chord color. I can become wrapped in the chord very easily…it’s melancholy and yet beautiful.
F major, like C major, is very bright and happy, with the off-white A and deep golden C accenting the vibrant green F. It feels festive and unapologetic, which might be one reason I’ve always associated the key of F major with celebrations and lots of people.
Can’t miss G major! :O What an explosion of nearly-patriotic colors, with the powerful red G, soft lavender B, and bright blue D. This key feels energetic and powerful, even when it’s used for an easygoing song–I guess it’s all that red. xD (Odd fact: as American as this particular chord palette looks, it’s interesting to note that our national anthem is usually sung in A-flat major instead of G major. Oh well, there’s no accounting for my brain’s sound-color associations!)
To Learn More About Synesthesia
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.
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.
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)…