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Perfect Pitch: Pros & Cons

13 May 2014

Ear Note by Molly GermaineThe “ear for music” is a mysterious and unexplained thing. For the first time you may face this phenomenon when enrolling your child into a music school. The procedure of checking whether the kid has an ear for music or not usually looks as follows: a certain melody is played on the piano and the child is asked to sing to it. Besides that, depending on the amount of your luck, the entrance examination may also include having to repeat a rhythmic pattern, perform a popular song, or, if you are out of luck, to name all the notes. While ‘ear for music’ is a popular term, the ‘absolute pitch’ or ‘perfect pitch’ is normally heard only within the circle of professional musicians. I first heard it myself while taking exam at the music school for gifted children. Here’s how it happened.

The examiner, a skeptically disposed teacher, asked me to name the note I had just heard.

– But how can I name the note if you didn’t allow me to hear the tonality?! – I asked, surprised.

– Just like that. Simply tell me what note do you think it was – the teacher replies.

– Hm… but how can I know?! – I think to myself, and say aloud: – Perhaps, E…

For the next few seconds a silence settled, disturbed only by the ticking of the wall clock over the piano that suddenly seemed so deafeningly loud.

– E-flat, - the examiner pronounces slowly and watches me closely.

That was the only time when I got close to feeling that special kind of attention that’s given to children with perfect pitch. Why the only time, you’ll ask? Simply because I do not have perfect pitch. I have a very common music ear, and the (almost) correctly guessed note was just a lucky coincidence.

The curious thing is that many scientists interpret the perfect pitch as an inborn-only ability to ‘imagine’ sounds and define their pitch. And, as strange as it may sound, already from birth this ability can be “developed to different extents”. For instance, someone can define the notes played on piano only, or even played in a certain range only. Others can hear the pitch regardless of the tone color, up to hearing “at what pitch” the door creaks or the bee buzzes. But in both cases the distinctive feature of such an exceptional ear for music is its inborn nature.

My solfeggio class consisted of 12 pupils, all of which, except a boy and me, had perfect pitch. I had to do the melodic dictations “by feel”, silently singing each sound to myself and counting the needed notes from the key tones of the scale. While I needed about 8 playbacks for all the calculations and 1-2 more additional revisions, my classmates needed only 2-3 playbacks, even though the teacher prohibited making notes while the music played.

Camino del Lago del Valle by Ignorant WalkingBut there are two faces to everything. I noticed an interesting peculiarity: children with a perfect pitch often have difficulties with music theory. And here’s why. Imagine that theoretical studies are a long way from the bottom of the mountain to its peak. The way itself would be the study of the theoretical basics – the structure of intervals and chords, their relations, roles in tonality, etc. While reaching the peak would mean the ability to solve a musical task, in our case – the correct writing down of a melodic dictation or defining the chords in a harmonic chain. Those who know the theory can distinguish the sounds played in a music fragment on the basis of their theoretical knowledge. And the perfect pitch kids would have to go all the way up from analysis to solution.

Such pupils can be compared to travelers who were taken to the top on a helicopter and who don’t know how to find their way back down. I often observed the following situation: those with a perfect pitch, when asked to name the chords, could name the notes but couldn’t explain their harmonic functions. It was pretty clear to me: why do they need to learn the functions if they can already hear the notes played? Nevertheless, the teachers were of a different opinion and the perfect pitch wasn’t protecting anyone from a bad mark.

Just like travelers, after conquering a mountain peak, get some fit muscles as a bonus, perfect pitch holders, on their way to develop it and master musical relations for solving a musical task, receive theoretic music thinking as a reward.

In conclusion, I’d like to address all those who haven’t been given the absolute pitch by mother nature: in the end, it doesn’t matter how many talents you’ve got, but the way you multiply them does. There are many ways to conquer the peak. It is important to understand which way leads you up there and stick to it until the peak yields to you.

Photos: "Ear Note" by Molly Germaine, "Camino del Lago del Valle" by Ignorant Walking. Source:

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