“Perfect” Pitch

Spoiler Alert: Absolute pitch has virtually no impact in your future musical success.

Right now, there’s a video going viral of a kid with absolute or “perfect” pitch undergoing “the hardest ear training test of all time.”

Absolute pitch is the ability to recognize pitches the way you or I recognize colors. Practice and some vestigial brain function together seem to make the difference. This might be the “hardest ear training test” for you or me, but for the boy in the video, it’s no different than asking him what colors are in a Rothko painting.

If you have absolute pitch, it can certainly be a tool should you pursue music. But there are a number of reasons why it might be as much a hindrance as a help.

  • Early success and praise can often make people afraid of the practice skills they need to get better.
  • Dogmatic insistence on pitch can get in the way of collaboration with other musicians.
  • Prioritizing the mathematically precise over the musically fluid is not a recipe for making a great musician.

I want to be clear: this is a fun video of a remarkable boy with a rare and special talent. I am writing this because I have a lot of students who would watch it and lose heart: “Why bother, when an eight-year-old can already do this?”

To which we must reply, “But you can do things that boy may never be able to do.”

In writing this post, I came across a Mental Floss article titled 10 People with Perfect Pitch. It’s telling how little-understood and too-venerated absolute pitch is that several of them are asserted to have it with no foundation. (They even put Bing Crosby on the list for a story from Hoagy Carmichael of Bing “snarling slightly in perfect pitch to the train whistle.” This is at odds with stories of Bing not knowing what key he sang White Christmas in!) The article ends, “Julie Andrews, long rumored to have perfect pitch, has denied it on a couple of occasions.”

The author finds it hard to believe that a great singer is telling the truth that she doesn’t have absolute pitch. But I don’t doubt her.

What Andrews had was early and intense voice training, plus lots of hard work. Not mystical or glamorous, but something every one of us can do. (Her recent autobiography discusses her early professional life in detail. Listen to her Terry Gross interview here.)

Don’t use absolute pitch as an excuse not to pursue music: it’s not “perfect”, and it’s not an predictor of success.