Music Geekdom: Absolute Pitch

June 11, 2009

One of the greatest things about being married to another musician is that we can go way deep into music geekdom in our conversations. I’m currently re-reading a very interesting book that Jason recommended to me years ago and I started but never finished. It’s called Musicophilia and it’s written by Dr. Oliver Sacks, a neurologist and author who writes about some of the most fascinating medical things. (Click here to read more about him and his subjects.) This book happens to be about music and the brain.

Most of the time as I’m reading along in the book, Dr. Sacks talks about crazy musical disorders (or heightened experiences, at least) that are fascinating but completely foreign — people who hallucinate music, people who cannot differentiate pitches, people for whom musical tonality and color are inexorably linked. And I’m reading, thinking, wow, that’s so cool or so strange, but it’s just a curiosity. And then I came across the chapter on “absolute pitch,” and suddenly I couldn’t put the book down.

Most of us talk about “absolute pitch” as “perfect pitch.” I don’t have it. By definition, it’s a condition (state of being? state of understanding? state of awareness?) whereby a person hears (or sees) a pitch and knows absolutely what it is. If you ask a person with perfect pitch to sing you an A, he can do it, pull it out of the air, unrelated to any other sound. He can even do it if there is currently music playing in the background in a different key. An A is just an A and is always an A.

As Dr. Sacks was writing about “absolute pitch,” he made reference to “the essential F-sharpness of an F-sharp.” In a silent room, I started to hear a note, which I guess was suggested by the reading of that sentence. Curiously, I went to the piano to check it out. Sure enough, it was an F-sharp.

I started thinking about absolute pitch and realized that while I don’t have it, I do fall closer to it on the spectrum than other musicians might. When I was music directing “Avenue X,” a fascinating a cappella musical written by John Jiler and Ray Leslee, I was called on to lead the cast through an entire evening of singing in eight-part harmony with no instrumental accompaniment. We did really cool things like build pitch pipes into the set and identify the musical tone of every piece of metal on the stage, but our ears got trained really quickly to listen to each other, and I found myself more sensitive than usual to pitch and tuning. During the run of that production, I could always pull a D out of the air, because there were several places in the show where the success of a number depended on the actors starting on a D chord. To this day, if I need to find a D, I sing Virginia Woodruff’s solo in the second act that starts “… There are dreams that die….” They are all Ds, and I can always find them.

When I hear something played on the piano, I can usually tell you what key it’s in. I’ve been playing the piano for thirty years (THIRTY YEARS? OH MY GOD.) and I think the timbre of one note sounds different from the timbre of the next one. But if you played the same piece of music on string quartet or in a vocal ensemble I might not be able to tell. And my ear is not foolproof. I’ve just got a really good track record for guessing.

In church, sometimes they print the hymns in one key and our organist will play them in another key. It totally freaks me out, because I can tell that what I’m seeing and what I’m hearing are not the same. And yet, if you just put the piece of music in front of me and asked me to sing it, I’d get the intervals right but I’d probably be in the wrong key.

And as far as keys having colors attached to them, I’ve never had anything as clear as “D-major is blue” or “D-major is yellow,” as Dr. Sacks explains on his website. (Watch “Bright Blue Music” here.) But to me, sharp keys are bright and flat keys are moody and C-major sounds like a blank piece of paper. In our music geek conversations, I have come to discover that my husband doesn’t think of music this way at all. I choose keys because of how they sound and what they evoke. He chooses keys based on what instruments will be playing them. (Some keys are better for strings, better for guitars, better for brass, better for saxes. It just depends.) We’re both right.

I’m pretty sure that I have a strong and evolved sense of relative pitch, not absolute pitch, but now I’m fascinated to hear what you think, what you experience, and how you think about pitch. I know that when I forget to put my seatbelt on in the car, it beeps thirty Gs at me. (Annoying, because I hear them in 4/4 time and it always stops mid-measure.)

How much of a music geek are you?

13 thoughts on “Music Geekdom: Absolute Pitch”

  1. Fredrik Fischer on said:

    This was by far the most interesting piece on music I’ve read in quite a while. It is always so fascinating to hear an artist’s perspective on their craft, especially in this degree of detail.

    Being an avid listener of music as well as sometime dabbler in the very outskirts of composition, I’ve thought quite a lod about these things. For instance, from a very early age (actually, some of my earliest memories), I’ve always been able to “see” music when I hear it. I can’t say that a certain key gives me a certain visual impression – there are no strict rules to this – but some kind of regularity exists in that, for example, pieces that are heavy in the tonal bass department (like a song or work with a prominent double bass) usually turn out reddish, although colours don’t really catch it, either. It is a mixture of vision and physical feeling. The first movement of Brahms’ first symphony is in a sort of light-blue hue, at least to begin with. It feels open. Which is also true of “Life Is Not A Camera” (although that is distinctly light purple song – don’t ask me why…). The prelude to “Next to Normal” is a bright white, with a burst of fire. And so forth. (The fact that I’m almost totally blind complicates the matter even further.)

    Some people assume, for some reason, that I and all other blind or visually impaired people who know their way around a piano (or other instrument) have absolute pitch (I guess it has to do with the fact that a lot of piano tuners in the old days were blind – not the case, anymore, if anyone was wondering). This is complete nonsense. I know I have rather a good relative pitch, but it’s nothing anyone would call absolute. And I consider myself a rather musical person. Tone deafness (or whatever you want to call it) is just as common among the visually challenged as among other people. Just for the record.

    I could go on forever. And probably will. But some other time.

  2. William on said:

    I’m a singing geek with very little musical abilities (in terms of playing music). After years of singing in choirs, shows, & church, my skills of reading music on the spot are weak. I’m a learn-by-doing kinda guy. Give me a musical director & a rehearsal or two and I can learn music right quick. Asking me to learn it on my own is another story. Not having the know how to even pluck out notes on a piano has been a hindrance, especially as a freelance director of musicals, but we’ve made due. Regardless of my pitfalls, I’m a geek nonetheless. That “absolute pitch” stuff is extremely interesting. Thanks for sharing, Georgia!

  3. Rachel Velarde on said:

    I am also a fan of “Musicophilia.” I also recommend Daniel Levitan’s book “This Is Your Brain on Music.” It’s a fascinating look more at the physiology of the brain and the biology of the brain as it relates to music creation.
    I don’t have absolute pitch, but as a professional classical singer I try as much as possible to really know my notes. I have found, through time, that when I REALLY know a piece well it is physically “in the voice.” I can start it at any point in time (regardless of background noise) & be on the correct pitch. I think this has to do with both the sound of the pitch and also the physicalization of the pitch. I am a kinesthetic learner. I know I’ve practiced a piece “enough” when I can sing it a cappella in the correct key without ever having checked my starting pitch. A complement to that is if I start a piece even 1/2 step off, within very few measures I know that something is wrong and I need to go and check my notes. I try to practice a cappella as much as possible for two big reasons. One, knowing my pitch – there are often times when onstage you can’t hear the orchestra (or the orchestra’s doing something a little bit odd) – is essential to a good performance. Second, if I’m always singing with an instrument, then I can’t REALLY tell what I’m doing and it’s much easier to let the minute details that make an impeccable performance slide.
    Thank you for this post. It’s greatly appreciated (as is your artistry).

  4. Melissa L. on said:

    Hey, my car rings B flat!

    I’ve always envied those with perfect pitch, but I know it’s something you’re pretty much born with. I’m obsessed with my pitch pipe and I’d say that I have decent relative pitch, but that’s largely due to the fact that I’ve memorized what different notes feel like in my voice.

    But my husband DOES have underdeveloped perfect pitch! It bothers him to no end when I mindlessly sing a jingle in the wrong key. He can’t necessarily tell you what an A sounds like, but he whistles random songs in their correct keys and can play along to anything on the guitar without having to first fish for the key.
    What a cool cool talent!

  5. Nicole on said:

    In church, sometimes they print the hymns in one key and our organist will play them in another key. It totally freaks me out, because I can tell that what I’m seeing and what I’m hearing are not the same. And yet, if you just put the piece of music in front of me and asked me to sing it, I’d get the intervals right but I’d probably be in the wrong key.

    This absolutely drives me nuts in church. Though I do think reading the hymnal for fun which I do sometimes is a little crazy, but I digress.

    I have this book, I started the first chapter, but I got busy with life and other books, but this post has made me want to go dig it out and start reading it again tonight.

  6. David O on said:

    OK – complete music geek here.

    Have not read this book, but now it is way up on my list because I’ve always been fascinated with the music/neurology connection.

    I’ve never considered myself to have had perfect pitch, but I’ve had many similar experiences to yours, Georgia, where I pick a pitch out of thin air without thinking too much about it, or am aware just by listening when music is being transposed.

    One theory I have developed, mainly after years of working musically with “non-musicians,” is that many more people have perfect pitch than give themselves credit. There have been actors I have worked with, non-trained musically, who get COMPLETELY thrown when a song is transposed, and who have to essentially relearn the song from scratch. I’ve come to believe that these people have perfect pitch, but don’t know it. Picture it this way: if you had the uncanny ability to know exactly how fast you were travelling in a car, but were completely unexperienced as a driver, and likely terrified of driving, you’d never know you had that ability, would you? That’s how I think of non-musicians with perfect pitch.

    In terms of different keys having different colors/characters – I am totally a fan of finding the right key for a piece of music that I am writing, based on my particular emotional/spiritual reaction to that key, and then if it doesn’t sit well for a particular instrument or singer… too bad for them, they are clearly the wrong instrument or singer (no offense).

    That’s enough geeking out for now…

  7. Tom Kitt on said:

    As someone with perfect pitch, I am always so fascinated to hear how other musicians “hear” the world, so to speak. I have had perfect pitch as far back as I remember, so I don’t know the other side of things. What I can tell you is that when I first realized I had it, I thought it was a memorization of sound, and that anyone could do it who listens to music or is exposed to it long enough. I was shocked to realize that this wasn’t the case. The keys do have a strong color driven sense to me. C is a nice bright red, while D is blue, and G is orange. I do agree that the flats have darker more moody colors, as you said.

    My perfect pitch is also rooted in A=440. When I first heard original instrument recordings, they would torture me, always feeling like the entire orchestra was flat. I remembered once playing along with an ensemble on a piano that was exactly one half tone flat, which was the biggest mind fuck ever! In any case, I am so grateful to have it since I find it’s uses to be incredibly helpful (being able to teach away from the piano, write music in other places, orchestrate away from the piano, etc.) but it does have it’s few annoyances, like the very visible reactions I make when something is off, and of course, it is never my intention to show anyone that reaction.

    It is still the crazy realization that the way I hear things is not the way it is for other people, and that is the strangest thing to me.

  8. Jasmine Miles on said:

    This is a fascinating topic. I’m closer to the “can’t hear pitch” end of the spectrum, and I’m not a musician per se, but I appreciate music, enjoy singing, and can sometimes hear a C in the air and sing it correctly. I imagine that anyone who lives and breathes music gets closer to “absolute pitch” throughout the years. Its the same was an artist would know exactly what orange hue would appear after mixing a certain percentage of red and yellow. I’d love to experience what it would be like to connect color to a note. I can’t begin to imagine what that would be like.

  9. amanda on said:

    First of all: cool post! 🙂

    I come from a family of music geeks, and my mother has perfect pitch while I have relative pitch. This leads to all sorts of family music-geek-out conversations/smackdowns, where we discuss which of the two gifts is actually more helpful (she can pull pitches out of thin air; I can play transposing keyboards without driving myself crazy).

    My theory: whether you have perfect pitch vs. relative pitch (as they are normally defined) has a lot to do with how you learned music in the first place. I was a Suzuki violin baby, and was playing by ear from about age 2; it wasn’t until about 8 or so that I actually identified letter note names with the tones I was hearing and playing and the dots I was seeing on the page (which in my head initially corresponded to “2 on A” or “3 on D”, rather than “C” or “G” and so on). As a result, I think my brain automatically processes music in terms of numbers and intervals and how notes relate to one another, rather than how they relate to a fixed system of “A,B,C,D,E,F,G.”

    Piano players like my mother, on the other hand, are typically learning note names pretty much from day one. Instruments like piano are based on knowing where notes fit in to our standard musical notation system (this pitch is a “C”, this pitch is an “F#”, etc., rather than “here is what a perfect 5th — or tritone, as the case may be– sounds like,” or “if THIS pitch is a C than THAT pitch MUST BE an F#)

    So, it seems to me like people who are “brought up on piano” as their first means of learning music notation would be far more apt to have what is traditionally known as “perfect pitch” (being able to match a musical tone with its letter name unassisted) than someone who began their career as a string player, for example, or singer. I don’t know a lot about the psychology of this (though I’d be excited to learn more about it!), but I wonder if people’s brains are “wired” somehow to interpret music (and life, for that matter, perhaps?!?) “absolutely” OR “relatively” and that distinction determines how they will hear and think about musical pitch.

    Hmmm… What delicious food for thought!

  10. Amateur Adams on said:

    Having read this post and all the comments, I think I really need to read this book!

    I come from a family of music geeks as well. My grandma is a concert organist, and she taught me piano when I was pretty young. I always wanted to play by ear instead of reading the music, which is probably why my technical abilities are now so underdeveloped. In any case, I found a couple of things fascinating—

    Georgia, when I read your sentence about F-sharpness, I tried the same thing. Sure enough—it was an F-sharp. I think that I sort of feel my way around pitch in the same way you do. I have absolute pitch, but most of the time I can tell when things have been transposed, etc. I found your discussion of instrumentation very interesting. I am a vocalist primarily, but I also play the cello in addition to the piano. I don’t think that I can pick out pitches from the air with stringed instruments as easily as I can with a keyboard or even a vocalist, which is interesting.

    The other oddity is in reference to Tom Kitt’s comment. “C is a nice bright red, while D is blue, and G is orange.” When I was messing around with the F-sharpness thing, I also tried to listen for “colors” of different pitches, which I have heard others claim to be able to do. The “colors” that I picked up, if any, were red for C and blue for D.

    I’m 19, so I lack the professional training and ability that most true musicians have, but I think that it is interesting how certain consistencies appear across the board, no matter the age or expertise. Music is such a fascinating blessing!

    Thanks for the post.

  11. lorelei on said:

    Like Tom Kitt, it’s fascinating to hear the other side of things. Unlike him, though, I don’t associate colors with pitches. Pitches have a distinct quality like colors do, and so do keys. I know what key all music played inside my head is in, and it annoys me to no end if I realize I’ve been playing it in the wrong key in my head. An example of this is when I forgot what key “A Castle in a Cloud” from Les Miserables was in, and I kept playing it in Bb minor instead of A minor.
    However, on the transposition, you can make it easier by training yourself to play on a transposing keyboard. I remember the day I stumbled on the transposing function: I played a C and out came a D. I was really confused, until I realized why this was happening. Once I was able to play with the transpose funtion on, I realized I could also transpose music in my head, which lets me e.g. sing hymns in church that are transposed. It actually helps transposing instead of hindering it, if used properly.

  12. learning perfect pitch on said:

    You can have perfect pitch , go about it like this, learn the standard 440 even if you have to use a tuner. then get a chart that will show you open tunings and that will help you more then you think. sure we all have perfect pitch, we just have to develop it…..Good luck

  13. rod on said:

    What a fascinating topic. I think musicians can retain a pitch in memory over a very short time. Once they get to playing a certain amount, like a couple hours every day, and they have played or listened to the same thing many many times, the pitches played get moved to a longer term memory, which I call the conveyor belt memory. The pitches go round and round and round and you can pluck them out of your head at will. This is the same thing as a song stuck in your head. But the conveyor belt is a cruel use it or lose it memory.

    Now the perfect pitch memory, that seems to reside in a permanent place.

    Something else I read that fascinates me: why is it that almost anyone can sing back a tone in the correct pitch? How do the brain instructions to the voice avoid the need to know what pitch to belt out?

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