What is Perfect Pitch? Do You Have It?

A person who possesses perfect pitch has the ability to either sing or name any note without hearing a reference note. This rare cognitive ability can be a blessing and a curse.
A person who possesses perfect pitch has the ability to either sing or name any note without hearing a reference note. This rare cognitive ability can be a blessing and a curse. MarsBars / Getty Images

Perfect pitch (also referred to as absolute pitch) is the incredibly rare ability of a person to instantaneously identify or sing any given musical note without a reference pitch. It is estimated that 1/10,000 people in the USA are born with this cognitive trait. There are two types of perfect pitch: active and passive. A person with active perfect pitch is able to sing or hum any given pitch; that is, if they are asked to sing a B flat without hearing the said note or any reference note, they can sing it without any problem.

If a person with passive perfect pitch is asked to sing the same B flat note, they cannot. However, if a random note is played for them, a person with passive perfect patch will be able to name it without any problem.

You Know You Have Perfect Pitch If:

  • You are able to name a musical note played on any instrument, including musical tones emanating from common objects like the hum of a kitchen appliance, car horn, and/or doorbell.
  • You are able to identify the key signature of any given piece of music.
  • You are able to sing any note without a reference pitch.
  • You are able to name multiple notes played simultaneously.

The Pros and Cons of Perfect Pitch

For many, perfect pitch can be a blessing and a curse at the same time. On the plus side, the possessor of perfect pitch can tune a musical instrument without aid, correctly judge whether or not a piece of music is being played in the correct key, and identify specific instruments as playing in or out of tune.

This skill would certainly come in handy for a piano tuner, instrument maker, or conductor.  On the negative side, those with perfect pitch are likely to find it harder to enjoy music. They can hear all of a performance’s flaws in intonation. What's more, if the performance is played in a key other than the original, those with perfect pitch will likely find it to be cringe inducing.

 In their mind, they already know what the performance should sound like as far as pitch is concerned, so anything they hear is going to be compared to their internal tuning fork. Basically, anything that doesn't align to their mind's perfect pitch will sound out of tune. For some, that's as bad as nails on a chalk board.

Can You Learn the Ability of Perfect Pitch

To possess active perfect pitch, one must be born with the trait. Though there are many opinions on whether or not perfect pitch can be learned, most agree that someone born without it can train themselves to have relative pitch instead.

What is Relative Pitch?

Relative pitch is an ability to sing or name any note as long as you have a reference note.  For example, if someone plays middle C on a piano, a person with relative pitch can sing or name any other note based on hearing that middle C. With a little education, they will also be able to construct chords, harmonies, and melodies based on the reference note. Most musicians have relative pitch.  You'd be hard pressed to find a great musician without it. Possessing relative pitch allows them to play songs by ear as well as improvise on the spot if a performance is mistakenly played in the wrong key, or if the conductor or lead musician wants to change the key or instrumental tuning.

 Because they have relative pitch, it will be easier for them to perform in musical groups, including quartets, orchestras, and choirs.  Unlike perfect pitch, relative pitch is something everyone can learn with enough training and practice.

Famous Possessors of Perfect Pitch