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Perfect Pitch - what's it like?

When I was 11, I began learning the alto sax. I only really started it because in primary school I played the recorder, and the saxophone felt like the next step up. I absolutely loved it, but it was very different to how I imagined it to be. For instance at that age, I hadn't expected that there was any breathing technique involved, or that there was a lot of instrument maintenance involved to keep the instrument in good condition. I had incredibly minor musical knowledge at the time.

But in my very first sax lesson, something very wierd happened. The first note I learned was a B, but it didn't sound like the same B I remembered from when I played the recorder. At first, I thought there was just something wrong with my saxophone. But after learning a few more notes, I realised I had the same problem. I didn't say anything to my saxophone teacher - I went home and tested my theory out for myself. I played a note on the saxophone, and then used my piano at home to try to match up the note I'd heard on the saxophone with a note on the piano. I realised the notes followed a clear pattern, but I couldn't really describe it at the time because I had such little musical knowledge, so I knew nothing about key signatures and transposing.

I was quite a big fan of Greenday in those days, and particularly liked the song Boulevard of Broken Dreams. After listening to it enough times, eventually I managed to match up the notes I heard with the notes on the sax. So I learned to play the piece, and performed it in a school concert when I was 12 while playing along to the CD.

Then I joined the local music school's Concert Band. Only then I learned that all the different instruments were in a different key, and that you had to transpose the music to play it in a different key. From listening to songs on the radio and identifying what notes were used in the songs, I had got much better at identifying a note by its sound alone. My friend at the time who played the clarinet had a very different part to mine in one particular piece, but I could remember her entire part to the piece, and could play it off by heart with so little effort. And yet it fascinated me that the notes I heard were so different to the notes I read in her score.

Later, I got a new saxophone teacher. There was a time when he made me focus particularly on scales. Simple scales like G major, C major, F major and D major I learnt by remembering how many sharps or flats were in the scale, just like anyone would. But when it came to complicated scales, I had a different system. For example, if I wanted to play E major, I wouldn't think of it as having 4 sharps. It's really difficult to explain, but I would think of it the way I would think of G major because an E played on the alto saxophone is a G in concert pitch. So I would play the scale from how it sounds - not from the technical names of the notes. Believe me, it's much easier. But my teacher hadn't told me about this method, so I decided to ask him about it.

He told me I'd have to learn all of the scales off by heart, and how many sharps and flats are in each one. So I asked, "but surely it's easier for some of the scales to think of it how sounds in concert pitch," and he looked at me like I was mad. But then it finally clicked.
"You have perfect pitch?"
"I have what?"

So there you have it. I had no idea what it was at the time, but then I learnt that it was the ability to recreate a note without any reference to the sound of the note or a relative note. But that sounded much more complicated than it was to me. All I knew was that I could remember what each note sounds like in my head, so if someone asked me to hum a B, for example, I could do it. Or if someone played a note on an instrument, I could tell them what it was in concert pitch.

However, it has its downsides. For example, when singing, it really annoys me when people sing out of tune or starting on the wrong note. Also, it means that if we sing unaccompanied, I know the piece note for note (for example it starts on an F, then goes to a Bb, etc), whereas my friend, who is really good at singing, learns to sing a piece from the intervals of the notes, so she could sing the same piece easily in a different key, while I would have a lot of difficulty in doing that. Also, my friends sometimes sing really out of tune to deliberately annoy me; it just feels like it hurts my head!

But now that my musical knowledge has been greatly broadened, I know a lot more about perfect pitch and what I can do. It helped me a lot when I took my grade 5 theory exam with the composing part because I can hear the piece in my head as it would sound before I write it down. My favourite band now is Good Charlotte, and now I can play along to any of their songs on the sax because I can recognise what key the song is in. Therefore I also improvise pretty well because I can hear the music in my head before I play it. I can now play a number of well known songs, and write the music down on a score. I play the sax at church now, but even though all of the music is written in concert pitch, I don't need to write it all out in Eb major to play on the sax because I can transpose the music as I go. I found that really difficult at first, but after a little practice, it just feels natural. When my friends and I go carol singing at Christmas, we read the music from the score, so it's really useful that I can hum the first note before we start so that we sing it in the right key. Also, only just recently I've been able to pitch percussion - my friends would tap a table, and I could match the sound up with a note in my head. It sounds pretty wierd, but it's not really that difficult.

From what I know, perfect pitch is something that you can't just learn unless you are born with the ability. I couldn't just pitch a note from the day I was born - I had to learn it, but the point is, very few people can learn it. I've never met anyone else myself who has perfect pitch, so I can't really talk to anyone about what it's like without them thinking that I've gone loopy. I guess my friends think I'm a little crazy because I prefer some key signatures to others, but it's only because only I can really understand the difference in sound between them.

So this is my story. I hope it answers any queries about perfect pitch, but if you have any questions or just comments, I'll be happy to answer them.


  1. oLahav saidTue, 14 Apr 2009 21:46:10 -0000 ( Link )

    Great story. I wish I had perfect pitch… or relative pitch… or anything. I don’t even know the basic notes. Yet I still enjoy playing guitar and singing. Cool.

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  2. StaticEmpire saidFri, 19 Jun 2009 01:08:52 -0000 ( Link )

    Golly gosh. If I had perfect pitch it would make playing so much easier… Lucky you – you go for it and do the best you can with your gift!

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  3. Angelslow saidSat, 23 Jun 2012 19:41:09 -0000 ( Link )

    Finally I’ve found someone else!

    I have perfect pitch and I would be delighted to discuss any of your questions with you. I first discovered that I had it when I was in 3rd grade and my piano teacher asked me to do some ear training for our annual Syllabus exam. I had always done well, but this year I had to name a perfect fourth and fifth, so I was talking to myself, saying “C to F… that’s a… perfect fourth”. She realized that I could tell what any note was that was played on the piano, or any other instrument for that matter. I can tell what noise a siren can make, or what sound a glass makes when ice clinks on it. It’s annoying and amazing all at once. I’ve always wondered what it’s like to not have that trait, but every time I mention it, people think I’m crazy.

    Next, I have a quick question for you. Do the notes have certain colors associated with them for you? In my opinion, F is purple, G is green, D is yellow, E is gray, A is white, C is red. I have never met any one else with perfect pitch and I tried explaining this to my mom but I could tell that she couldn’t understand. Please feel free to email me at oliviapaulson@gmail.com but please put “Perfect Pitch Answers” in the subject line so I will know it is not spam!

    Thanks,
    I’ve heard that absolute pitch is one in every 10,000 people, so I’m so happy to have met someone else who has this talent.
    Olivia

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