Perfect Pitch – An Absolute Waste of Time?

by Gary Ewer, from “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” website:

You see the ads in music magazines all the time, and they’re designed to make you feel like you’re missing out on something BIG if you don’t have perfect pitch. But what’s the real scoop?

Perfect pitch, also called absolute pitch, is the ability to recognize the exact pitch name you’re hearing without referring to a known pitch. In case you’re wondering, this is not a common ability. In my own teaching, I have found that 2% – 4% of my university-aged music students have this skill.

Perfect pitch is often compared to relative pitch. Relative pitch is the ability to recognize the relationship between pitches. Relative pitch allows you to recognize the quality of chords (major, minor, etc.), the distance between notes (perfect 5th, minor 7th, etc.), and to name notes if a reference pitch is given. (“If the first note in that melody is a G, the other notes are…”)

In most music courses, whether conservatory, university, college, or otherwise, relative pitch is the ability that is trained and honed. Perfect pitch is generally not worked on, and in my opinion, this is for a good reason. Simply put, good perfect pitch skills don’t matter as much as good relative pitch skills.

While some of the world’s greatest musicians have perfect pitch, most do not. Research shows that humans that speak tonal languages (languages where the pitch of the voice is an important consideration) have a greater chance of developing perfect pitch abilities.

So if perfect pitch is not necessary for being a great musician, why do we constantly see advertisments telling us that we can have perfect pitch for the low, low price of $250, give or take?

Beats me.

It probably stems from ignorance. There are many students of music who are confused, believing that unless they can recognize the exact pitch name of the note they’re hearing, they’re missing out on something. Let me give you an analogy that might help to put your mind at ease.

Imagine if I took a picture of your Aunt Bertha’s face, and cut it apart so that the components – the eyes, ears, mouth, etc., were rearranged, or presented to you individually. You could be forgiven for not recognizing her. In order to know it was your Aunt Bertha, you’d need to recognize each component as an entity on its own. But how important is that skill? Since you’ll never have to see Bertha with her face rearranged, it’s pretty much irrelevant.

Since it’s the relationship between notes that’s important in music, and not the absolute pitches, stop worrying, and definitely don’t waste money on a course that purports to teach you perfect pitch. Even if it were successful (and the jury is still out on that), you’ve managed to pay a lot of money for a skill that rates about as high as a neat party trick, and in my opinion will not make you a better musician.


Click here to learn how to solve your songwriting woes. Gary Ewer’s suite of 5 songwriting e-books are now available at a “bundle discount” price.
Posted in music.

9 Comments

  1. The musicians with AP are everytime less musical than the musicians with professional level of RP but the musicians with AP are able to copy music of other musicians much faster than musicians without AP. Indeed none of great composer became great thanks to being able to copy music of others faster than everybody. Absolute pitch is good for impressing the ignorant sexy ladies without music education..The rest is blah blah…

  2. Same here as Patrick, except that I didn’t buy the course. I tried the pirated version and disposed of it in disgust. The course provided the inspiration that it was learnable, but I used the melody trigger method to really get anywhere.

  3. i have perfect pitch (useful or not as that may be) and i only have it because i read a double-page ad in a music magazine trying to sell me the book (or whatever) on how to get it. methinks that guy gave too lengthy an explanation in his ad!

  4. I don’t have perfect pitch myself and I agree entirely with this article. Let me at least give some reasons why I agree:
    1. As a vocal arranger, who happens to be blind, I find that perfect pitch is completely unnecessary. I certainly don’t have it, and the many people i’ve worked with over the years who have it never seem to be any better a musician for it.

    2. I’d like to see some study stating that learning by ear is easier with perfect pitch. I can see the obvious fact that you’d instantly have a key, but I can safely say with my own work, it’d be very difficult to learn some of it by ear. I tend towards the more vocal jazz/classical standards, but I tend to mess about with the meter and such.

    3. My own background in music education seems to offer a different view. When I initially started out, I had this unusual ability to visualise music without actually seeing it. I don’t have absolute pitch, but absolute harmonic recall. Remember, I was born blind, yet I “imagine” how the music will appear. I see the notational lines as anyone might view a landscape, even though i’ve never seen one. I have good relative pitch, but it’s interesting that I am able to pick out individual harmonic lines only after hearing the score once. It’s certainly an interesting one. My memory for lyrics on the other hand…

    4. I’m not even sure it makes a difference having perfect pitch for notation work. Understanding the methodology of Bach is one thing, really understanding it is another. Copying is copying after all. Good harmonic theory is something you learn, think you understood, then through pure desperation, throw out of the window.

    Just my few points really and I realise this probably won’t get read. The joys of internet archives.

  5. Spectralmusic, I would agree that perfect pitch would help with pitch notation, and that is a particular skill I do observe with my own students who have perfect pitch.

    But I have never seen a study that shows, nor have I ever observed, that perfect pitch allows a musician to play better by ear. That is a skill better suited to those with strong relative pitch skills. The same would hold true for recalling ideas and identifying harmonies.

  6. While the ability of perfect pitch is certainly no indication of superior musicality, it is without doubt an extremely useful skill for music. Identifying the notes of pitches can be of immense help for playing instruments by ear, improved recall of music, effortless transcription of pitch notation, composition (in harnessing and recalling ideas, identifying harmonies, etc), in sound engineering applications, and so on…

  7. Weird that I was talking to friend about this same thing today. I’ve meet so many musicians that say they have “perfect pitch” and really don’t. I’m surprised by the 2-4% you find. Who cares if you can carry a C-note with you around in your pocket all day. The only plus is that you probably don’t need a tuner. Saves you 15 bucks.

  8. Completely agreed. Perfect pitch can be detrimental, too, considering those who have it may think they don’t need to attain good relative pitch. As well, what if they’re performing with instrumentalists who aren’t in tune and they’re relying on their perfect pitch? I know people who claim to have perfect pitch and they say they get bugged when a group is out of tune. Loss of appreciation for music ensues.

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