I have perfect pitch, also known as absolute pitch. People often ask me questions about how it works and feels, so here's my attempt.

If you have questions you'd like to see me answer here, or want to share your own experience, please let me know. For some reason, most of the website mail I get is about this page; it must end up high in the search engines or something. Anyway, chances are I won't have time to directly respond to you, but I may update the list of questions here.

What is absolute pitch?

Having absolute pitch means that I can hear a note and tell you that it's a G, or an E flat, or whatever. The analogy I often make is to color; just as you see an apple and know it's red without thinking about it, I hear a note and know it's an E flat. There's no conscious thought process involved.

How did you develop it?

I don't know. I don't remember ever not having it. I was probably 5 or 6 when I realized that not everyone could identify pitch.

The people I've met who can identify pitch seem to fall into two categories. One consists of people like me who have just always had the ability. They all started playing musical instruments while very young (5 years old or younger). Their pitch is generally like mine; they hear a note and Just Know what it is.

The other category consists of people who have consciously acquired the ability at a later age. They tend to identify pitch by having one or two reference pitches in their head (typically an open string on a violin, or something). When they hear a pitch, they can compare it to the reference pitch, see what the interval between the two pitches is, and calculate the pitch that they heard from that. It seems to be much more of a conscious thing, though people can become pretty quick at it.

How good is your pitch perception?

Actually, for someone with 'perfect pitch', not very. For example, I can't say, "That's a C, but it's 20 cents sharp," like some people can. (A cent is 1/100th of the way from one pitch to the next closest pitch.) My pitch sense is very discrete. I basically have twelve buckets, and every note I hear goes into one bucket. I can get fooled if you give me a note that's in between pitches.

Is it a good or a bad thing?

I think it's a great thing. Occasionally you see people complain about having it, because it's easy to be confused by a cappella singing or pieces played with 'original instruments' (which are pitched lower). Which is true, but I'd still rather have it than not.

Sometimes I see someone claim that perfect pitch is a bad thing because the hearer concentrates on the individual pitches too much and not enough on the music. I think that's nonsense. Does knowing how to spell ruin your perception of others' speech?

Last updated 10 September 1998
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