What is perfect pitch, how do I get it and which singers have it?

3 September 2018, 12:11 | Updated: 4 September 2018, 00:52

Perfect pitch
Perfect pitch. Picture: Getty

By Maddy Shaw Roberts

Having perfect pitch is a bit like being left-handed, in that people always react to it with a mix of wonder and curiosity. But what actually is perfect pitch, and what’s so great about it anyway?

What is perfect pitch?

Perfect pitch, more formally known as absolute pitch, is the ability to sing or play any note with no former reference tone.

This means that if you were to ask someone with perfect pitch to sing an ‘F’ on the spot, they would be able to reproduce it completely accurately with no guiding note.

Only about one in 10,000 people have perfect pitch, so if you do have the knack – go you.

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How do I get perfect pitch?

Some people believe you can only have ‘true’ perfect pitch by being born with it; while others think you can learn it by training as a child.

According to Brady (1970), Ward and Burns (1999) and Levitin and Rogers (2005), “training that begins after the age of 9 very rarely leads to AP [perfect pitch], and there are no known cases of an adult successfully acquiring it.”

Do you have perfect pitch? Take our test!

But it turns out that they might be wrong.

A study carried out a few years ago at the University of Chicago tested a group of students with varied amounts of musical experience, before and after a period of pitch recognition training.

The students showed significant improvement after the training, and those tested a few months later had retained the ability to recreate the notes, without any reference.

This suggests that with the correct training, adults could also learn to have perfect pitch – so if you fancy giving it a try, a good place to start would be A LOT OF PRACTICE.

Oboe player
Oboe player. Picture: Getty

And what about relative pitch?

Relative pitch is a bit different, in that it allows you to identify a note by comparing it to a reference.

It’s a lot more common among musicians, and can be as simple as asking a musician to play an ‘E’, while giving them an ‘F’ as a reference.

But it can also mean that a musician is able to recreate certain notes in the scale, through frequent exposure to them.

If you’ve played in an orchestra and have frequently heard the sound of a concert ‘A’, you might, for instance, be able to recreate that note and use it to find your way around the whole 12-tone scale.

Which musicians and singers have perfect pitch?

Some of the greatest classical composers, including Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin and Handel all had perfect pitch; but it’s not so rare in the pop world either.

Mariah Carey has it, as did Michael Jackson, Ella Fitzgerald and Bing Crosby.

Charlie Puth, for all his current popularity, was supposedly bullied at school for having perfect pitch.

“I found out that I had something 0.5 per cent of the population has, a type of perfect pitch, where I can hear notes and play them back right away,” he told The Independent.

“It was mostly verbal, like name-calling and such, the verbal stuff was massive amounts of discouragement like, ‘how could you remotely think you could make it in this industry?’, but I didn’t listen, because I knew I was pretty dope.”

Charlie Puth
Charlie Puth. Picture: Getty

But despite the aura that surrounds the words ‘perfect pitch’, it isn’t all that helpful to see it as a measure of musical ability (no offence to Charlie Puth).

Although it might be useful for recognising intervals, perfect pitch can also be a bit of a nuisance.

Because musicians with perfect pitch can recognise that a piece has been transposed from its original key, they also risk becoming irritated by pieces of music played ‘in the wrong key’.

This can be particularly problematic when it comes to playing Baroque music, as it will often be played in Baroque tuning (A = 415 Hz) rather than standard concert pitch (440 Hz), potentially ruining any musical enjoyment for no reason.

On the other hand, it makes for a pretty sweet party trick: