What is perfect pitch?

“Perfect pitch.” You may have heard this term thrown around if you’ve ever sung in a choir or school glee club. But what is it, actually?

So what’s perfect pitch?

To have perfect pitch means that you’re able to hit any note without anything guiding you. This is often applied to singers, but instrumentalists also use perfect pitch. It’s a distinct advantage when performing to be able to hear the notes in your head before playing them, particularly with jazz and other improvisational styles.

This talent – or skill or ability, however you want to think of it – is also known as absolute pitch (as if it couldn’t sound any more self-important).

It’s something that only one in 10,000 people are able to do, so there’s no need to despair if you haven’t been visited by the Perfect Pitch Fairy. But as mentioned earlier, the occasions are rarer and rarer when you actually need the ability. Still, it’s a good party trick and a way of dazzling and amazing your choir friends.

(But it doesn’t mean you’re perfect in every way.)

Unfortunately, many of those blessed with the ability are all too willing to tell you all about it. If someone has perfect pitch (and is aware of it), then they’ve probably already done all they can to make you aware of it too, possibly multiple times.

This isn’t to say that all “perfect pitchers” (if we can’t think of a better name for them by the end of this) are so arrogant. But once you’ve been in enough choirs, you start to notice a definite type.

Now that you’ve been warned to use your abilities for good rather than self-glorification, the question is: how useful is it really to have perfect pitch – and how does one go about getting it???

What is it good for?

One benefit of this musical power is that you can give your choir or ensemble their starting note without the need of a tuner, pitch pipe, instrument, anything – except for your own voice and highly attuned ear.

Using only their voice, someone with perfect pitch is able to provide vocal ensembles with their starting note, allowing the singers to tune directly to them. It’s a pretty cool experience if you’re the bearer of the perfect pitch, which is doubtlessly why so many singers fantasize about having this power (and why so many of those who have it… well, brag about it so much).

But in this modern age, when tuners fit easily into your pocket or can be downloaded directly onto your phone, you might be wondering how often this ability truly comes into play. To be sure, perfect pitch a great skill to have – but it’s extremely rare that you’ll ever be in a situation where there’s a desperate need for it.

True, you might be stranded without a tuner and without anything to give you a reference pitch, but that’s not very often nowadays. Although, it may be that rareness of the need that makes it all the more satisfying if you ever are able to save the day with your amazing ability.

Something to Consider

It should be noted that having perfect pitch – and choosing to use it – is a heavy responsibility. If you try and fail to give your choir their starting note, you’re likely to get everyone started in a completely wrong key. This is a surefire way to throw off the singers: Some might be unexpectedly forced to sing outside of their register without having a chance to prepare. If they’re suddenly trying to belt an energetic melody that now sits right on their vocal bridge due to the errant starting note, what could’ve been an excellent performance can quickly degrade into catastrophe.

In the worst-case scenarios, a singer might damage their vocal cords by straining to get out a note that’s too high, low, or right on their breaking point. So the bottom line is, even if you think you might have perfect pitch – make sure before you go volunteering your perfect pitching services!

If you try to have perfect pitch and fail, starting everyone out of tune, some people in the choir (who might have near-perfect pitch, or just enough familiarity with the song) might find their muscle memory in their vocal cords naturally guiding them back to the right key, while others might not get there – leading to a horribly out-of-tune group.

Maybe She’s Born With It (Maybe it’s Perfect Pitch)

If you don’t think you’re one of the perfect few, there’s some bad news for you (which may or may not be true): According to many, perfect pitch is something that you’re born with. You either have it or you don’t. But there are plenty of others who believe this is just made up by those with perfect pitch to stop others from stealing their limelight.

Here’s a video that talks about whether you can learn perfect pitch:

Relative Pitch: The Next Best Thing

“It may not be perfect, but it’ll get you there.”

Relative pitch is when you have the ability to determine any pitch after hearing at least one reference note. Obviously, this seems much less impressive than the person with perfect pitch, singing without any guidance whatsoever.

But there is a way to train yourself to have relative pitch in such a way that it effectively becomes perfect pitch. All it takes is simple ear training – which involves sitting at a piano and working your way through every interval until you’ve committed it to memory. It just takes plenty of practice, time, patience, and above all, repetition.

Use Your Music Listening as Practice Sessions

The good news is that many people have already done the practicing, but they didn’t know they were doing it. You may have just thought you were listening to your favorite song over and over again over the course of many years or even decades,
and now that song is ingrained into your brain.

If you’ve heard the song enough and already have a good enough musical ear, it’s likely that you could go into the song without any guidance – in the right key. There’s no money-back guarantee on this, but musicians tend to listen and analyze music even without meaning to.

Just by listening enough times – and singing along is even better – your brain will likely lock the pitch in, and so will your vocal cords. In that way, you can always have a reference tone to carry around with you. As long as you still have that song permanently burned into your brain, you can use that note to start with. It’s a rare instance in which having a song stuck in your head is a good thing.

Walk the Scales

So now that you’ve got your favorite song to use as a reference tone, you have a little bit of homework to do before you can put it into practice. You’ll first want to figure out if the note you’re pulling from the song is the root note or some other ear-catching note in a melody or harmonic line. As long as the note sticks out and stays with you, it will serve as a viable starting point.

From there, all you need to do is turn to your relative pitch to get you the rest of the way there. Starting on the note you memorized from “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” (or whatever your song of choice was), simply walk your way up or down the scale until you’ve arrived at the note you need.

Again, this takes plenty of practice to put into practice without failing miserably – but the process of building up the skill couldn’t be simpler. It’s truly a matter of returning to basics by working on your scales and your arpeggios – as the adorable kittens of “The Aristocats” so eloquently put it.

The more you practice the sound of a whole step, a half step, a major scale, a minor scale, the easier it will be for you to walk your way up or down and get to whatever note you need and whip it out for your band or choir to use. Eventually, you’ll be memorizing the sound of each interval without even having to walk your way there.

Don’t Let the Tonally Blind Lead the Tonally Blind

Also, of course, make sure the song you’re listening to is actually in tune, meaning your friend’s cousin’s demo or a track from a live album aren’t the best candidates – particularly if it was towards the end of the show when half the band was drunk and the other half was out of tune. In general, just make sure it’s a studio album. If it’s a modern professionally produced album, then it’s pretty much guaranteed to be in tune.

You could always check with your tuner to be sure, if you’re feeling skeptical (or just extremely thorough). Make sure it’s not some kind of new wave album that tunes to 443Hz instead of 440Hz. There’s a belief out there that when music is tuned to that frequency instead, it’s more harmonious with nature -although no hard evidence has come out to support this idea.

But if that’s what suits you, go for it; just make sure everyone else is attuned to the idea as well. Otherwise, it won’t be a very harmonious experience at all.

You could even pick a song that’s in the same key as the song you’re preparing to sing, if you only need to hold onto one pitch. Just listen to the song on repeat for a day or two. After a while, you won’t be able to stop hearing the pitch even if you want to.

Who’s truly perfect, anyway?

And if you’re able to arrive at the right note, what’s the difference between that and perfect pitch, really? Maybe the person with perfect pitch is able to just think “D#” and automatically sing the note without even thinking about it, no effort, like a machine – as if they have a piano lodged in their brain. And if so, they may not be human and if so, it’s possible that none of these rules apply to them.

But if you’re able to take a second or two to do some mental music math, you too can have perfect pitch – or something close to it. At the end of the day, whether it’s perfect pitch or relative pitch, you’ll still have an impressive new skill to show off to your vocalist friends. And as long as you’re quick enough, they might be none the wiser that your pitch is anything short of perfection.