Perils of Perfect Pitch
Updated: Sep 1, 2019
I've worked with several musicians over the course of my career that had perfect pitch (also known as absolute pitch). I've also had a couple of students who had it.
Perfect pitch is the ability to name a note or a chord heard with no reference, or the ability to sing a note named with no reference. Check out this video on the subject.
Perfect Pitch is not a "gift" in the sense that some people just mysteriously have it and some don't. It's the result of what the brain is exposed to music-wise from prenatal to about 2 years old.
In spite of claims to the contrary (that usually involve selling something), perfect pitch cannot be learned as an adult. Relative pitch can be developed to the point at which it may appear that the person has perfect pitch but in fact they don't. Some people think I have perfect pitch but, trust me, I don't.
I've worked with 2 singers (both female) that I know of who have perfect pitch and 3 keyboard players who have it.
Singers are less likely to have any formal music education - even though they have perfect pitch they might not be able to name notes or even keys. The perfect pitch manifests itself in the ability to start singing a song with no reference and be in the right key.
I remember my earliest experience of someone with perfect pitch was a girl singer. We did the Burt Bacharach song, "What the World Needs Now" - the Dionne Warwick version. This singer would start the song with the pick-up, "What the..." with no intro or reference tone and she would always be in the right key.
Because they are more likely to be musically educated, I want to talk about the keyboard players. Whether perfect pitch is an advantage or disadvantage depends on the person.
One guy I worked with who had it considered it a horrible disability - and in his case it was. That's because this guy was a self-taught musician and never seemed motivated to study and learn what was learnable. He didn't know much about music theory, couldn't read music and in spite of my promptings to the contrary, never showed any desire to do any work along those lines. His ear was a dominating tyrant.
I did some gigging with this guy and he could only play a tune in the key he first heard it in. He could not transpose.
I remember a gig where we had a request for a song. He said,
"I know this song but I don't know the words."
I said, "I know the words, I'll sing it. Key of G."
"I do it in A."
"If I'm singing it it's in G."
We started in G. By the end of the tune we were in A. He couldn't help it.
On the positive side, one night we were driving to the gig. I had been listening to Michael Hedges and couldn't figure out an altered tuning on one of the songs. I played him a tape of the song and said,
"That note right there - what is that?"
Without hesitation he said, "That's a low C."
He's complained to me that the guitar is an inherently out-of-tune instrument. I believe him. I have very well-developed relative pitch. I can hear to within 10 cents - given a reference, that is. 10 cents is 10% of a half-step - there are 100 cents per half-step. I can hear the note as out-of-tune down to 10 cents. If the note is less than 10 cents out-of-tune it sounds in tune to me.
Because of that, it's not unusual for me to be under the compulsion to tune my guitar every 2nd or 3rd song. One of the reasons I use heavier strings than most guys is that they stay in tune longer. I can't imagine what it must be like for my friend.
My friend has described out-of-tune guitars and pianos as "fingernails scraping a chalkboard" and says it drives him crazy. This is when they would sound great to most people.
He's also a piano tuner and doesn't use tuning forks.
On a gig one night I was jacking around with the chords of a song as we were playing it, I ended on an extended altered chord. He leaned over and said,
"What chord was that, man? What did you do? How did you get that?"
"That was a C6/9(#11)," I said, and explained a little bit of the theory behind it.
"Wow, man. I wish I had what you've got!"
"Dude!" I said, "What I've got can be LEARNED!"
On the other end of the spectrum, I was on tour in the '70's with a guy who had it all. He could read, he could transpose, he was musically knowledgeable...and he had perfect pitch.
He carried several huge binders full of charts; hundreds of charts (no smart phones or iPads in those days). He charted out every song he learned - not for him but for the band guys.
Several years after I toured with him, I used him as a sub for a trio gig where the keyboard player played bass with his left hand.
I noticed that on some tunes his bass lines were kind of weird. I realized that he was cuing from the bass notes of the chords I was playing. He didn't know the song and was listening to my chords to derive the bass. When playing with a bass player, unlike most guitarists (at least pop/rock guitarists) I rarely voice chords in root position; so I wasn't hearing the roots from the bass - which is one of the bass's main functions; state the root. From then on, when I heard 3rds, 7ths or any note but the root in the bass, I assumed he didn't know the song and voiced all my chords from then on with the root in the bass. That solved the problem.
Somewhere in the middle of this continuum lies a guy I currently gig with on a regular basis - at least a gig a week - and have done so for the last 20 years, give-or-take; Allen Monroe.
Allen's musical knowledge is practical or functional (he's fuzzy on theory); he can transpose - from what I can tell, he's equally comfortable in any key. He hears and plays all kinds of extensions, alterations and chord substitutions. He can improvise arrangements on the fly. We have wonderful musical conversations jacking around with all these things on the bandstand.
All that plus perfect pitch. If he's heard it he can play it. He's a walking encyclopedia of tunes. He never ceases to amaze me at the obscure, random songs he knows. That comes in very handy when hosting an open jam session, which we've done once a week for many years.
However...he can't read anything - notation, chord symbols; nothing.
I'd played with Allen for quite a while before discovering he had perfect pitch; Allen knew he had it but is a humble, unassuming kind of guy. He doesn't toot his own horn much. Two incidents led to my discovery:
One day on the aforementioned open jam, I had a request for what was then a current hit song. I knew it but was pretty sure Allen had never heard it; he doesn't listen to the radio or pop music. I said,
"I've got a request for a song called "The Way" by a group called, "Fastball." Have you heard it?"
"No" he said, "What does it sound like?"
"Don't worry about it, I've got a chart out in the car, I'll go get it."
"Won't do you no good."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, it won't do you no good, I can't read."
I knew he was talking about reading music; he's not illiterate. One of the first gigs I played with him was a jazz trio with an upright bass player in a high-end restaurant. No drummer. We were in tuxes providing background music - ambiance for fine dining. Allen was seated at a grand piano facing the room so he was visible only from middle torso up. He played the entire gig with a Louis L'Amour Western open on his lap. He was reading a book while he was playing the gig! He always has a paperback in his back pocket.
"No, no" I said, "I'm not talking about reading notation, it's just a chord chart."
"And I'm telling you I can't read it!"
"Wait a minute" I said, "I can say, 'play a G13(b9)', and you can play that, right?"
"Sure" he says, and he immediately played it.
"But if you SEE G13(b9) written on a piece of paper you can't play it?"
"Nope. Looks like chicken scratches to me."
"Ok" I said, "I'll run you through the form of the tune real quick."
I played through the chord changes as quick as I could - it took about 30 seconds. I got done and he was nodding his head,
"Yeah, it's like that old Tom Jones song, Blah Blah Blah." (I can't remember the song he named.)
"Never heard that song" I said.
"Well" he said, "It's kind of like that."
I counted the tune off, we played it, and Allen nailed it.
"Wow!" I thought to myself. "That's some serious right-brain-dominant stuff right there!"
Reading is left-brain. The right brain is associative - Allen associated what I played for him with something he already knew. He perceived the similar patterns involved from what he knew to what he didn't know. Pattern recognition is right brain.
Months later, on the same open jam (we do it every week), a female singer came up and wanted to sing - I don't remember what the song was.
"What key you want it in?" says Allen.
She didn't know.
"O crap" I thought, "here we go. A "singer" who doesn't know her keys."
She was on mic and she just started singing. Allen looked at me and says, "G minor" - and he was right! I heard no reference; he didn't hit a key on his keyboard. If it was up to me, I'd have been hunting and pecking on my guitar for a few seconds to figure out what key she was in. He heard the key she was singing in.
After the tune was over, I turned to Allen and said, "Man, do you have perfect pitch?"
He shrugged his shoulders and causally said, "Yeah" - like it was nothing!
In light of that, the previous data about his inability to read even the simplest chord chart made sense. He's a right-brained, intuitive player whose abilities are rooted in his sense of perfect pitch.
BTW - it's estimated that, world-wide, the incidence of perfect pitch is present in one in 10,000. In non-tonal languages (like English) the incidence is 30% less than that.
Overall, I'm glad I don't have perfect pitch.
For the first guy I spoke of, it was an obstacle to learning that he has never been able to overcome; there are probably other issues there. I don't know if, or how hard, he's tried. I know that with my students that have perfect pitch, they must learn to set aside the dominance of the ear and engage and develop the left-brain - the analytical, linear-thought part. I know that can be a difficult, frustrating and tedious process. All the while the ear is chafing and kicking against the goads - "I can do this better!" - it keeps shouting, and yet it must be denied, at least until the left-brain catches up. That would be extremely difficult to do on your own, without a teacher continuously redirecting your attention away from the ear. I can understand how and why my friend has been stymied.
Concerning the second guy I spoke of, the guy who had it all; I was not cognizant enough of all this stuff when I played with him to ask him about it. I was relatively young and still feeling my way around the music business. He was older, more experienced and an intimidatingly good player. He was also a seriously twisted individual with a mass of neuroses all hiding under a bland, very gentle demeanor...in other words, psycho. So yeah, there was that. That's another story. I suspect he did a lot of disciplined learning and study to get his ear under control and then integrated with his left-brain, but I don't really know.
Allen is an interesting study because he does have some left-brain elements in place; he generally knows the names of things. He can transpose. Theory-wise he's not real sure of himself. I can tell him, "It's got a sharp 11 on the top of the chord" and he might know what I mean and he might not, but if I name the note he's got it, and if I just play the note, he instantly "hears" it and can play it. But the reading issue is probably insurmountable for him at this late stage - if someone puts a chart in front of him, he might look like he's reading, but I know he's faking it - he leans completely on his ear.
He's had little formal training. He took a few lessons as a kid and the teacher, in frustration over the reading issue, called his mom and told her she was wasting her money. He grew up in the black church, his dad was a pastor, and he was playing music in the church from a very young age. And let me tell you, there is freakin' KILLER music in Black Gospel and some unbelievably good players in that genre. I suspect he was born with or obtained his perfect pitch at a very young age just from the exposure (see the above link) and then randomly picked up what theory he knows here and there along the way as he moved out into the secular music world and began playing with more educated players. That's why his theory knowledge is hit-and-miss. It has been randomly acquired.
At any rate, I can't tell you how many times Allen's ear has saved us from a train wreck on that open jam.
It's a God-send.
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