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Perfect Pitch: the Musical Skill Behind the Myth

June 3rd, 2009

pitch-music-skillPerfect pitch is the skill of identifying musical notes simply by listening to them. While many regard perfect pitch as an exceptional talent and a natural ability that one cannot have unless already born with it, the truth is that everyone with the ability of hearing differences between the pitches of musical notes is able to practice and eventually master the skill of perfect pitch.

Sounds are the results of vibrations of air particles, yet not all sounds have a determinable pitch to them. A vibration of air may or may not exhibit regularities in a waveform by which it could be represented. If regularities are absent, the vibration will lack a determinable pitch. Once regularities are present, the sound manifests as a musical sound and a certain pitch is audible.

Listening to music is a delicate process on its own and a person with perfect pitch has already cultured and maintains a personal intimacy with all of the twelve musical notes present and used in western music. No one could possess perfect pitch if there were no consensus pitch value for the note C, for the note G, and all of the others. These pitch values are determined and agreed upon, however. A properly tuned piano and a properly tuned guitar will produce the same C note.

An unfortunate misconception about perfect pitch is that people with this skill have a mysterious sensitivity for musical notes, informing them about the name of the note being played or heard. Truth is that the person could never determine if the note was a G or a C note if the person did not possess an inner knowledge — a delicate sensation of how the note G or the note C should sound. As such, a person with perfect pitch does not possess exceptional abilities, but he or she has taken time and effort to cultivate the pitch values of the musical notes into the ear. This is the most vital, and in fact pretty much the only vital element of the skill of perfect pitch. Contrary to the widely spread belief, no special gift is required to practice and master this skill.

People who play instruments that are capable of producing a certain palette of musical notes will develop perfect pitch without even knowing about it. By tuning their instruments to the consensus pitch values, let alone playing their instruments, their ears will become more acquainted with the musical notes. The delicate, unique feeling of each note will be remembered by the person without even hearing the notes. Subsequently, no person with perfect pitch lacks the inner knowledge of the note C; he or she does not need to hear it to determine if it is a C note or not.


Relative Pitch

Getting acquainted with the twelve musical notes to the point where identifying them by the ear becomes possible takes time, but it happens automatically once focus is put into how the notes sound and register in the ear. Relative pitch is really nothing more than an inner knowledge base about how musical notes relate to each other. For example, a person with knowledge of relative pitch would know how the note G would sound if he or she heard a C note first. The same principle applies even if one inspects the closest possible neighbors of the C note. Once the C note is heard, relative pitch tells the listener of how these neighbors — B and C# — would sound, as each of these musical notes resides a half tone away from the note C, although B would produce a half tone lower and C# would produce a half tone higher pitch than the C note does.

Perfect pitch and relative pitch are siblings, though perfect pitch is falsely considered to be an exceptional gift only a few possess. Yet once one dismisses this belief and starts getting familiar with the individual, unique feeling of the musical notes, perfect pitch and relative pitch will become subtle companions and useful helpers with which you can produce and enjoy music.

This article on the musical skill of “perfect pitch” was written by Zoltan Gyalog, a freelance writer who usually specializes in tutorial articles relating to computer graphics applications. So far he has managed to sell 14 articles through Constant Content.

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