The Unconservatory  

(The Myth of "Perfect Pitch"..... and How to Get "It," by Kirk Whipple)

II. An Inconclusive and Misleading Test
There have been "scientific" studies of individuals "who exhibit perfect pitch." The problem that I find with these studies and conclusions is twofold. First, these studies seem to be conducted by technicians who do not necessarily have a thorough understanding of music or how we function in real music making. Second, there is no evidence of a control group of test subjects who can be proven not to exhibit the capacity for "perfect pitch." Individuals in such a control group may each say that they "do not have perfect pitch" or "cannot carry a tune." As a successful teacher of willing "tone deaf" pupils, however, I offer that perhaps the control group’s collective tune would change with their willingness to learn certain listening skills (which I will detail later) from a patient teacher.

I saw a televised news report where a "gifted individual" identified several electronically produced tones in a sequence. The person conducting the experiment confirmed that the test subject correctly identified the letter name of each tone. Throughout this report the viewer was led to believe that "perfect pitch" is a mysterious talent only bestowed upon a very narrow percentage of the "gifted" community. There are at least four problems with this demonstration.

Problem one: As there was no mention in this report of any verifiable acoustic isolation of the test subject, the demonstration is reduced to a mere parlor trick; anyone with well developed relative pitch could easily identify a series of pitches by hearing only one established reference tone before the experiment.

Problem two: The simple letter identification of a given tone (or even several) does not constitute "perfect pitch." Between every precise frequency represented by the consecutive tones of "in tune" piano strings are an infinite range of discreet pitches. Which "A" would a test subject have to identify, then? The "A" vibrating at 439 cycles per second? 440? 441? At which increasingly higher frequency would one with "perfect pitch" stop calling the note an "A" and start calling it an "A sharp?" Or, is it a "B flat," and what is the difference?

Problem three: Many piano tuners have a special ability to hone in on A-440 as it is a common reference tone of choice for piano tuning. These tuners can make minute discriminations between this and, let’s say, "A-440.5." This distinction might even be as subtle as 0.1 cycles per second or less. Even so, do we say "close enough?" I don’t think so.

Problem four: It probably did not occur to the scientists conducting the experiment, the test subject or the interviewer, but there was not even a suggestion that "perfect pitch" might be a widely learnable ability.

Given the above problems, does this mean that the test subject of the report was not musically gifted? Probably not. Does this mean that what is commonly referred to as "perfect pitch" is unattainable? Absolutely not. I will later offer evidence of how anyone with at least average hearing, time and interest may acquire this mysterious and elusive skill.

Next installment:
If I had a big research grant to throw at this subject…

Other installments:
The Myth of "Perfect Pitch" - 1

The Myth of "Perfect Pitch" - 2

The Myth of "Perfect Pitch" - 3

The Myth of "Perfect Pitch" - 4

The Myth of "Perfect Pitch" - 5

The Myth of "Perfect Pitch" - 6

The Myth of "Perfect Pitch" - 7

The Myth of "Perfect Pitch" - 8

The Myth of "Perfect Pitch" - 9

The Myth of "Perfect Pitch" - 10

The Myth of "Perfect Pitch" - 11

The Myth of "Perfect Pitch" - 12

The Myth of "Perfect Pitch" - 13

The Myth of "Perfect Pitch" - 14

Table of Contents

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Updated: July 25, 2004 (KB)

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