The Unconservatory  

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

III. Perhaps a Better Test
For the record, here is a synopsis of how I might begin to conduct a clinical "search for perfect pitch." Note that it is only a starting point for such an experiment, as the detail for a rigorous scientific investigation is beyond the scope of this series of articles. I invite contact from any scientific or musical organizations who are considering a thorough investigation of this and other related subjects. Remember dear reader, since I firmly assert that most people either have "perfect pitch" or the ability to develop it, I reject the idea that there are large groups of people who can not develop "it." That having been said, let’s put on our lab coats.

Perfect Pitch Test / Part 1.
Before discussing the test subjects let’s say a few words about the scientists. Since a test like this could involve some very subtle understanding not only in what people are hearing but in how they are perceiving and labeling pitches, a varied and experienced jury should conduct these experiments. I would stipulate the following criteria for the panel:

  1. All members should possess "perfect pitch".
  2. All members should have relative pitch.
  3. Before proceeding with any experiments on test subjects, the panel should agree that each member (including the team of scientists who would be asserting the laboratory control elements) exhibits the first two abilities.
  4. In addition to the laboratory scientists, at least one person representing each of the following disciplines should directly observe the test group: recording engineer, composer, musical teacher, vocalist, string instrumentalist, wind instrumentalist, keyboardist, acoustician, psychologist or psychiatrist, acoustician.

Being a veteran of musical competitions, I am forewarning anyone who might consider sponsoring such an experiment; it would be a miracle to get a group like this to completely agree on just about anything. Of course, any unanimous conclusion by such a diverse group would be hard to dispute.

The experiment would be divided into three groups of test subjects. Group A would be people who claim to have perfect pitch. Group B would be musicians who claim not to have perfect pitch. Group C would be people who claim to have no formal musical training. Groups B and C would face a battery of questions before the experiment that would keep the true nature of the experiment secret until the actual test time. Group C would need to be carefully screened to be people without any prior musical training.

All three groups would be placed in rooms without any resonant objects. A thorough search would eliminate personal items like wristwatches, coins, whistles, jewelry or anything else that could be used as a tonal reference. Of course, if there was a television in the room the sound would have to be disabled. The television as well as any lighting, air conditioning and any other mechanical devices in acoustic proximity would have to be silent, that is, again, absent of any tonal reference. The subjects would stay in the controlled environment for at least twenty-four hours prior to any acoustic testing. All test subjects would be isolated (except from the people conducting the experiment) for the entire duration of the experiment.

Perfect Pitch Test / Part 2A.
The test for Group A would be very direct. This group claims "perfect pitch," so approximately once per hour at irregular intervals the test subjects would be asked to identify one tone — not a series of tones — by letter name, then by its exact frequency. The tones would be produced by a variety of devices. The test subjects would not be told of their results until after all testing had been completed.

The irregularity of test intervals would make it difficult for the test subjects to "prepare" for each testing period. The length of time between tests would also insure that the subjects are not easily retaining a pitch from any previous test. Producing tones on a variety of devices would help to eliminate any biases that the subjects might have towards familiar sound sources.

Since a person with a highly developed sense of relative pitch (and not "perfect pitch") might conceivably perceive any series of pitches as being based upon the first tone, any test of pitch directly after the first tone would be irrelevant.

Point in fact: most musicians — even those with "perfect pitch" — are not able to name the specific frequency of a given pitch. Here is another variation for this group of subjects. A single tone would be played. After approximately an hour the subject would be asked to reproduce the tone vocally or on a musical instrument with variable pitch, i.e. stringed or wind instruments. Again, the tests would occur at irregular intervals.

Perfect Pitch Test / Part 2B.
The test for Group B would be more difficult to construct for the test subjects. Since a belief can be a powerful sculptor of one’s reality, professional musicians who claim "not to possess perfect pitch" would need to be tricked into admitting that they might actually have "it." There might be several sly tests for this group.

Musicians familiar with keyboard instruments would be asked to play a piece of music of their choice on an instrument that is in tune with itself, but either sharp or flat to the A-440 standard reference pitch. For example, they might play a "C Major" scale and the keyboard will produce a "D Major" scale.

Those familiar with stringed instruments will be asked to tune an instrument that is out of tune. They will not be given any other instructions other than to "do as good as possible without any reference devices."

Players of wind instruments will be asked to tune an instrument that is out of tune.

After these tuning tests questions would be asked of these musicians such as:

  1. Can you describe how the instrument sounds to you?
  2. Does it sound "in tune?"
  3. If not, is it flat or sharp?
  4. How much?

Other questions would be inserted to throw this group of test subjects off of the true nature of the experiment such as:

  1. Do you like the sound of this instrument?
  2. How much do you think it would cost in a retail store?
  3. Are you familiar with the brand of this instrument? (i.e. Yamaha, Hohner, Roland, etc.)

Also, the instruments would be left with the individuals and their actions would be observed.

Perfect Pitch Test / Part 2C.
The test for Group C would by necessity need to be devoid of references to actual pitches or tunings. This group would have more frequent contact with the scientists. Perhaps the whole commitment of each test subject in this group would be around an hour or two. Different tones would be played for these subjects from a variety of sound sources. They would be asked to make pitch comparisons between the different tones, i.e:

  1. Is the note played on the flute the same as the one from the piano?
  2. If not, is it close?
  3. How close? Very? Moderately?
  4. Can you sing the tone that was played on the clarinet a minute ago?
  5. (After doing so) Do you think your voice matched the tone you heard?
  6. How close do you think you were?

As with the subjects in 2B this group would receive a battery of questions designed to keep the exact nature of the experiment a secret:

  1. Which of these instruments would you like to play?
  2. Which of these instruments is the loudest / softest?
  3. Which of these instruments is the most / least beautiful?
  4. How much do think these instruments cost?

Next installment:
What can we learn from this experiment?

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

Links for further exploration of this topic


Please join our Harmonic Experience Forum for discussions related to Harmonic Experience: Tonal Harmony from Its Natural Origins to Its Modern Expression, by W.A. Mathieu (Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions International, 1997)

Return to Articles

Return to Home

Disclaimer, Copyright Statement and Editorial Policies

For inquiries email:

Updated: July 25, 2004 (KB)

Copyright 2004 The Unconservatory, All Rights Reserved.