The Unconservatory  

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

IV. Possible Conclusions / Why "Perfect?"
Aside from the answers being sought in this series of tests the panel would be called upon to notice any behavior, however subtle, that might indicate aptitude for any special listening skills. This might be an interesting opportunity for surprising discoveries to be made in the way we hear outside of the parameters of the test. For this reason alone I would be interested in such an experiment.

Perfect Pitch Test / Part 3A.
Those subjects in Group A who correctly identify (or, in the test variation, reproduce) the precise pitch of every tone produced would be said to have "perfect pitch." Remember: the term is not "99% correct pitch." Of course the level of accuracy exhibited by this group would be noted. Correctly and precisely identifying even 90% of the tones would be considered remarkable. Even without identifying the precise pitch in cycles per second, the correct identification of the letter name of each pitch, albeit imprecise, would constitute what is erroneously referred to as "perfect pitch."

Perfect Pitch Test / Part 3B.
The purpose of testing Group B would be to observe patterns, however subtle, that would indicate an ability to retain pitches. Even if these subjects were found to have made errors in the pitch identification process, their successes would be noted. Inaccuracy in tonal identification could be attributed to any variety of causes including a lapse of attention or not knowing the true nature of the test. Here again, the panel would have to be very careful in their observations. The test subjects might betray their belief that they "do not possess perfect pitch" by exhibiting some very sophisticated listening responses. A couple of examples might be the casual tuning of an instrument to standard concert pitch or singing a passage of music in the recorded key long after hearing it without a pitch reference device.

Perfect Pitch Test / Part 3C.
The purpose of testing Group C would be to find people with aptitude for retaining pitches that approaches that of Groups A and B. Since Group C would be presumed to have no formal musical training the musical scientists would most probably have a harder time articulating their responses. Here again, even with a high percentage of errors in tonal identification, any successes at all would have to be considered at least partial proof that an aptitude for retaining pitches exists.

And so, why "Perfect?"
Tests aside and after having said all of this, I now propose that the term "perfect pitch" is both inaccurate and misleading. Let’s look at the term itself.

Language can be a powerful thing. The use of the word "perfect" is not just misleading; it is downright false and potentially harmful. Most of us have been indoctrinated to believe that we as a species are incapable of doing anything "perfectly," except perhaps to err humanly. The word "perfect" is the great "off" switch: Everything up to the point of "perfect" is human, and everything beyond that, or "perfect," is inhuman.

From this line of thought we can therefore surmise, as most people do, that those who have "perfect pitch" possess an inhuman — nea, Godlike — ability to identify specific frequencies. And, unlike humans, Godlike Beings have other mysterious powers such as the innate ability to perform Mozart violin concertos! If you tell one hundred six year olds who exhibit "perfect pitch" that they should spend six hours a day practicing the violin, fifty of them might just do it. One or two might go on to a concert career, but, from experience, the reactions of the other ninety-eight kids, doomed to regret their early displays of perfection, will be anything from musical avocation to clinical depression.

Furthermore, and most insidiously, we infer that none but a chosen few will ever be able to access the divine gift of "perfect pitch." We stare longingly across the courtyard at the young genius who is frustrated that "the chime on the clock is sharp," wish her well and go on about the tawdry business of being less than "perfect."

Next installment:
Redefining our concept of "perfect pitch"

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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