The Unconservatory  

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

VIII. Another great tutor: your instrument.
Musical instruments all have certain acoustic qualities peculiar to their individual design that can affect how pitch is perceived. The open strings on stringed instruments, for example, sound different than when a musician fingers a string to get a note that is not on an open string. Knowing then that a violin is tuned from the top down in perfect fifths to E, A, D and G gives you four open string reference tones.

The following account was related to me by Ken Blacklock. Katy is his wife.

It is interesting to compare Katy’s pitch sense with mine since we are both violinists. As you know, I've got a pretty good ear. However, if I hear some random sound or noise I usually can't tell you with confidence what pitch it is. Katy on the other hand, can usually nail it with little or no thought. On the other had, if I think about an out-of-context pitch and try to compare it with pitches stored in my head (by the way, for me A-440 is the one I know best as a string player), I can often guess it within a error margin of a whole step, but with little confidence.

As I get more musical context, my confidence and ability to nail pitches and keys increases. Katy’s on the other hand, doesn’t change much. For example, if I listen to a recording of a work such as a symphony that uses standard orchestral instruments, I can usually identify both the key and just about any pitch in the recording. This is mainly because I can usually tell what pitch is being played on any string instrument (violin, viola, and cello) because I recognize the timbre of each pitch. Open string pitches (C, G, D, A, and E) are particularly easy to identify even if the player fingers them on another string.

My ability to identify pitches definitely varies depending on the instrument. I have a much more difficult time with wind and brass instruments, depending on my familiarity with the instrument, and I am practically lost with electronic instruments, but can do reasonably well with the piano.

I think another reason my ability to identify pitches improves with context while Katy’s doesn’t change much, is that my strong background in theory and experience playing many different instruments provides me with a number of innate strategies, which may seem like intuition, but which are actually the result of years of careful study. I can quickly identify chord progressions, for example, and like any good musician even make intelligent guesses as to what chord is likely to come next. Katy, on the other hand, can only identify individual pitches one at a time and is at a loss if I say something like, "the fifth is in the bass," or "it ends on a major seven sharp eleven chord."

My ability to identify notes on a violin aided by timbre is different from perfect pitch in that I usually relate the note to where it is on the instrument, not its absolute pitch. If a recording is fast or slow or if the violin played in a recording is tuned sharper or flatter than standard pitch, for example, I recognize that something is wrong, but can’t always say what. Also, I can tell you where the pitch is on the violin, but not its absolute value.

Here is an example. Recently our band learned a new tune from a recording that has a very prominent fiddle part. When we started to practice together, Katy said the piece was in B flat, but I insisted that it had to be in A. It turns out that the pitch on the recording, for whatever reason, is between a standard "A" and a standard "B flat," so in this case, Katy was hearing absolute pitch and I was hearing pitch and timbre as a unit. The other band members played along with the recording and decided that it was in B flat. After a little persuasion, however, everyone agreed that we should play it in A.

Another interesting point is that Katy was not bothered much by the transposition of this particular recording. Usually, if she knows a piece pretty well, this would drive her nuts, so I suspect that this indicates that she is less bothered by recordings which are not tuned to A-440 when she is unfamiliar with the work.

I would be happy to hear from you, dear reader, if you can articulate your perception of tonal memory. If you are interested in contributing to this subject please respond to our General Music Forum.

Next installment:
The tricky part

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: October 16, 2004 (KB)

Copyright 2004 The Unconservatory, All Rights Reserved.