Picture of Ear with musical notes.

As a conductor, there are few topics of more interest to me than “hearing”. It is what we conductors do, what we work with (musicians), and what we offer to audiences. And I must say that, in my career, I have encountered much misunderstanding about hearing, both from lay people but also from playing musicians. Terminology is cast about casually without formal definition, with the assumption that the person speaking and the person hearing the terms both understand what is being said. I hope here to clarify some terminology but I also intend to stretch our “hearing” beyond traditional categories of auditory experience. Let’s start!

OK… the BIG TOPIC… “Perfect Pitch”.  This is the phrase thrown around sadly with great misunderstanding. This is no casual term, no casual phenomenon. No, not every professional musician has perfect pitch. No, not every famous vocalist has perfect pitch. Certainly, some may, but let’s focus here on what this really means.

Firstly, Perfect Pitch is not just one type of hearing, but several. There are about 7 versions of this type of rare hearing. These versions of Perfect Pitch come in two categories: production and recognition. Some can produce a pitch (Gb or F#…) by singing it, not having been given any reference pitch. It is as if, out of the clear blue, a person can emit this pitch and find that it is exactly what the piano or other instrument would play for that pitch. The second category is the rare occurrence when someone can recognize any pitch that is sung or played, again, not having been given any reference pitch. These persons cannot emit (sing) a pitch “cold” (no reference), but CAN recognize the pitch name when they hear it, not having been given any reference pitch. Of this category there are several versions of Perfect Pitch. These versions are distinguished by “timbre” or “color”. To exemplify, some people can tell (with no reference) the name of any pitch on a …. Guitar, or Harp, or Violin, or Piano, or Oboe etc.  Notice that these individuals would not be able to do so on any other instrument. Typically (textbook), these people are, themselves, players of this instrument and have a keen sense of the sounds of their instrument. So a Harp player might (not always) be able to unerringly tell you the notes that another harpist is playing without looking at the notes. This form of  Perfect Pitch is less rare (than the first category) but is, itself, yet a rare phenomenon.

The second phrase that is used regarding hearing is “Relative Pitch”. As the phrase suggests, a person possessing Relative Pitch can unerringly tell you what pitches are being played, provided they are given a “reference” pitch. That is why it is called “relative” pitch. This type of hearing is taught regularly in music school during “ear-training” classes and is quite common. There are over 20 versions of this type of hearing. Musicians learn the deductive proceses needed to analyze what they are hearing, after being given a reference pitch. Intervals are carefully calculated (itself, a formidable task for many) and then melodies and rhythms can be accurately recorded on paper through dictation lessons. Most professional musicians have a highly developed sense of Relative Pitch.

Another phrase, heard less often, is “Absolute Pitch”. This is the most rare of all. Here, the individual has not only the highest form of Perfect Pitch, but this pitch is SO acute that its accuracy is able to be calculated on digital equipment measuring exact cycles per second (cps), otherwise know as “frequency”.  In musical scales, the distance between a half step on the piano (for instance), is actually quite large. (Some 20c/21c music uses intervals in between these half steps – called “quarter-tone” or even eigth-tone” music… another topic)). This distance is measured in “cents”. There are 100 cents between half steps on the piano. Someone possessing “Absolute Pitch” can discriminate to such levels and is not even “bound” by standard “labeling” of pitches as “A = 440 cps”. For the record (another topic), our standard “A” was not always “440 cps”. It has crept up over centuries and is now internationally standardized at “440 cps”. Someone with “Absolute Pitch” would not be bound by such standarization and could emit any frequency requested.

Another HOT topic for hearing is this “holy grail”: Can Perfect Pitch be taught? Forever it was taught that Perfect Pitch is a gift; it cannot be taught. This thinking persisted until only recently when a music theory professor observed an unusually high incidence of “Perfect Pitch” among her students. Extensive studies were done and it was actually proven that Perfect Pitch CAN be learned. Here is how they discovered it.

The music majors in the music school who exhibited Perfect Pitch were all from Asian cultures – and not just “any” Asian cultures, but those in which the language they spoke involved much “inflection of pitch”. Put simply, not all languages have the same number of words, yet all human beings on the planet are daily expressing relatively the same number of experiences. If a person speaking one language typically uses 800 words a day (as in English), what if an Asian person uses only 400? Are they expressing only half of what a human being experiences? No! Those languages use their 400 (or so) words, but pronounce the words with differnent inflections (perhaps starting low and rising in pitch, or high and then low, or a waver of pitch, or even “at” a higher or lower stable pitch).  We might say the word “dog”, and regardless “how” we stay it, every knows we mean “dog”. But in some Asian languages, we could say “dog” but inflect it differently or say it at a higher or lower pitch, and it would not “mean” dog, but something completely different.

Thus, it was found that music students who spoke such highly inflected languages had a higher incidence of “Perfect Pitch” because… recognition of such pitch was critical to the actual understanding of the spoken language! And so the music theory professor finally found the holy grail in musical hearing – Perfect Pitch CAN be a learned experience, not only a gift. Now, it is a given that such “learning” would have to occur early in childhood for this to be developed (note that it is rare for an adult to learn a foreign language and be confused with a native speaker).

I, myself, learned that I have the first category of Perfect Pitch. It began as a child with recognizing pitches without error, much to my younger brother’s discontent! I was far from the piano and he started hitting various single notes and I would yell out the pitch – and they were always correct. He thought I was cheating or peeking or had some magic trick to do this. But to me, it was as clear in my ear as when someone (not color blind) looks at red and sees red and looks at green and sees green. How can you confuse those? I thought everyone heard what I hear. Obviously, not. This “gift” can also be a curse, and I can share more about that in our next post.

I will continue next month with “Hearing – 2” in which we will explore many other aspects of hearing, including Beethoven’s deafness, ear-worms, subjective hearing and more! Stay tuned!

© Copyright 2021 Michael Kamenski, Milwaukee, WI. All Rights Reserved.