How Rare Is Perfect Pitch?

(Last Updated On: February 27, 2021)
Singer sing in correct pitch and note.

The absolute pitch has commonly been referred to as “perfect pitch.” It’s not about being able to make a perfect sound or hitting the right note. It is about being able to recognize a pitch on your own. It is about the ability of a person to recreate a musical note without external reference. According to studies, one in every ten thousand has perfect pitch, but they are not aware of it. 

In the musical world, a perfect pitch is also called “absolute pitch” (AP). Someone with this skill can easily identify a tone or note without a reference tone. For example, a guitarist with an AP can play a specific song by just listening to it, without seeing its chords or notes. This is indeed a rare talent that some people have but often missed. And being able to identify and name the notes they heard.

Skills Required

There are two types of people with perfect pitch. One is the rare type, those with innate talent or since birth and without formal training. This type of person can identify every minor deviation of the note. The second type can be seen with singers who learned and trained in order to have a perfect pitch. 

According to research, most individuals with perfect pitch skills are blind from birth. It is said that people with autism have a higher chance of having this skill as well as those with William’s syndrome. 

As for singers and musicians, this skill is being achieved through auditory development and rigorous training. There is a laboratory setting where the skill of absolute pitch is being taught.  

Is there a test that can prove that someone is perfect pitch? Some tests are being done to check if someone is a perfect pitch. One basic test used is distinguishing 3-4 notes. This is used in most English cathedral choir schools to members ages 9. Another test being conducted is asking a student to listen to a chord then sing the top note afterward. 

The student is then expected to be able to call out the other individual notes once the chord is identified. Being able to identify the individual notes doesn’t mean that the student has a proven perfect pitch. This is just a basic test that identifies if a student musician has the essential skill. It is called “relative pitch“. More tests are provided to check if the student musician has a perfect pitch. 

Most musicians can name a note without a reference. However, the ability to name a tone from a flat piano is rare. 

How Rare is it?

But how does being a perfect pitch work? People hear. Some listen. What’s the difference? Those who hear just let the sound passes by while those who listen, process it. Perfect pitch people listen with their ear – and they do it with more ease and focus. 

We catch sound through our ear. It then converts the external sound unto an impulse transmitted to the brain. Our brain processes the sound and put a name to it. It is the sound of a car horn, a barking dog, or the sound of the piano. 

Sounds are vibrations or waves measured in hertz, and one vibration is equivalent to 80 hertz. Every person can catch and process up to 20,000 hertz of sound. 

The pitch or frequency of a sound is referred to as the sensation it produces. It means that lower frequency is lower pitch and vice versa. Musicians who are trained in identifying sounds can easily differentiate two sounds with as little as 2-hertz difference. 

When someone is able to name a pitch just by listening to it, this is the ‘rare’ absolute pitch skills we are talking about. One in every 10,000 has this rare skill. However, not all knew it. A study from the University of California in San Diego posits that the ability of someone to bring out their perfect pitch skill is a result of their environment. Even if someone has this innate skill, training and development still help in bringing out this skill to light. 

This study has been supported by psychologist Diana Deutsch who wrote an article for Discover in December 2001. According to her, everyone has perfect pitch skills. We can recognize noises and sounds, but sometimes, we can’t put a name to it. As we grow old, we learn to label these sounds and noises. Hence, she believes that it is naming a sound or tone is a learned skill. To date, if you will look at these people who are known to have perfect pitch, most of them are musicians who trained at an early age of 6 or younger. 


Perfect Pitch VS Absolute Pitch VS Relative Pitch 

Absolute pitch or perfect pitch is the same. It means a skill or talent to name a tone without using a reference tone. It is the ability to recreate a tone as well on their own. Specific tests are available to check and determine whether someone is a perfect pitch or a relative pitch. 

Linguistic labeling or naming a note is one of the possible options to determine if someone has PP or AP skills. Another test is associating mental imagery with the note or giving a sensorimotor response. One example is sensorimotor response is the ability to play a tune with a musical instrument just by listening to the tone. 

To date, there is no hard evidence to support the claim that there is 1 in every 10,000 people that poses a perfect pitch skill. However, newer studies and information show that at least 4% of music students are perfect pitch. 

If someone has the following abilities, then they are considered to have a perfect pitch skill: 

  • Name specific pitches and play it on different instruments without a reference tone (e.g., F#, A, G, C)
  • Name a given tone from tonal music without a reference tone.
  • Can name given tones and chords without a reference note
  • Can sing a named pitch
  • Name the pitches from commonly heard sounds.

Relative pitch is the ability of a person to name a pitch based on other pitch heard. As you rely on existing notes, you are able to identify certain notes. All people with perfect pitch have relative pitch skills, but not all who have relative pitch skills are with perfect pitch skills. Most musicians can employ both skills when listening to music.

People with relative pitch skills can practice absolute pitch listening by learning ‘pseudo-absolute pitch’ skills. It almost resembles a perfect pitch that allows a musician to identify notes with 90% accuracy. 

Learning pseudo-absolute speech is not enough to increase a person’s chance of learning perfect pitch. You should also take valproate, a drug used to treat epilepsy and depression. This combination can increase a person’s ability to identify up to 10 notes of the 12 notes or 90%. 

This training has been observed in both adults and children. Still, learning perfect pitch is not a walk in the park, even to people with relative pitch skills. It requires time and effort, and you must continuously train until you get each tone right. 


Is it Possible to Develop Perfect or Absolute Pitch?

So, can you really develop a perfect pitch? Perfect pitch, as we have been saying, is the ability of a person to identify or name a note without external reference. Some say it is genetic, and some say it can be learned. 

According to studies, there are ways for people at a young age to learn perfect pitch. Perfect pitch is a rare skill, and a person with no absolute skill in naming a tone should at least have a relative pitch to develop perfect pitch technique. At most, people who are born with perfect pitch skill still have to undergo training and development in order to practice their perfect pitch skill well. 

Are Some Singers Born With Perfect Pitch?

A study suggested that every human being is born with perfect pitch. As we grow older, we learn to identify sounds and name it. Remember when you are younger, when you are learning how a cat, dog, or a pig sound? Do you remember how you get excited every time you hear your dog’s bark? Researchers suggest that this is an indication that we are all born with this skill. 

The thing is, not everyone grows with this skill. Some are stuck with naming basic sounds while some retain this skill and apply with notes and more complex sounds. 

How Common is the Perfect Pitch?

Perfect pitch is not an ordinary skill. Out of ten thousand, there are only 1 to 5 people who are able to retain this skill. For musicians, though, the percentage is higher as they are trained to use their ears. At least 11% of musicians in the world are perfect pitch and is higher for musicians who had training as early as 6 years of age. 

Is It Possible To Have Perfect Pitch?

Perfect pitch is a rare skill, and even with training, it is hardly impossible for someone to become a perfect pitch. This is genetically inherited, and oftentimes, people with this innate skill still need to train in order to maximize this skill. 

For people who are not born with perfect pitch, their best chance is to train and develop a pseudo-perfect pitch skill. It is not 100% absolute pitch, but it is near enough that accuracy can be up to 90%. This is provided that you start training at a young age. 

However, a study by a group of psychologists from Chicago studied a group of musicians who were trained to develop an absolute pitch. According to their study, people with no absolute pitch skill seems to learn notes better than those with absolute pitch. 


Possible Problems

Why would it be harder for people with absolute pitch to train than those with no special listening skills? According to studies, people with absolute pitch can recognize when a note has been adjusted or transposed or if a note is flat or sharp. When they realized that a note had been changed unsatisfactorily or it is of non-standard frequency, it can stress them out.

It is like knowing something is wrong with the piece or the tome, say a Baroque music piece. A Baroque tuning is always a half step lower than the standard concert pitch, and a person with absolute pitch gets to throw off easily when they hear the slightly lower pitch. 

When listening to music, a listener with absolute pitch uses strategies and transpositions that are more efficient for them, something that is not common to people who are not absolute pitch. People with no absolute pitch skills also use conventional strategies in tuning their pieces (and it can be subjective), and a person with absolute pitch might find it incorrect. 

Remember, there are different pitches used for various concerts, such as between the Pars Opera between the 19th and 20th centuries or the Anglo-American modern standard. This difference can lead to a slightly different tuning between a person with perfect pitch and a regular musician using conventional tuning. 

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