The Mystery Of Perfect Pitch And How To Know If You Have It

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When he was younger, my dad was in a rock band.

He played guitar -- and I’m pretty sure he sang too, although I haven’t heard any proof of this yet -- so, ever since I was a young kid, we’ve always had a shared interest in music, specifically, rock and roll.

This past summer, as he was messing around on his guitar, he explained to me that he’s never been able to read music -- instead, learning how to play songs “by ear.” And in anticipation of Phish’s summer run -- along with my dad’s blatant lack of Phish-fever (He’s into classic rock.) -- I decided to test how good his ear really was, myself.

So, I put on a song -- "Mike’s Song," to be exact -- with a very distinct guitar melody and asked him to play it.

Within seconds, my father was playing a riff that might not have been exactly what Trey plays in "Mike’s Song," but it certainly sounded close enough for government work.

Needless to say, I bought into my dad’s claim that he could play music entirely by ear. I was impressed.

He then told me that a lot of famous guitarists played by ear as well. Clapton played by ear. Delta blues legend Robert Johnson couldn’t read music. Hendrix couldn’t read music. None of the f*ckin’ Beatles could read music. I was astonished.

The idea that so many famous musicians were able to create such intricate musical compositions without a set language -- or alphabet, if you will -- to transpose sound was baffling. In order to play music by ear, there needs to be some sort of mechanism found in the brain that allows one to hear sounds without them actually being present.

Instead of hearing a specific melody and being able to spell it out by “A, E and D-flat,” for instance, someone who plays music entirely by ear would only be able to identify a given tune or riff by saying, “It sounds like this,” and then proceeding to play or hum it.

And while you can teach someone how to play music by reading notes, being able to play music by ear is something that usually comes to certain musicians naturally. My father, for instance, probably could’ve been equally as good of a guitar player by learning how to read music, prior. But the same couldn’t be said for him with regard to playing by ear.

Now that isn't to say you can't train your ear to better distinguish certain notes, a skill known as "relative pitch." As you play an instrument or learn to sing, your ear will undoubtedly get better at matching notes and detecting pitch.

However, the ability to sing, or play, or recognize a note based purely off memory without missing a sharp or flat, that’s something you’re either born with or you’re not. That's "perfect pitch." And sadly, after messing around with my dad’s guitars, I’ve learned over time that this skill was not passed down to me.

The other day, my friend sent me a pretty sensational video. The video showed a young boy sitting in front of a piano, as an older gentleman played various notes -- and, then, chords -- behind him. With each sound he played, he asked the boy to call out its technical name as quickly as possible, fully by ear, mind you.

Rick Beato on YouTube

The first time I watched this video, my jaw dropped -- there's also a second installment, if you're skeptical of its authenticity.

Note after note, chord after chord. I mean, this kid couldn’t miss. And that’s because this little guy has something that’s known as “absolute pitch,” or perfect pitch, meaning he has “the ability to re-create or identify a specific musical note based on memory alone,” as explained by Katherine Brooks.

Brooks, the senior arts editor at Huffington Post, continues to explain how this phenomenon might, in fact, arrive as a result of genetics. It is believed that only one in 10,000 people have it.

Stemming off the research done by University of California professor Diana Deutsch, we now have reason to believe that genes play a large role in perfect pitch, like any other type of natural skill.

For their experiment, Deutsch and researchers gathered 27 English-speaking adults with backgrounds of musical training (since before the age of six). Of these 27 test subjects, however, only seven had “perfect pitch.”

To target the sample with perfect pitch, researchers administered subjects with a standard memory test known as a digital span test to examine how many “digits a person can remember and immediately recall in the correct order,” Brooks writes.

Keep in mind, digital span tests are conducted in two ways: auditory and visual.

As one could probably assume, the seven subjects with “perfect pitch” naturally outperformed the rest of the sample throughout the auditory portion of the digital span test. That being said, when it came to the visual part of the test, there wasn’t much of a significant difference between the “perfect pitch” subjects and the rest of the group.

This is important because, as Brooks explains, the auditory portion of the digital span test has long been considered a “genetic component.” Therefore, people with perfect pitch might have a special type of “auditory memory” that is passed down genetically -- and isn’t necessarily a result of strict musical training (although it certainly would help).

"Our finding therefore shows that perfect pitch is associated with an unusually large memory span for speech sounds, which, in turn, could facilitate the development of associations between pitches and their spoken languages early in life,” Deutsch asserts.

I suppose it’s like anything else.

I mean, in order to be a professional basketball player, a certain level of practice and training is required. Things like dribbling and shooting require a great deal of work before one can become proficient at them. Still, being born with a number of genetic gifts -- you know, things like height and athleticism -- undoubtedly go a long way too.

Some people are just born to do certain things.