Perfect Pitch

Darold Treffert MD

What is perfect pitch?
Perfect pitch, also known as Absolute Pitch (AP), is the ability to name a note without reference to external reference pitch. A person with perfect pitch might be able to hear a note played on an instrument (or even a whistle, wind chime, or passing tone of someone’s speech) and instantly name it as an F-sharp or a B-flat, for example.

Perfect pitch is best understood as a spectrum of abilities. At the highest end of the spectrum, absolute pitch is an instantaneous and immutable phenomenon, requiring no conscious thought on the part of the person possessing it. The skill can’t be turned off. Despite claims to the contrary, most people probably cannot acquire it after early childhood.


How rare is perfect pitch?

Perfect pitch is considered rare, although due to different standards of testing, there are no accurate or reliable statistical studies of the phenomenon. It is sometimes said that, in its highest form, perfect pitch ability occurs in as few as one in 10,000 persons in the general population, almost always among people who have had musical training by the age of 5. However, the statistics may well be skewed to reflect populations who have musical backgrounds or the training to name notes.


Why is perfect pitch relevant to a discussion of savants?

Perfect pitch is more common in the special needs community, particularly among people with Williams Syndrome and individuals with other “midline defects.” Science is yet to understand why this is the case. Most — if not all — prodigious musical savants have a high degree of perfect pitch. They benefit from teachers and music therapists who possess the skill themselves, or who are conscious of its idiosyncrasies. (In and of itself, however, perfect pitch is not an indicator of prodigious musical ability.)

Since perfect pitch people are the ultimate “ear musicians,” perfect pitch offers advantages to those who possess it. Unfortunately, many music instructors are ignorant of perfect pitch and, unwittingly, use teaching strategies that hinder (or even destroy) the perfect pitch possessor’s desire for and commitment to musical study. It is important for parents and educators to recognize perfect pitch ability in children, and to find educators who are conscious of it.


I have a son or daughter who is musical. I want to know more about perfect pitch. How can I test for it?

Susan Rancer, a gifted music therapist working with the special needs community for more than 27 years, recently published a booklet called Perfect Pitch, Relative Pitch: How to Identify and Test for the Phenomena. The very readable booklet breaks bold new ground in the field and is designed for parents and educators.
As a child, Rancer, who herself has perfect pitch, grew frustrated by teachers who never fully grasped her ability. In her booklet, she describes various behavioral characteristics and traits peculiar to those with perfect pitch skills, including difficulties reading printing music (despite normal reading abilities in extra-musical contexts).

The booklet offers great insight both to normal musicians as well as to musicians working with the special needs community. It is available for a $10 donation (plus $1 shipping charge). A $11 check (US funds) made out to “FD Hope” may be mailed to Susan Rancer, 200 Estates Drive, Piedmont, California, 94611. All proceeds benefit research and education about Familial Dysautonomia, a genetic disease that took the life of Susan’s son David at age 11. (Rancer may also be reached at susanrmt@comcast.net  or www.susanrancer.com.)


What is the biggest misunderstanding about perfect pitch?

The most widely held myth — recently reprinted in the New York Times — is that people with perfect pitch have difficulty transposing music into different keys. In fact, the opposite is true. Nearly everyone with perfect pitch can transpose music effortlessly into any key. Formal musical training may easily frustrate “ear musicians,” but that by no means suggests that they lack this basic musical aptitude.


Music runs in families. Is perfect pitch an inherited trait?

We don’t know. Researchers have noted a higher level of perfect pitch among European (Ashenazi) Jews, as well as in certain Asian populations. A genetic research study on Absolute Pitch (AP) is underway at the University of California in San Francisco, in the hope of finding the gene (allele) linked to perfect pitch ability. UCSF researchers have issued a plea to families in which perfect pitch has been noted among several members. The initial screening for the UCSF study takes place through a challenging online auditory test.

The organizers of the UCSF genetic study readily concede, however, that perfect pitch abilities appear only among those who began early formal music training, usually before or by age 6. If there is a genetic component to perfect pitch, it must be activated through early musical experience and training.


Is perfect pitch a learned trait?

Psychologist Diana Deutsch (UC-San Diego), who possesses perfect pitch herself, has conducted some of the most interesting — and provocative — research on this subject. She relates perfect pitch to speech and speech acquisition, and has drawn extensively from experiments performed with speakers of Asian tonal languages. Deutsch offers the surprising suggestion is that almost anyone can learn perfect pitch provided they are encouraged to do it while young. “The real puzzle about perfect pitch is not why so few people possess it, but rather why most people do not,” Diana Deutsch said in a December 2001 Discover magazine interview. “Everyone has an implicit form of perfect pitch, even though we aren’t all able to put a label to notes.”

Researchers in early infant development, such as psychologist Jenny Saffran and her colleagues at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, have tested this phenomenon and observed that infants are almost universally able to make precise distinctions between pitches. They later lose this ability, perhaps because it may be a distraction in the course of acquiring normal communicative speech. In other words, if they aren’t learning music early on, perfect pitch skills aren’t particularly useful after a certain point. “Infants … enter the world with a structure or hard-wiring that helps them learn,” Saffran has said. “What’s interesting here is we may not have dedicated hardware just for language. The structure is probably general to many complex forms of learning, including music.”


Why is perfect pitch relevant to the special needs community?

Perfect pitch may be a normal developmental ‘window’ that is open, early on, in every one of us. Under normal circumstances, that perfect pitch window closes. But for many people in the special needs community, that window of ability remains open much longer, or remains open indefinitely.

By recognizing perfect pitch abilities, therapists and teachers may access many unexpected developmental areas. By capitalizing, for example, on perfect pitch transposition skills, and by posing challenges (and puzzles) which even very low-functioning individuals with perfect pitch can solve, therapists may open a new means of communication with their clients. Concepts about perfect pitch might one day be taught more widely to music therapists, and may be incorporated into standard therapeutic approaches.

Perfect pitch, music therapy and the savant

Perfect pitch, or absolute pitch, is the ability to name a note played on a piano or other instrument, or many other sound sources, and instantly name it as F-sharp, or B-flat, for example. While quite rare in the general population, among persons with special needs (and especially among musical savants) it is a very common characteristic and is almost universally present in prodigious musical savants.

Beyond its research significance in that regard, perfect pitch has many practical and important implications for dealing with, and teaching, savants with that unusual ability. Susan Rancer, a registered music therapist, has written a very useful and practical guide for music teachers, music therapists and parents when dealing with this special population.

Ms. Rancer’s music therapy practice consists almost entirely of persons with special needs, many of them with autism, and many with perfect pitch. Teaching approaches to persons with perfect pitch require unique considerations and techniques, and this very practical booklet describes those in detail.

The booklet is titled Perfect Pitch & Relative Pitch / How to identify and test for the phenomena: A guide for music teachers, music therapists and parents. It is available from Ms. Rancer through her Web site at www.susanrancer.com. Her site gives further practical advice for teachers, therapists and parents based on her many years of experience with special needs students, provides some case examples, and furnishes links to other sources of such information.

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