Perfect Pitch - Bane or Boon?

The first time I realised I had perfect pitch was during a routine piano lesson, during which my teacher was going through aural training with me in preparation for my ABRSM exam. When I was able to reproduce a verbatim repetition of a short melody she’d played earlier, she looked at me with wide-eyed merriment. As a young child who barely understood much about music back then, I was confused by her reaction - I’d thought that this ability was one that everyone possessed. 

Deutsch (2013) refers to perfect pitch, otherwise known as absolute pitch, as the ability of a person to recreate and identify a given musical note, with no external reference, and in the absence of tonal context. For example, a person with perfect pitch is able to identify by name individual pitches (e.g. A, B, C♯) when these notes are played on various instruments.

“Do you have perfect pitch?”

Almost every musician will, at one point of their musical journey, be asked this question. Usually, the answer “yes” is met with sentiments similar to that of my piano teacher’s - awe and admiration, as if having perfect pitch is akin to possessing some kind of superpower.

In this video, my favourite comedic musician duo, TwoSetViolin, humorously portray a few of the benefits that accompany the rare auditory phenomenon. For perfect pitch vocalists, singing on pitch/in tune is almost effortless, owing to the ability to hear a note before vocalising it. Students with perfect pitch often ace their aural and ear training exams with ease, and have little to no problem with sight-singing and melodic dictation. Additionally, musicians with perfect pitch are often also able to name multiple notes played simultaneously and thus discern by ear different chords, as well as the key that a piece of music is being played in.

However, on the flipside… Whilst I personally wouldn’t characterise perfect pitch as a curse, it does come with its own set of peculiar inconveniences. I was once required to play on an acoustic piano whose 88 keys had collectively gone out of pitch by one semitone lower, and it was an incredibly strange experience - my brain could not reconcile what I was playing on the keys with what I was hearing with my ears, and this cognitive dissonance left me both confused and unsettled! Playing on transposing instruments, or Baroque-tuned instruments, would pose a challenge to perfect pitch musicians. 

But more importantly, perfect pitch becomes more of a “handicap” than a perk when a musician relies on it mindlessly and uses it solely as a technical tool to identify individual notes/pitches, rather than a musical aid that has the capacity to elevate one’s level of musicianship when used right. One teacher illustrated this rather comically - he likened a perfect pitch musician who is only able to name a chord (e.g. C major) due to the ability to hear and identify the individual notes (C, E, G), to someone who hears the word “hello” but is only able to process it after identifying the individual letters in the word (h, e, l, l, o). 

Boon or bane, blessing or curse, one cannot deny that it makes for a rather awesome party trick and an entertaining gimmick for those who can’t get enough of asking the perfect pitch musician, “What note is this?” Once again, I leave it to TwoSetViolin to demonstrate the laughable annoyances that people with perfect pitch sometimes have to deal with.  

Bane or boon? You decide!