What Is Perfect Pitch?
Absolute pitch, widely referred to as perfect pitch, is the ability to identify by ear, or to sing, any musical note with extreme accuracy and without recourse to an instrument. The gift, possessed by few and impossible to acquire, is not essential to musicians, but is of enormous help to possess it. Many composers have had this gift, but two lacked it were Wagner and Schumann.
In ancient Greece, where instruments were mainly stringed, no fixed pitch standard was used. This was the case even in Renaissance times. When large wind and string orchestras were created, it became necessary to agree on one constant. The organ was chosen because the standard note it gave was less variable than that of other instruments.
For unaccompanied singing a pitch pipe or tuning fork is often used. If the conductor has perfect pitch, he can give a note or a range of notes himself without the use of an aid. In unaccompanied choral music, therefore, perfect pitch is a particularly valuable accomplishment.
Perfect pitch is a rare auditory phenomenon characterized by the ability of a person to identify or re-create a given musical note without the benefit of a reference tone. People may have absolute pitch along with the ability of relative pitch, and relative and absolute pitch work together in actual musical listening and practice, but strategies in using each skill vary.
Those with absolute pitch may train their relative pitch, but there are no reported cases of an adult obtaining absolute pitch ability through musical training; adults who possess relative pitch but do not already have absolute pitch can learn “pseudo-absolute pitch” and become able to identify notes in a way that superficially resembles absolute pitch.
Moreover, training pseudo-absolute pitch requires considerable motivation, time, and effort, and learning is not retained without constant practice and reinforcement. Scientific study of absolute pitch appears to have commenced in the 19th century, focusing on the phenomenon of musical pitch and methods of measuring it. It would have been difficult for any notion of absolute pitch to have formed earlier because pitch references were not consistent.
For example, the note now known as ‘A’ varied in different local or national musical traditions between what would now be considered as G sharp and B flat before the standardisation of the late 19th century. While the term absolute pitch, or absolute ear, was in use by the late 19th century by both British and German researchers, its application was not universal; other terms such as musical ear, absolute tone consciousness, or positive pitch were also used to refer to the ability.
The skill is not exclusively musical, or limited to human perception; absolute pitch has been demonstrated in animals such as bats, wolves, gerbils, and birds, for whom specific pitches facilitate identification of mates or meals.