Perfect Pitch Problem (KEVIN AUSTIN )

Subject: Perfect Pitch Problem
Date:    Mon, 26 Oct 1998 05:44:53 -0400

I've always considered ear-training for people with perfect pitch to be quite a different matter than for those of us who have 'relative' pitch. This year, in an advanced ear-training course, I have a student with perfect pitch. The student has a refined ear and is able to name notes inside complex piano, instrumental and vocal textures. I have prepared a series of dictation tapes on cassette (from DAT with sampled instrumental sounds), which the students do in the Media Center of the Library. Since the cassette have passed through two cassette decks (the dubbing process and the machines in the library), there is frequently a shift of pitch by almost up (or down) to a semitone. This is not a problem for 'relative pitch'ers, isolated intervals still have the same 'identity' property, ie, a minor sixth sounds like a minor sixth, but strangely, the 'perfect pitch'ers have some difficulty with this, frequently identifying the interval as a perfect fifth, or a major sixth. I can understand how this can come about, but wonder if anyone has worked on the problem of helping people who have perfect pitch perception, to be able to hear in relative terms. (The student apparently doesn't hear 'intervals', rather just two pitches.) An analogy I present to my classes to try to explain this is that most people have 'perfect color', ie, "That book is green.", but few people have 'relative color', ie, "That green is as far from that blue, as this red is from that brown." (Which is the same as saying, "That C is as far from that E, as this F is from that A." -- intervals are relative, pitches are absolute.) Any pointers for me to follow up? Many thanks Best Kevin kaustin(at) I take it that 'perfect pitch' is learned, potentialy with a strong genetic bias, in early childhood. There are references in the Groves Dictionary of Music to studies that perfect pitch can be taught to young children. This may be a fundamental problem of early childhood music education, where we say this is 'Twinkle', and begins with a fifth, but would always 'name' the color being pointed out to a child. Or it could be that western music benefits from only having a relative scale of musical pitches. Without this relative perception (as is the case with this student), harmony cannot 'function'. (When everyone is someone, no-one is anyone G/S.) k cooler winds blowing in Email to AUDITORY should now be sent to AUDITORY(at) LISTSERV commands should be sent to listserv(at) Information is available on the WEB at

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Electrical Engineering Dept., Columbia University