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Perfect pitch? What’s the big deal?

As I foraged through old e-mail files, I stumbled upon my note to Oberlin alum, Robert Krulwich, WNYC RADIO LAB program moderator. krulwich

He and his co-host had featured psychologist, Dr. Diane Deutsch’s podcast on Perfect Pitch. One of her published papers, among others, provided a springboard for discussion:

Tone Language Speakers Possess Absolute Pitch

My correspondence follows:

To: Robert Krulwich,

Greetings from an Oberlin classmate who caught the “Perfect Pitch” podcast.

Was it you or your co-host moderator who bubbled over “perfect pitch” during the presentation? Why an over enthusiasm about “perfect pitch” per se, along with the disseminated misinformation attached to the legendary composers who were supposedly born with it?

In so many words, I believe perfect pitch is notably irrelevant to musical genius or accomplishment, and may give those endowed, a false claim to having an advantage over those who don’t.

My REVISED and updated letter to Dr. Deutsch elaborates:

Subject: WNYC Podcast on language/music ties, etc.
A partial list of Dr. Deutch’s papers

Diane Deutsch

Absolute Pitch Is Associated with a Large Auditory Digit Span: A Clue to Its Genesis

Perfect Pitch: Language Wins Out Over Genetics

Perfect Pitch in Tone Language Speakers Carries Over to Music
Tone Language Speakers Possess Absolute Pitch

Mothers and Their Children Hear Musical Illusion in Strikingly Similar Ways

Dear Dr. Deutsch,

A piano student of mine referred me to your WNYC podcast (2006) and I found your ideas fascinating though I have some reservations about your initial emphasis on perfect pitch springing from the “tone” languages, such as Mandarin. (Does it follow, given your research, that Asians of Chinese origin have a natural yen for it?) And what’s the appetizing ingredient of having it?


From my perspective as a piano teacher, having mentored a large sample of students of every level, I would de-emphasize the importance of perfect pitch as it impinges on musical progress, or the path to a high standard of performance. (And I realize that your discussion did not circumscribe perfect pitch as it bears upon instrumental accomplishment)

Mr. Robert Krulwich, however, and his co-host, were overwhelmed by the micro-incidence of perfect pitch in the world population, and made a puzzling leap to the ingenious European composers of the Classical era. It followed that Mozart should be regaled for internalizing his scores and putting notes instantly down on paper with his perfect pitch endowment, while Beethoven who struggled endlessly with scribbled sketchbooks of an edited variety was overlooked. Did he have perfect pitch?

Given that many legendary composers did NOT come into the world in a pitch perfect bundle of love, the program feature led listeners astray. (Why not flesh out the basic truth that perfect pitch is NOT a requirement for meaningful musical pursuits) In fact, it’s RELATIVE pitch that’s more relevant to sight-reading, practicing and progressing.

DEFINITION RELATIVE PITCH: (From Free Dictionary-Farlex)

1. The pitch of a tone as determined by its position in a scale.

2. The ability to recognize or produce a tone by mentally establishing a relationship between its pitch and that of a recently heard tone.

RE: Your Pitch on Tone languages

What resonated with me was your demonstrated inflections in Mandarin and other related languages, and how each had different meanings attached to the same syllable or word. Obviously, this would have a bearing on parent/infant communications.

It made me realize that our English language is permeated by inflections of speech that register various emotions. (You pointed that out)

With Mandarin, the evolution of the micro-interval scales as realized by the ancient instruments seems relevant to the discussion. For instance, in China, the ERHU, introduced by Lang Lang in his debut concert in Carnegie Hall, clearly reflected the sound of the Chinese language with its sliding, micro-interval scale. Have musicologists, therefore, made its connection to the Chinese language? Obviously, there’s a logical flow from native speech to instrumental expression, yet I’m not certain that our very fixed intervals of Western Major and minor scales can easily be tracked from Greek, Italian, German, etc.

Music history books are filled with information about the modes, and moods, etc. and most of us riveted to historical anthologies, realize, that in Gregorian Chants, for example, the prayer texts in Latin are interwoven.

Clearly in Handel’s Messiah, “He was Despised and Rejected”, the falling interval realizations of Despised and Rejected have enormous emotional meaning. But would a native Mandarin of a few hundred years ago respond emotionally to the Western descending scale in this way??? (I believe musicological research is underway)


For me, Perfect or ABSOLUTE pitch, as you isolated it in your studies, has little if any immediate or long range musical significance, even if it can be proven that infants exposed to tone languages are more PITCH sensitive.

And does it follow that the success of a few Chinese instrumentalists is largely due to their environmentally nursed tone language exposure? I’m thinking of Lang Lang, Yuja Wang and Yundi Li.

In conclusion, in my own teaching practice spanning decades, I don’t believe that perfect pitch is relevant to building solid musicianship skills. In addition, it’s not necessarily genetic and can be acquired (as you more than suggest by your study.) String players, in particular are constantly tuning to concert A, 440, and eventually “memorize” the frequency. It transpired when I took up violin study at age 11. (P.S. I wonder if those who have perfect pitch can become confused when playing an out-of-tune instrument, like a piano for instance)

In any case, I enjoyed the podcast, and will look forward to exploring your research in greater detail.


3 thoughts on “Perfect pitch? What’s the big deal?”

    1. Yes, ideed.. I think all this fuss made over perfect pitch is needless. The moderators of Radio Play just took their enthusiasm to an extreme. We all know that perfect pitch in and of itself is irrelevant to the development of musical artistry..


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