The Case Against Perfect Pitch
Updated: Apr 20, 2019
I feel like there's a lot I need to try and qualify before I just jump straight into a topic like this. First and foremost, I have absolute pitch, so I don’t want to think I’m punching above my weight when I talk about something like this. But that also requires me to qualify what I think absolute pitch is.
So what is it? Perfect pitch, by Google’s dictionary definition is “the ability to recognize the pitch of a note or produce any given note; a sense of absolute pitch.”
This is undeniably a skill some musicians have. When played a note (and often multiple notes in either a chord or a melody), they can recognize it without the aid of a musical instrument. This is demonstrably possible, so it’s not like I’m denying its existence. What I do question, on the other hand, is the nature of the skill itself. Let me explain.
One of the common statistics that you hear when researching a thing like this is that it is a skill possessed by only 1 in 10,000 people, and I think that’s a somewhat misleading statistic from the offset. That’s 10,000 of the general population, not factoring in what percentage of people actually regularly practice music. When you consider that it’s only likely a fraction of that number, it’s already less daunting of a statistic. Obviously that’s something I can’t provide any statistical backup to, and the brief Google search I did didn’t seem to provide any empirical evidence. But nevertheless, it leads onto what my real problem with this is. That statistic is far more indicative of how people perceive perfect pitch as something you are born with, not a skill that’s acquired, and that’s not something I believe.
Consider how the process of pitch recognition works. Someone on a piano plays a C#, and the musician with this ability will be able to tell you that purely by hearing alone. But how did they know that the note was a C#? In order to identify that, they need to have been socialised in a place where western tonal harmony is the standard. The problem with that is that it’s not a natural occurrence in itself, something that we as Western musicians have manufactured in the world. Therefore, it’s not really possible to know what it is at birth, it’s something you have to be socialised into. It’s like suggesting that Lionel Messi was born knowing the rules of football. It is inherently a learned thing. If perfect pitch really was “perfect”, that ability wouldn’t differ over cultures that have different notes outside of Western tradition. If this was a totally natural part of human biology, not only would it be consistent between musical cultures, but it would also be far more widespread than just the 1 in 10,000. What I believe is actually happening here is that these people are musicians who are introduced to it early and have a very consistent exposure to their tonal system and harmony. This quickly builds up a fundamental skillset in the same way some of the best sports players are nurtured from a young age. The problem with this, is that it’s not an easy thing to do, and to someone who hasn’t, for one reason or another, been exposed to that kind of learning, it can look like something they were born with or natural talent. But actually, I think it’s really just a lot of work that has gone on behind the scenes for most of this person’s life. But there’s a reason we hang onto this idea that it’s natural.
A really great book that I end up recommending to a lot of people is Bounce by Matthew Syed, former professional table tennis player turned science author. His central premise is similar, that “talent” isn’t just something that is empirically disprovable, but something of a comfort mechanism for people who aren’t “talented”. This paragraph really stuck out to me.
“The idea that natural talent determines success and failure is, today, so powerful that it is accepted without demur. It seems indisputable. When you watch Roger Federer caressing a cross-court forehand winner or a chess grandmaster playing twenty games simultaneously while blindfolded or Tiger Woods launching a 350-yard fade, we are irresistibly drawn to the conclusion that they possess special gifts not shared by the rest of us.”
Syed’s point is that it’s comforting to believe that something is unattainable, because it negates the feeling that you needed to work hard. But actually, this is one of those areas that life is meritocratic in ways that aren’t obvious. The Williams sisters got great at tennis because they played with baseball bats for hours on end, Tiger Woods got great because he was out on the course essentially as soon as he could walk, and in the music corner, there’s the interesting case of Dylan Beato. Dylan is the son of Rick Beato, well-known music content creator on YouTube. In a series of videos, Rick plays harmonically dense chords, and Dylan can almost effortlessly pick out every single note. It’s wonderful to watch, and Dylan clearly has undeniable skill. But it is just that, skill. On Rick’s channel, he shows a video where pretty much as soon as Dylan is able to compute the world around him, he’s being socialised into the world of complex music and harmony. The thing is, this is all mental training that goes on in the quiet of the Beato household, not something we as civillians can grasp onto and understand as the practice to get there. To us, it looks like a child with an almost superhuman ability to understand harmony, and it’s very easy to lull yourself into the idea that this is something Dylan was born with, not that he’s been working on it literally his whole life. Not only that, but it was also an extremely effective style of learning. Not only was he assisted by Rick, a musician himself, but he also had the inner resources to go and experiment with music on his own accord, something that was integral to him improving in the way and at the rate that he did. I think Rick is very much of the Bounce school of thought and is holding Dylan’s ability up as an example to the world that anyone can acquire amazing skills if they’re focused and applied in the right way when they’re learning.
I’m aware that the tone of this blog can come off a bit antagonistic and that’s really not what I’m trying to get at in the slightest. I’m not calling anyone who can’t do this lazy, in fact I’m trying to suggest the opposite. The 1 in 10,000 people have just happened to be exposed to certain learning methods and have applied themselves in ways that are statistically highly unusual. I don’t want to impart the hopelessness that you’ll never be perfect because you haven’t worked your entire life to become a superstar in a given craft, more to impart the optimism that given the right kind of learning attitude and work ethic, even the abilities we perceive as “talent” and “natural gifts” can be earned and enjoyed by anyone.