Perfect pitch refers to a person’s ability to identify any musical note by name after hearing it, without reference to other notes. Perfect pitch—also known more technically as absolute pitch—can also refer to the ability that some singers have to sing a given note on cue.
Though perfect pitch was thought to be a rare ability that depended primarily on early musical training in a “critical period” of sensitivity in childhood, auditory learning studies at the University of Chicago and elsewhere have shown that some individuals can learn to identify musical notes by ear even later in life.
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Perfect pitch refers to a person’s ability to identify a musical note correctly upon hearing it. For example, if someone were to play the note C sharp (C#) on the piano, a person with perfect pitch would be able to name the note without having seen which key was struck. Singers with perfect pitch may also be able to sing a given note on cue, without having heard it.
Famous musicians including Ella Fitzgerald and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had perfect pitch, which has been considered a rare ability. However, research conducted at the University of Chicago on the science of auditory learning has complicated the idea that perfect pitch is an all-or-nothing ability that only a select few can acquire if they learn music early in life during a “critical period” of sensitivity. Instead, it can be developed even in adulthood, and may depend on more general auditory and cognitive abilities.
Perfect pitch and absolute pitch are essentially the same concepts. Perfect pitch is an informally used term, whereas absolute pitch is a more technical term frequently used in research about the science of auditory perception. Both terms refer to a person’s ability to identify a note played out loud without seeing how it was played on an instrument and without reference to another note. Perfect pitch may also refer to the ability to produce a given note on cue by singing.
Relative pitch differs from perfect/absolute pitch in that people with relative pitch can identify notes, but only in reference to one another. For example, by using solfège—in which the syllables do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti, do are applied to the notes in a scale—a person can determine how much higher or lower one note is relative to another. Relative pitch is more common among musicians than perfect pitch.
Both people with perfect/absolute pitch and people with relative pitch can often play music “by ear,” meaning reproducing a song only by hearing it. However, those with perfect/absolute pitch can always tell whether a song has been transposed into another key from its original recording, whereas those with relative pitch may not have this ability.