People with perfect pitch love to tout the fact that they have perfect pitch. That's understandable: Our culture has long placed tremendous amount of value on this "gift," idealizing it as a "rare and desirable musical endowment." Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin and Handel all had perfect pitch — a kitschy fact that classical trivia fans love to point out to explain the genius of these weighty names.
However, psychological research shows that perfect pitch may not be the game-changing musical ability we've long thought it was. In fact, a lot of us have something quite like it.
A lot of people have something similar to perfect pitch. According to Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis, director of the music cognition lab at the University of Arkansas, perfect pitch (better known in the scientific community as "absolute pitch") is shared by approximately 1 in 10,000 people. However: "It turns out not to be so far from what the rest of us can do normally," she wrote in an essay for Aeon magazine in January.
"A number of studies have shown that many of the other 9,999 people retain some vestige of absolute pitch," Margulis writes. She cites studies out of Bucknell University and McGill University that both show that even the most basic non-musical people can recognize when common musical passages, such as TV show theme songs, deviate from their original pitch. Their non-perfect musical minds might not be able to name the notes that kick off The Simpsons theme song, but they will know if they're correct or not and can also reproduce them with surprising accuracy if asked to sing them.
Note names are not nearly as important as the relationships between them. The fact that an individual note is an E doesn't mean much outside of the context in which it appears. For example: E is a major third of C, but it's also the minor third of C sharp – so that E would sound like a happy note in C major and a sad note in C minor. The ability to recognize the positioning of these notes in a scale is called relative pitch, and thankfully most music listeners have it an implicit sense of it. And even better, it's a far more vital aspect to our experience of music than absolute pitch.
Some neurological surveys have found that absolute pitch can actually sometimes be detrimental to music listening and composing, because it distracts from our sense of relative pitch. In his book Musicophilia, psychologist Oliver Sacks shares the experience of a fellow neurologist with absolute pitch, Steven Frucht. When listening to music, Frucht "sometimes experiences a certain difficulty in hearing intervals or harmonies because he is so conscious of the chroma of notes that compose them."
In other words, Frucht might become so obsessed with the F-ness of the F's he'd hear and the B-ness of the B's, for example, that he'd overlook the fact they would form a "tritone," one of the most dissonant and diabolical intervals in the western harmonic series. It's such a powerful interval that it was a key part of Black Sabbath's discovery of their innovative heavy metal sound back in the '70s. In extreme cases, the vast emotional difference between Black Sabbath and a standard blues riff may be momentarily lost on someone focusing solely on pitch.
Perfect pitch also might not be that "perfect." A 2013 study out of the University of Chicago proved that the pitch recognition of people with absolute pitch is not infallible. It can be thrown off by a gradual manipulation of surrounding tones. Graduate student Stephen Hedger, post-doctoral scholar Shannon Heald and psychology professor Howard Nusbaum tested 27 people with perfect pitch. The researchers had participants listen to a Brahms symphony, gradually adjusting the pitch until it was a full third of a step out of tune. None of the participants noticed the change, even after listening to a full three movements out of song.
This research proves to a certain extent that perfect pitch still relies to a great degree on relative pitch — something all normal listeners share.
So people with absolute pitch aren't ultimately as exceptional as our culture suggests. Naming the pitch of a refrigerator's hum is definitely a cool party trick, but it's not necessarily a tremendous boon to musical composition. No musician should ever feel discouraged because they don't share Mozart or Beethoven's perfect pitch. As Oliver Sacks points out, Wagner and Schumann both lacked it, and they got on just fine.
Correction: Feb. 3, 2015