Living In A “Perfect” World

The first rule of having perfect pitch is to not talk about having perfect pitch.

Growing up there were things that would bother me – an ever shifting tonal center on bus sing-a-longs to “99 Bottles of Beer On The Wall,” countless Happy Birthdays renditions that wouldn’t quite make the last octave jump, people singing songs from the radio in differing keys. But I could never properly articulate why until a routine rite-of-passage during the first week of my sophomore year of high school.

It was custom for my choir director to vocalize each member of the ensemble at the beginning of the year to get a feel for ability, range, and solo potential. He would always go from the lowest voices to high meaning my still pre-pubescent self had to wait agonizingly as he made his way through forty plus other guys before he got to me. My choir director could be an intimidating man but to his credit he profusely went out of his way to diffuse this incredibly nerve-wracking one-on-one (to boot, vocalizing always took place in front of everyone else). He began my vocalization by playing a series of pentatonic scales that I sang back to him. Sometimes he would fumble and play incorrect notes but I would still sing the correct ones of the given key. He stopped dead in his tracks and glared at me. He then began playing individual notes on the piano and having me guess them. I had never seen him do this (I had sat through forty of these after all!), making me think I had done something terribly wrong. “You fucker,” he said looking up from the piano. “You have perfect pitch.”

I had no idea what that meant and his tone of voice didn’t exactly imply that it was a compliment but I figured anything that had the word perfect attached must be a good thing. After doing due diligence on the internet I found out that perfect pitch (aka absolute pitch) is the ability to identify a musical note without reference. I knew all those things growing up bothered me but now I had the reason why! Not to mention I was in a club that included Beethoven, Bing Crosby, and Michael Jackson. I could get with that!

The first rule of having perfect pitch is to not talk about having perfect pitch.

One of my college professors early on advised me to not go around bragging about, in his words, “being apart of a rare auditory phenomenon.” It was one of the wisest pieces of advice I’ve ever received. I learned very quickly in the halls of music school that there’s almost no way of talking about it without sounding like a totally conceited snot. I’ve seen people (*cough cough Charlie Puth cough*) describe having perfect pitch like they have a superpower and it annoys me to no end. Boasting about it is not just a bad look, it will quickly draw the ire of fellow musicians – who out of jealousy, incredulousness, or doubt are always ready to try to poke holes, or attempt to prove they themselves have it, or downplay the existence of it entirely. There can also be a lot of stupid jockeying BS among people that have perfect pitch (“that was a a semi tone flat not a quarter tone!”) that I just have no interest in taking part in.

In general I genuinely don’t believe having perfect pitch makes you a superior musician. It certainly does not make me a perfect vocalist. There are far too many variables in the human body while singing to absolve me from singing the occasional flat or sharp note. I’ve found that perfect pitch is actually much more beneficial harmonically than melodically. I can hear a chord progression one time and know it forever but because individual notes strike such a vivid impression melismas are often my worst nightmare. In other words, please don’t ask me to sing in a Mariah Carey cover band.

I really only voluntarily play the perfect pitch card in moments of absolute necessity. It sounds so stupid but I have it in my head that it’s a gift and if I talk too much about it I’ll have it taken away from me. It’s been a safety net countless times. I know for a fact I would’ve not made it through rigorous levels of music theory and solfege without it. I also don’t love having perfect pitch all the time. Everything has a pitch which means I constantly hear defined musicality in mundane things. It can be cool, but sometimes I’d rather just think about which ice cream I want to buy without also wanting to harmonize with the perfect fourth sound the freezer is making, ya know?

People have often asked me if perfect pitch can be taught. I think you can get close (also known as relative pitch) but not perfect. At the same time I know there are methods out there that claim to be able to teach it and I would never stand in anyone’s way of that pursuit. There are some who go out of their way to denounce the validity of trying to learn it as if they are gatekeepers to this special ability but I’m not one of them. It’s an incredible tool and it shouldn’t (can’t?) be just for the “chosen” few. I just haven’t met anyone (yet?) who has perfect pitch who learned it and can point to a clear before and after.

Perfect pitch is hugely advantageous, no doubt, but it’s only a head start. It’s not a substitute for honest hard work and development in the craft. For a few years in my late teens I was guilty of being one of those people who thought they could get by solely through having perfect pitch. But life is so much better when you know what you don’t know. I’ve developed an insatiable curiosity which has made me more open to discussing my own strengths and weaknesses. I still may believe in not talking about perfect pitch, but there’s a way to apply it tastefully that can still benefit yourself, and more importantly, everyone else.

 

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