The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Is having perfect pitch ever a problem? Can a pill give you perfect pitch? A story on NPR inspires a lot of public doubt. | January 11, 2014

ALERT: Remember that today from 1 to 8 p.m. is Double Reed Day at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music. Hosts are UW professors oboist Kostas Tiliakos (below left) and bassoonist Marc Vallon (below right) Registration is $20 at 1-1:30 p.m. in Mills Hall. The event features master classes, exhibits, a dinner and free concerts of music for bassoon and oboe. Here is a link to a previous blog post about the day:

Kostas Tiliakos and Marc Vallon horizontal

By Jacob Stockinger

One opera composer and musical titan – Mozart (below) – had it.

mozart big

Another opera composer and musical titan – Richard Wagner (below) — did NOT have it.

Richard Wagner

So, how important is having perfect pitch to having a successful career in composing or performing music?

And is perfect pitch a question of chemicals and drugs as well as of genetics and heredity?

Here is a quick summary of perfect pitch with some names of classical musicians who are said to have possessed it.

And here is an even longer and more detailed background piece with more names, examples and anecdotes from The New York Times:

Being one of the 1-in-10,000 people who have perfect pitch can pose problems, as a YouTube video about best-selling hip-hop violinist Paul Dateh at the bottom discusses.

The question of perfect pitch was also raised by a recent story on NPR. A scientist challenged the notion that perfect pitch is genetic and made claims for a drug that can confer it.

But many readers remain dubious. They say the story not only contains inaccurate reporting and underreporting of the drug’s side effects, but also confuses perfect pitch with relative pitch.

Here is a link to the story. But sure to read the more than 100 reader comments, many of them very strong, about the story. And leave your own reaction there or even better in the COMMENT section of this blog.


  1. Really the drug doesn’t actually “confer perfect pitch” though, and the researchers never describe it that way. The drug reawakens the neuroplasticity that young children have in the brains of adults, which makes it easier to acquire perfect pitch. This goes in line with a lot of recent research that indicates that perfect pitch isn’t really innate, but a learned skill.

    On an anecdotal level, my composition professor in undergrad had perfect pitch. He said that while he was singing in community choirs, however, he almost lost it because he had to adjust to the detuning that happens throughout a standard choir performance.

    The musicians in the documentary remind me of my experiences with musicians who have perfect pitch. A lot of them seem totally convinced of their rightness and are unwilling to move away from their “right notes”. As a result they wind up sounding out of tune with the ensemble and then get mad at everyone else. The completely ignore the fact that music is basically relativistic. To paraphrase Milton Babbitt, (most) people don’t hear pitches, they hear intervals.

    Comment by clarkenciel — January 11, 2014 @ 10:12 am

  2. Jake, I really enjoyed your piece on Absolute (Perfect/Relative) Pitch. All I can tell you is that my college music major class of 28 included about 6 with the skill. Of course, during ear training exams, it meant that there was never any curve as those few always got 100% right. As for the explicit character/color of any of the 12 natural chromatic keys, I have no knowledge of that. But I think my son would bear out the idea that a way to inculcate it is by early, concentrated musical study. My son began violin at 3 yrs. of age taking lessons every week until he was 16 & he’s got it. And I can assure you that there was no hereditary factor involved as neither his mother nor I have ever even had Relative Pitch. Ironically, despite almost world class violin ability, he didn’t pursue a professional musical career but became a CPA instead where, as far as I know, his Absolute Pitch doesn’t help in the least.

    Comment by buppanasu — January 11, 2014 @ 12:45 am

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