Robert Estrin - piano expert

What is Perfect Pitch?

Learn what this means in music and for a musician

In this video, Robert tells you about "Perfect Pitch" and how it can be useful for a musician... but as you may guess, there are also some drawbacks. Enjoy this video!

Released on May 4, 2016

Post a Comment   |   Video problems? Contact Us!
DISCLAIMER: The views and the opinions expressed in this video are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Virtual Sheet Music and its employees.

Video Transcription

Hi, and welcome to and I'm Robert Estrin. The question today is, "What is perfect pitch?" It sounds like a great thing, doesn't it? Well, we're going to discuss the benefits of perfect pitch and if there are any detriments to it today.

Perfect pitch is actually a misnomer because it has nothing to do with intonation, being in tune. It has to do with simply pitch memory. Somebody with perfect pitch can hear a lawnmower outside and boom! Without even thinking about it, just like you and I can identify orange or green without even giving it a moment's thought, people with perfect pitch they know the pitch.

So if they sat down at a piano they can go, "A." Well I don't have perfect pitch. I can go pretty darn close but relative pitch is adjunct to perfect pitch. For the vast majority of people, including professional musicians who don't have perfect pitch, once you have one note, you can relate it to all other notes. So that someone with a well-developed relative ear, you might think they have perfect pitch because you could play notes at random on a piano or another instrument and they could just name them all once they have the first note.

But a person with perfect pitch, they don't need that reference pitch at all. In fact, they don't even have to give it any thought. Now, are there any detriments to this? Because you could see the benefits. My gosh, for transcribing music that is...for listening to music and being able to write it out, having perfect pitch is a tremendous help for that. Because you just hear the notes and you put them on the stack. You don't even have to figure anything out.

When is perfect pitch a problem then? Just imagine this, if you've ever sung in a choir and you have the music in front of you and you sing what you're seeing, it's not a problem. And maybe the choral director will establish the key. And if it's in C major, you all sing in C major. Or maybe they say, "You know what? This is a little bit high for the choir. Let's do it again but we're going to do it down a whole step." Now, the rest of the choir without perfect pitch, it doesn't make any difference. Once they have that reference, they can sing no problem.

A person with perfect pitch is going to have to calculate every note and transpose it. Because when they see a C, they hear an absolute pitch C, not that B flat that the choir director wants them to sing. Actually having perfect pitch can be a challenge in certain circumstances. What about the fact that somebody gets used to a certain pitch? At home, maybe their piano is tuned to 440. Then they go play in an orchestra and it's tuned to 442 or 444 and they go, "No, you're all wrong. This is the pitch." Well, believe it or not, that can happen, because their reference is so ingrained that they actually have to think to be able to play in tune if a group is slightly off.

Worst yet, getting back to that choir analogy, imagine singing in a choir and the choir drifts up or down during a performance. Which can easily happen if it's acapella, if the choir is not accompanied by any other instruments. Well, a person with perfect pitch is going to go nuts. They're going to naturally try to get the group back to the right pitch. Well, that might not work so well if one person is singing correctly and everybody else is off a little bit.

So perfect pitch is not an end-all solution. Ultimately it's essential for all musicians, regardless of whether they have a well-developed relative ear or perfect pitch, to understand the underlying structure of music. Perfect pitch can be a tremendous help in certain situations. But at the same time, it's not a replacement for understanding the inner workings of music that you must develop if you don't have perfect pitch.

So, if you don't have perfect pitch, don't feel it's a detriment to you. If you have it, enjoy it, but also you should do your work so that you're just as comfortable transposing and you understand the relationships between tones as anybody without perfect pitch would have to do anyway. So that's the long and short of perfect pitch. Love to hear from any of you who has perfect pitch or know people with perfect pitch. I'm sure there's many stories you can share.

Again, Robert Estrin here at and See you next time.
Automatic video-to-text transcription by
Post a comment, question or special request:
You may: Login  or  
Otherwise, fill the form below to post your comment:
Add your name below:

Add your email below: (to receive replies, will not be displayed or shared)

For verification purposes, please enter the word MUSIC in the field below

Comments, Questions, Requests:

Richard on February 17, 2022 @5:18 pm PST
Liked your observations about choir singing and perfect pitch. I seriously doubt I have perfect pitch, but I do a lot of choir singing and know where a lot of my note are! This does drive me nuts when a director uses her little transpose switch (we even have one on our new church organ!) and I am trying to sight read the piece! Keep up the good work!!
Robert - host, on February 18, 2022 @8:36 am PST
If you don't have perfect pitch, changing keys should present no problems other than possibly having to sing in an uncomfortable vocal range.
RIchard Kelso on February 16, 2022 @12:27 pm PST
My mother was a piano teacher for over 50 years in Cheyenne, and has perfect pitch. Going to a concert when someone or some instrument was not in tune tended to give her a splitting headache. One good aspect of losing her hearing is that this isn't a problem any more Smiley Face
Robert - host, on February 17, 2022 @10:36 am PST
Not all people with perfect pitch have good intonation. And many people with good relative pitch (not perfect pitch) have finely attuned ears for pitch. Sometimes someone with perfect pitch playing with a group that doesn't tune to A440 will have great difficulty matching pitch since they are accustomed to a different reference! Whereas someone with good relative pitch can seamlessly adjust in situations like that.
Clio * VSM MEMBER * on September 13, 2018 @8:23 pm PST
Here's a good study of absolute pitch from the National Institutes of Health, if you're interested. Though some of it may be a bit technical for a non-MD, they discuss an interesting "magnet" effect around the "A" pitch relating to G# annd Ab which may relate to your preferentially hearing Ab instead of A at the piano before you found a way to correct for that) also they confirm my experience of the "sharping" of perfect pitch with age (my and my friends' experience) and other physiological and possibly genetic issues. I've always wondered about the genetic issue and used to believe that it was a learned ability, since I was surrounded by music from the earliest age but I also descend from two prior generations of porfessional musicians, so wondered if it could be inherited. Two other siblings of mine don't have absolute pitch, though. I now think that possibly it's likely to be an inherited potential that however requires early and consistent exposure to music to manifest.
Fabrizio Ferrari - moderator and CEO, on September 14, 2018 @8:53 am PST
Thank you Clio for sharing that study, fantastic and super-interesting reading indeed!
Clio * VSM MEMBER * on September 12, 2018 @9:51 am PST
I've always had perfect pitch, as does my brother and some good friends who are also accomplished musicians. (My brother and I --a physician--also both participated in our late 50's in a research study on absolute pitch a colleague of mine was doing, which confirmed it). Some of us (including me and my brother) are older now (60's and 70's) and we've noticed that our "perfect" pitch is now perfectly wrong! As one's brain (and ears?) age, pitch recognition changes--like vision and everything else, I guess, going up by more-or-less half-note steps. Now, if I hear an A, I know it's an A-flat! This has been pretty disconcerting when I listen to familiar music. In the meantime, having played the piano all my life (and continue to do so) I took up the cello at age 61 and play pretty decently now. That has helped me keep a sense of accurate pitch because good intonation depends on it and the open strings help. But in many ways, perfect pitch makes music situations more complicated, as you said--singing in choruses (I used to) and having to transpose is mentally challenging. Very important to hear intervals in one's mind when sight-reading!
Robert Estrin - host, on September 13, 2018 @1:18 pm PST
It's funny, because for a long time my pitch memory when trying to sing an A at the piano before playing any notes (upon waking up in the morning), for a long time I was a half step flat! Eventually I learned to sit at the piano and imagine playing a piece and just before hitting the first note, the pitch occured to me in my head. I still do this on a regular basis. So, I do have a certain degree of pitch memory. However, I must calculate all subsequent notes utilizing solfeggio very quickly in my head. I cannot utlizie pitch memory beyond just that one parlor trick!
Tosh * VSM MEMBER * on June 8, 2016 @8:51 am PST
Just a quick comment: I read somewhere that Richard Wagner had relative pitch, but did "not" have perfect pitch. Is that true?
Robert - host, on June 8, 2016 @11:42 am PST
Perfect pitch is a rare phenomenon. There are a number of famous composers who had perfect pitch. However, there are many notable composers who did not have absolute pitch including: Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Ravel and Stravinsky.
paul.plak * VSM MEMBER * on May 13, 2016 @3:16 pm PST
When listening to music, I do hear all the note names do-ré-mi etc. including sharps and flats. I could write the all down although some more complex rhythms are hard to identify. I'm unsure I have perfect pitch, beacuse sometimes when hearing music I'm a half tone off in the notes I hear. It's hard to say if that comes from some recorded music being played at 440 or 444 Hz or whatever, or just me being wrong.

One difficulty is probably I do not sing well at all, and that's certainly a weakness in order to reproduce a note easily on the spot. On the viola or the violin I'm pretty good at playing in tune though, so I lust at least have good relative pitch.
Ed Hagopian on May 11, 2016 @4:03 pm PST
When I was a music student at Temple University, our choir was selected to sing Berlioz' Requiem with the Philadelphia Orchestra under the direction of Eugene Ormandy.

While the orchestra was on a break, our director, Robert Page suggested to Mr. Ormandy that we rehearse the "Quaerens Me" which was an a capella section. Mr. Page looked up at me and sais, "Ed, give us an 'A. Mr. Ormandy, not wanting to be outsmarted by a college kid, sang his 'A' which was a quarter tone flat!

I don't know where I got the nerve, but I said to Mr, Ormandy, "I'm sorry sir, but you're wrong!" A collective gasp came out of the choir, and the Maestro said, "Since I'm the conductor, we'll take MY 'A!'

After the break, the orchestra came back and we continued the rehearsal.Mr. Ormandy stopped to correct a phrase, or bowing, and said, "Chorus, let's start at letter 'G', and sang our starting pitches. He stared directly at me, and asked, "Am I right THIS time?'
Robert Estrin on May 11, 2016 @8:44 pm PST
That's a great story! So, did he nail the pitch on the G?
Ed Hagopian on May 12, 2016 @12:13 pm PST
Yes he did! The orchestra had been playing so he had a frame of reference to establish the pitch!
I also found out later that he had very good relative pitch, and the orchestra had been playing so he had something he could 'latch' on to.
Fulvia * VSM MEMBER * on May 7, 2016 @7:18 am PST
When I was very little and just starting the piano, mother would make me stand with my back to the keyboard and she would play one note, I had to say which note it was. Then she would make me sing another note and say what it was. I think it helped a lot in developing the perfect pitch, which I seem to have. Often when listening to any piece I can go to the piano and pick up the pitch and play along with the CD or radio. I also find it quite easy to transpose a piece from one key to another.
Robert - host, on May 9, 2016 @12:18 pm PST
It sounds like you have a very well developed sense of pitch. To determine for sure that you have perfect pitch, try going to the piano hours after you haven't heard any music. Pick a random note and sing it - then play it. If you are spot on, you have perfect pitch!

The other ability you describe being able to sing random notes could be achieved with a well developed sense of relative pitch. But you would need at least one note for a reference first.
Fulvia * VSM MEMBER * on May 13, 2016 @6:14 pm PST
I tested myself several times, it seems that my reference note is the center C, I sing that one and I always get it right, then I can jump to any other key, by using the C major scale. A little harder are the half tones.
AlessandroTronca * VSM MEMBER * on May 6, 2016 @12:33 pm PST
Very nicely explained Mr. Estrin, as always.
Questions? Problems? Contact Us.
Norton Shopping Guarantee Seal