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Since she was a child, my mother has had something my family calls "perfect pitch": give her the name of a note--E flat, for instance--and she can hum it perfectly every time. Though the women in our family (for six generations!) have had a definite musical talent, we know of no one else who has this knack. What is this thing, anyway? How did she get it? And what can she do with it? --Elisabeth Ebert, Chicago

Perfect pitch, to hear musicians who don't have it describe it, is a little like being able to make your ears wiggle--a cute stunt, but without much practical value. Other observers, however, say that having it is like going to color TV from black-and-white. Having looked into the question, I am inclined to the latter view. I spoke to several individuals with perfect pitch, and though they were all pretty nonchalant about it, some of them could do things that were the musical equivalent of a 360-degree slam dunk. (More on this below.)

Perfect pitch, also called absolute pitch, is not the same thing as perfect relative pitch--that is, the ability to sing or play accurately given a starting note. Relative pitch obviously is useful to professional musicians; most have it, and to a large extent it can be learned.

Absolute pitch is a different story. It's the ability to sing in tune with some previously memorized standard, for which reason some prefer the term "pitch memory." Contrary to wide impression, you're not born with it, but it does seem to be something you have to learn early. One perfectly pitched singer I spoke to had begun his musical training at age four.

Perfect pitch includes two separate skills: the ability to name a tone once heard, and the ability to sing a named tone on command. A good singer without perfect pitch can approximate the latter skill, which depends in part on the kinesthetic sense--i.e., how the sound feels in your head as you sing it. But we'll assume Mom wasn't faking it.

The terms absolute and perfect pitch misleadingly suggest you're somehow in tune with the basic hum of the universe. Alas, the mundane truth is that your reference standard is typically "the pitch of your mother's piano," as one authority puts it. God help you if she didn't have that baby in tune.

Perfect pitch is a mixed blessing for musicians. On the plus side, some burble about the "immediate sensory pleasure" that "adventurous modulation" brings the lucky few who have it. Some claim it adds a new dimension to music, with each note having a character all its own. For just that reason, however, some with perfect pitch find transposing a piece to a different key disorienting--like "seeing purple grass," one writer says--because the feel of the new key is so different.

People with perfect pitch are often called upon by choirmasters and such to be human pitch pipes. But if you arrive late for practice and the rest of the chorus is singing a quarter-tone flat, you may find the experience excruciating. What's worse, as you age your eardrums lose their elasticity and everything you hear goes a bit sharp. Most people don't notice the change, but for those with perfect pitch nothing sounds right anymore.

The people with perfect pitch I spoke to pooh-poohed the new-dimension-of-music angle, but some of them were clearly being modest. One University of Chicago music professor said he could conjure up an entire orchestral piece in his mind strictly from having read the sheet music. With practice, he had even learned to re-create the echo of the concert hall. There were pieces he'd enjoyed for years before he'd physically heard them played. Snatches of seen-but-not-heard music would float into his mind the way we might remember an advertising jingle. He didn't own a stereo and didn't want one. He had an experience of music most people would never know.

Some have found other uses for perfect pitch. You may recall the "phone phreaks," the protohackers who used to delight in copping free calls from Ma Bell. One storied hacker was a blind kid named Joe Engressia who had perfect pitch. Most phreaks needed elaborate equipment to create the precisely pitched tones necessary to operate the switching equipment. Not Engressia. He could whistle them.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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