The book

The author

  • David Shenk is the national bestselling author of five previous books, including The Forgetting ("remarkable" - Los Angeles Times), Data Smog ("indispensable" - New York Times), and The Immortal Game ("superb" - Wall Street Journal). He is a correspondent for, and has contributed to National Geographic, Slate, The New York Times, Gourmet, Harper's, The New Yorker, NPR, and PBS.

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May 04, 2007



I really don't think any study on perfect pitch is complete until it at least considers the various people who claim to be able to teach perfect pitch:

I don't know why this is even controversial, if we know that the typical human brain can recognize pitches, then the only difficulty is correlating it with notes. This is no different really than correlating notes written on a page with touching the correct note on a piano, or seeing letters written on a page and corresponding them to sounds and words and meaning.


i have had absolute pitch all of my life, can i develop relative pitch too? im so confused with all this stuff someone help me out,

can you have both? help!!


what the hell?! your meaning to tell me that this whole time that i have had perfect pitch is pointless? dude, not cool. everyone says stuff like "oh man perfect pitch is awesome, i wish I had it" yet it doesn't help me out that much? im so pissed,

i thought i was really good with music


There is definitely a learning aspect to absolute pitch. As a child, I was 100% accurate on all the piano white keys as well as the B-Flat and F-Sharp. When someone would test me on any of the other 3 black notes, I would always double check by referring to an internally known C or G. As I got a bit older, I was confident on all 12 pitches in any register and on any instrument.

I suspected one of my piano students as having absolute pitch; however he was always 1/2 step off. It seems that he also studied Trumpet at the same time.

Drove me crazy when my daughter took some clarinet lessons, and I tried to help her. I could do it, but I had to transpose in my mind. I would not want to play a B-flat instrument. Also drove me crazy, when during a college chorus performance of an a capella piece, everyone went down a 1/2 step at 1 point. I tried to be the lead, but unfortunately I have a weak little voice.

piano lessons

Having realized long ago that I didn’t have a great ear (my high school chorus teacher can attest to this), I took this as no great surprise.

Ron Nelson

Dan's story is correct. Because our piano was tuned lower than A 440 (it was less than a half step low) I grew up with a highly developed (my piano teacher made pitch and chord recognition a part of every lesson) perfectly imperfect sense of perfect pitch. My teacher chose to display my "gift" at the annual recital held at her house. I was to identify pitches and chords which she played on her [A 440] piano. I missed nearly one! At age 8, after being introduced as a prodigy, this was a confusing and humiliating experience. Over the years I "tweaked" the ability to the point where I can recognize piano and organ pitches accurately. But play a note on any other instrument and I'll miss it more than half the time.

I use AP only for that rare individual who can identify any sound... the squeak of a door, a dog's bark etc. For most others I use PR, pitch recognition. And I agree that highly developed RP is most usefull.

Re: Isabel's account of the "fifther". I think that some brains pick up the second strongest partial (after the octave) in the overtone series. I've had a few in such students my classes. My odd contribution is that of a professional baritone who, when asked to whistle a given pitch, produced the pitch a perfect fifth higher. And was absolutely convinced that he had it right. Could this be the origin of Organum? A "fifther" monk singing Chant? And they liked it?


This post reminds me of a very curious thing that happened in a music theory class I took. The teacher, early in the year, was trying to get us to reproduce tones we heard on the piano; most of the class (including me) had found their way there because the teacher was also the chorus teacher, so most of the class had no problem. There was one boy who was very insistent that he couldn't sing at all, though he was an accomplished musician (I think he played one of the string instruments) and in fact wound up being the best in the class (I can learn a song very fast and have decent pitch but no knack for music theory at all).

But the teacher, of course, was not content to let him say "I can't" and get away with it, so he had the boy try, and the boy sang a perfect fifth above the tone. It was bizarre, and led me to suspect that what you say in your last paragraph is true--that it wasn't a problem with his ears (since he was a musician, on a string instrument no less, and I mean this was a perfectly tuned fifth he sang) but some sort of problem with getting his voice to obey his brain. I have to say I feel somewhat vindicated to see that scientists are starting to suspect the same thing.


As long as one has good pitch memory, I don't think childhood instruction is key to acquiring perfect pitch. I don't have perfect pitch, but one time a friend of mine challenged me for some reason to sing a C; as it happened, I'd recently performed a song of mine that started on a C and had been practicing it regularly that week, and so I just tried to hit the opening note of that song, and (a bit to my surprise) did. If perfect pitch were something I aspired to, I feel like I could get at least somewhere close to it with enough practice...but I've kind of got enough other things to do.


I (kind of) have AP, but it's really a combination of eh AP and great RP. I know the absolute pitch of a Bb down pat from playing various low-brass instruments, and from that base Bb I can figure out the interval between it and the note in question (flat 5th, major 3rd, etc.) and do the math, so to speak. And yes, regarding your "early musical training" bit above, I started taking piano lessons at age 5.

That all said, I think AP is utterly useless compared to the treasury that's good RP. As a singer, instrumentalist, and composer, AP comes in handy maybe a few times a year. RP is useful practically every musical second.

Thomas D

Actually there is no historical evidence for JS Bach to have possessed absolute pitch - and I don't know of any evidence for Beethoven. In the absence of any credible sources, the supposed AP of those two is likely to have been popular myth.

Even in the 20th century there must have been a lot of dishonesty and myth-making. For example you can find sources which say both that Horowitz did and didn't have AP. He certainly claimed to, but that is cast doubt on by the Franz Mohr book (he was tuner and technician to Horowitz and Rubinstein). As for Sinatra, he would probably have you beaten up if you doubted his ability.


You asked for stories about highly talented people, and I immediately thought of my wife's family, specifically her and her two sisters. My wife and her oldest sister both have AP, and I figured it was about time I chimed in here, so here's a brief version of their story.

My wife was born the youngest of three sisters in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, with a grain farm in Aneroid (a "town" of less than 50). Their family had been farmers for several generations, and summers were spent on the farm, winters in the big city going to school. The parents decided early to start their children on musical instruments, although no one in their family had been more than a talented amateur to that point.

Due to a conducive environment (especially on an isolated farm for most summer), the fact that all three children were in the same routine, and supportive parents, all three girls practiced diligently and started to show promise as musicians. The family would load up their farm car with two cellos and a violin, two parents, and three little girls, and travel to various functions and get-togethers, all throughout their childhood. All the while, the girls practiced. Summer camps, master classes with world renowned soloists. They were even in their local community symphony during their school years.

Upon reaching college age, all three went to good music schools, studying with good teachers. Their parents struggled to get them instruments appropriate to their skills, but being farmers, it was always difficult. The emotional support was always there though. The eldest sister spent a few years as concertmaster of a well known "training" orchestra in Chicago, and the younger sisters both played with larger orchestras near their respective schools.

Fast-forward to present day, and my wife is currently a permanent cellist with a major symphony, the eldest sister plays with several well known orchestras in Chicago, and the middle sister has become a cattle rancher back home on the farm.

After years of hard work, practice, dedication, persistence and an almost indescribable passion for the art, everyone assumes that the three girls were just "talented", or that there was some special magic at work. All three will almost immediately tell you otherwise. It was hard work, plain and simple. (And, to their credit, the willingness to actually put in that work.)

I will never be half as good at anything I ever do as my wife is at her art. It is, to put it mildly, a humbling experience to hear her play.

After reading your descriptions of how genius (in the technical sense) works and develops, I found myself seeing their (the three sisters') situation as very much an example of this process. I'm sure by now you have quite a few anecdotes about talented people, but I doubt you have any stories about three farm girls who grow up to be national class musicians :) Just thought I'd share it.

Finally, please keep blogging! I went through withdrawl there for a while :) I'm very interested in the topic, and I can't wait for your book to come out. Personally, I'm a scientist by training, so it's very nice to see someone going through the technical literature out there. You're doing a terrific job!

Dan Seiden

That may or may not have been Ron Nelson so don't quote me on that. I heard the story second hand. I did study with Ron Nelson though. I may have cut the class when he told the story.

Great piece. Very inspiring on tone deafness. Teachers of music must not give up on kids. My dad was told not to sing at a concert when he was a kid. You can quote me on that.

Dan Seiden

Hi David,
I came to your blog to see if I could understand anything and encountered this post which I can actually reflect on.

Ron Nelson, my old Brown professor said that perfect pitch is your mothers piano. He had it, but because his mothers piano was a half step flat, so was his AP. I think reading musicians have the upper hand when it comes to AP. That's because every time they play a note they associate it with a letter. Guys like me who mostly play by ear and without written music don't come by it as readily. I just tried to sing an A and it came out as E, oh well.

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