Perfect Pitch can mean a lot of things; a curve ball coming right down the middle and then breaking off the plate, leaving the batter waving at the air.
A Perfect Pitch could be a statement, or a line, spoken to a beauty at the bar that makes her smile and allows you to buy her a drink. It could be a sales presentation that closes the deal on your new line of powered steam cleaners.
Musicians only have one meaning for Perfect Pitch; the ability to distinguish a given tone or chord relative to the musical scale. It is indeed a rare trait but very common in the animal world. A blind bat can give off a high pitched sound that changes ever so slightly and allows the bat to zero in on an insect on a leaf. Birds can detect mates by the pitch changes of the songs.
Many Asian languages pronounce a word the same but when the pitch changes it means something entirely different. The Cantonese language has words that change meaning with each of 9 different pitch changes.
I had the privilege of playing music for 7 years with a blind musician who truly had perfect pitch. Perfect Pitch can be common among blind-at-birth people. It can also be more of a nuisance than a gift. Most musicians don’t sing or play notes perfectly in pitch and the slight inaccuracies can make the “perfect-pitch” guy crazy. My friend, Johnny, would love listening to trains or sirens change pitch as they moved closer and then faded away. He would name the note of the distant siren, keep changing the note as it drew closer (and lower in pitch) and then name the note as it grew fainter and higher. That’s a variation of pitch referred to as the Doppler Effect.
Musical Perfect Pitch is an extreme rarity, but Relative Pitch comes to many musicians that started learning scales at a young age and have trained their ears as well as their eyes when playing tunes. Relative pitch is related to memory, rather than a special gifted ear. Sometimes I find relative pitch allows me to remember voices better than faces. I like to brag about remembering someone’s voice over the years.
Last month my wife and I had just finished dining in a restaurant in Napa. As we left our table we passed a table of four people and one man was telling a funny story to the other three. His voice registered a “hit” in my relative pitch memory bank. I was too embarrassed to just turn around and ask if he was a fellow I hadn’t seen in over 25 years. We have talked on the phone at least once a year around tax time. He’s been my tax accountant for over 30 years. I’ve moved around and since he maintains his office in his home, we’ve always done our business through the mail and phone line.
But, there was his familiar voice ringing in my ear and it wouldn’t let me go.
This restaurant happened to be in a hotel that was next door to our time share condo so when we got to the exit I happened to glance at the board listing the events of the week. There it was in bold letters, “California CPA Conference.” OMG! The accountants were gathering in Napa and my ear had picked out my accountant over the din of voices in the restaurant.
I didn’t have the guts to go back in and approach the table of four and introduce myself, so I let my mind and “relative pitch” ear fade away. However, I knew I had just heard Jim’s voice.
Yesterday, I needed a question answered regarding a taxable investment. I called Jim down in Orange County. He answered with that perfectly familiar “tone” of voice.
After getting my questions answered I told him about hearing is voice up in Napa at “so-an-so” restaurant.
Jim just laughed. He said, “I haven’t been to Napa for years.”
That’s why they call it “relative” pitch I guess.