It’s called perfect pitch, or absolute pitch. I have it, and it is a wonderful gift. However, I don’t like the word perfect or absolute, because it implies that we fortunate few have something that is infallible, and that we are incapable of making aural mistakes. Wrong! I once had a choir director in Junior College who had perfect pitch. He many times would start singing out of the blue, without a starting pitch or reference point, and be right on. I knew he was on as well, but everybody else in choir wouldn’t ‘know’ until the piano chimed in and verified his tonality. His ear, I think, was even better than mine. But there was ONE time in the 2 years of choir rehearsals that he was off, way off, and I knew it! He kept going, though, and he glanced at me while he was singing. He knew he was off as well, and he glanced at me because he knew I was the only one else in the room who knew he had left A440 way behind. He blushed a little, as I would have.
So, we can make mistakes, we can lose our pitch now and again for a moment, especially if we are exposed for any length of time to an instrument that is tuned low (below A440), like an old turn of the century piano. I just wanted to correct the superhuman myth of perfect pitch before I get into ‘what it is like’ to have the gift. There are also varying degrees of the gift, and we must also not confuse ‘perfect pitch’ with really great relative pitch. Relative pitch is the ability to be given a reference point pitch, and from that reference point being able to skillfully discern what pitches or chords follow. Someone with perfect pitch CAN, but does not need to use a reference point. For example, if I played an E4 on the piano, a person with perfect pitch would blurt out, “E4!” immediately, but a person with great relative pitch would need to hear a starting note first from which to discern the unknown E4. One more thing: Perfect Pitch CANNOT be attained by hard work and determination. Relative Pitch CAN be attained by hard work and determination. Sorry.
I know, it’s not fair. OK, here’s what it’s like…. Imagine 88 of your closet friends came over to your house and bunched together in a group. Then you are blind folded. One at a time, your friends begin to take turns saying one word only. Could you guess which person is speaking? Of COURSE you could, and that’s what it is like for me. My 88 friends are the black and white keys on the piano. When I hear one of them, I’m not listening to the pitch, I hear that ‘friends’ unique voice quality and it registers in a nano second in my brain. I don’t think, I just know. I don’t guess, I just know. When I started piano lessons at age 8, I already knew ‘my friends’, I just didn’t know their names. I didn’t develop perfect pitch, I’ve just always had it. Changing keys to accommodate a singer is a horrible thing to me, because it changes the whole personality of the piece. Everything sounds foreign and just WRONG when I have to do that. But that’s my problem, not the singer’s.
Every chord sonority has for me a specific emotion, color, and personality. Hearing chords in a particular key makes me ‘feel’ a certain way, and I have no control over it. I don’t get to decide the feeling, color, or shape. It’s just always been there, and that’s the way it stays. Yes, it’s way cool, and I wish everyone could experience it at least once.