Patterico's Pontifications


My Kids Are Amazing

Filed under: General — Patterico @ 1:58 pm

My kids both appear to have perfect pitch. I wonder how common that is.

We went last night to see the 50th anniversary of the Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl. (It wasn’t horrible, but it wasn’t great.) A number of guest performers did Beatles songs, and at times my kids were telling me that they were doing them in the wrong keys. So I took some short videos of the musicians playing the songs, and then today I had my kids sing the same songs in the key they thought the song was in. Then I found the actual song in my iTunes library and noted the key it is actually in. Here are the results.

Here Comes the Sun:
Musicians last night: F# major
Lauren: A major
Matthew: A major
Actual song: A major

All My Loving
Musicians last night: C major
Matthew: E major
Lauren: E major
Actual song: E major

If I Fell
Musicians last night: D major
Matthew: D major
Lauren: D major
Actual song: D major

I Want to Hold Your Hand
Musicians last night: A major
Matthew: didn’t really know the song
Lauren: G major
Actual song: G major

Come Together
Musicians last night: f# minor
Lauren: d minor (she doesn’t know the song well and was a little unsure)
Matthew: d minor
Actual song: d minor

As you can see, in every instance where they knew the song, they sang the song in the correct key, even though (for whatever reason) the musicians last night usually sang the songs in different keys.

What’s even funnier is that my kids don’t see this as something special. They don’t even understand how someone could hear a song in their head in the wrong key.

Hearing or singing a song in the right key is not something I can do — at least not with consistency. I have good relative pitch, meaning that once I hear a musical note and am told which note it is, I can sing any other note. But I can’t reliably start singing a song in the correct key, from a cold start. (Oddly enough, though, when I hear a song very strongly in my head, it is usually in the right key. I have tested this a few times before, and almost any time that I say to myself: “I’m pretty sure I am mentally playing this in the right key” and then test myself, I’m right. Just as a test, as I was writing this, I started singing a Toad the Wet Sprocket song, and it turned out to be in the right key. But I can’t do this consistently. Also, there is the chance that I am still using relative pitch, because I was just singing songs with the kids and playing guitar a few minutes ago.)

I poked around online and can’t find an authoritative estimate for how many humans have perfect pitch. Random Web sites make totally unattributed guesses that 1 in 10,000 people has the ability, but that’s worth what any unattributed online assertion is worth: nothing. I did find a New York Times article that said that there is an “8 to 15 percent chance that if one sibling has absolute pitch, the other will have it too.”

How common is this among the commentariat? If you start singing a song, will it inevitably be in the right key? How common is it among people you know?

63 Responses to “My Kids Are Amazing”

  1. Ding.

    Patterico (9c670f)

  2. LOL, I’m not even close when I try to sing from memory. Which fortunately for others is a rare occurrence.

    Dustin (7f67e8)

  3. you know i like my pickles fried

    happyfeet (8ce051)

  4. I’ve been told that when I sing it’s all one note. No one has remarked whether that note is in the correct key or not.

    Cugel (2f7b47)

  5. Musicians often fiddle with keys because it suits their voice(s) better. BTW, I think you’re springing for music lessons dad.

    Craig Mc (299f38)

  6. I have zero, zip, zilch, nada musical ability whatsoever.

    Once the owner of a Karaoke bar in Japan cut me off. Not from beer; I could have another beer. But he wouldn’t let anyone pass me the mike. He just said, “Suteebu, no. No more prease.”

    This man’s a professional. He listens to drunk business men singing badly every night of his working life. He’s got thick callouses on his eardrums and can put up with a lot, but he couldn’t put up with my singing.

    Steve57 (99bd31)

  7. I don’t have perfect pitch; what I have is called “perfect interval”. It means that back when I was still singing and my voice was in shape, I could sing a five minute piece a capella and end up in exactly the same key as I started.

    I can’t explain to you how I do that. All I know is that I can (or could). And it means that I cannot listen to certain performers: the Stones, Bob Dylan, a couple of others, because they don’t stay in key, and it’s painful to listen to them. (It affects me like fingernails on a chalk board.) One of the reasons I loved Queen was because Freddie Mercury was always exactly in tune, never sharp or flat. Art Garfunkel was like that, too. It’s not just that he has a beautiful voice, but that he is always exactly in tune.

    Steven Den Beste (99cfa1)

  8. Kids are amazing.
    I am happy you are parents who notice and nurture… God bless their future beyond all measure..
    (I know you are agnostic, but it is Sunday and I couldn’t help myself)

    steveg (794291)

  9. My family could break glass.
    We were at a close friends wedding this weekend and Michael Franti and his band performed.
    That guy could sing.

    mg (31009b)

  10. I used to work with a keyboardist back in my band days (I was a drummer). Paul had perfect pitch. And I mean perfect. He told me it was a curse. He couldn’t really enjoy music, because it always sounded wrong to him. He enjoyed playing in the band , but mostly for the chicks and the party life. He finally quit the band because frankly he took all the fun out of it. (He was constantly stopping the show so he could help the guitarist get in tune. I mean, hey man, it’s only rock n’ roll.) last I heard he quit music altogether and followed his dad into medicine.

    Funeral Guy (afbf7b)

  11. Doesn’t everyone sound pitch perfect in the shower?

    Dana (4dbf62)

  12. Good for them. And for you too, Patterico. Talent is both nature and nurture, in my opinion.

    nk (dbc370)

  13. Perfect pitch? Absolutely not. I seem to “mentally record” songs 2 notes lower (well OK, when I try to SING them again, they’re inevitably 2 notes lower) than the actual tune is. And even knowing that, I can’t seem to grab the right note until I hear it again.

    And I just love music, and wish so much that I could sing . . . sigh. But from a public-service standpoint, it’s best I don’t. (Though I really let ‘er rip in the shower.)

    A_Nonny_Mouse (733ed0)

  14. I’ve been told I have perfect pitch, and that the easy way for a musician to tell is to ask someone to whistle a tune. Many people find it easier to stay on key whistling than singing. I remember it is uncommon, but I am surprised to find that the Wikipedia “Absolute Pitch” page says: Researchers estimate the occurrence of AP to be 1 in 10,000 people.

    docduke (0181ce)

  15. i couldn’t carry a tune if you put an i-pod in a bucket and handed it to me…

    besides that, years of driving large green vehicles and days on the firing line have given me Army ears, so i wouldn’t know what perfect pitch sounded like anyway.

    redc1c4 (abd49e)

  16. I have read that the incidence of perfect pitch is higher in countries with tonal languages, like China. Through the training needed to discern raising and lowering tones in their language, they can discern smaller increments in tone and pitch.

    luagha (1de9ec)

  17. Craig Mc (299f38) — 8/24/2014 @ 3:22 pm

    Craig is correct. The main reason (although not the only reason) a musician would play a song in a different key would be to better suit their vocal range. Another reason would be because they have difficulty playing in the original key. Guitarist can sometimes get around this by using a capo.

    I studied music composition while at university and was told I have perfect pitch. I can best describe it as being a color sighted person in a world mostly occupied by colorblind persons. If you cannot bear seeing people in color mismatched clothes, then it can be a curse. But it has never bothered me. I have learned that even badly off-key musicians are capable of beautiful music making if you just follow along. Much like improve comedy/acting.

    felipe (40f0f0)

  18. My wife has perfect pitch, and when she was having trouble with Meniere’s disease she couldn’t sing and she hated listening to music because of the distortion, then she essentially lost hearing in the one ear and the distortion stopped and she can sing and enjoy music again.

    I always sing in the correct key…and 3 or 4 others in addition.

    MD in Philly (f9371b)

  19. Pat, have your kids listen to some J.S. Bach and watch their eyes light up when the music modulates (changes keys) in the midst of a melody – It has that affect on me. Such wonderful transitions

    felipe (40f0f0)

  20. MD, we had a word in music school for guys like you -polytonal.;-)

    felipe (40f0f0)

  21. Being able to name the key of a song or the pitch (key) of an instrument is an amazing, fun, and rare skill that really cannot be taught. Your kids are indeed special. But as cool as it is to play around with, it is fairly useless (as in not much real practical application) to an actual musician, and can even a little bit ruin listening to otherwise perfectly good music for listeners when they are initially focused in on “it sounds like the wrong key to me”.
    Relative pitch” is a variation of that skill which most good instrumentalists and virtually all good singers and certainly all composers do have and do apply in their work. This allows them to hear or imagine the intervals or relationship of one note to another either from looking at the printed page, or even from hearing a song once and then singing it or “playing it again by ear” without any sheet music at all. For relative pitchers it is the distance of each note from the previous note, not the initial starting key that informs them. So they don’t care if Sir Paul sings his songs today in a little lower key than when he was a lad. But whatever key he’s singing those intervals in they darn well better be perfect intervals –or else we’ll say he’s “pitchy”.

    elissa (cf9943)

  22. R.I.P. Richard Attenborough

    Icy (b4a830)

  23. There is nothing wrong about performing a song in a different key. This is done to accommodate the singing range of the vocalist. Thus, you are performing it in a different key.

    AZ Bob (e7a5b8)

  24. Thus, you are performing it in a different key.

    yeah you are

    an r key

    happyfeet (8ce051)

  25. any updates from Mr. JD

    he ran for the roses today as part of the trifecta thingy

    happyfeet (8ce051)

  26. There is nothing wrong about performing a song in a different key. This is done to accommodate the singing range of the vocalist. Thus, you are performing it in a different key.

    I agree. I just think it’s cool that my kids can tell.

    Patterico (9c670f)

  27. AZ Bob, Back in the day I was regularly asked by someone’s family to play certain well known hymns on the grand piano at their loved one’s funeral. They wanted to honor the deceased by having mourners in the chapel sing a few favorite hymns of the person being remembered. If I opened the hymnal and found the song was written with five godawful flats (D flat major) I’d mutter “no way”. Then while sitting on the piano bench I’d transpose it on the spot into a key with none or maybe one or two flats. I don’t think anybody ever noticed that I did that. And I honestly don’t fully know how I do that.

    Also many solo singers change the key from the original to sing the Star Spangled Banner. One of the reasons Whitney Houston’s superbowl rendition of the National anthem is so memorable and enduring is that she messed wid it.

    elissa (cf9943)

  28. 25. Second.

    The first of my sisters had perfect pitch while a serious violinist. I suspect its partially a learned skill.

    gary gulrud (46ca75)

  29. I have something similar to you. After tuning my son’s guitar several times using an online tuner (I can’t play it), I no longer need the online tuner. I’ve been able to tune it fairly accurately without any tools but I’ve only checked a few times. Using that, I can use relative pitch to sing or recall any given note. Call it what you want. We’re cousins so is that surprising? However, I seriously doubt my brother or my father have a similar sense of pitch.

    Jim C (bf5f98)

  30. speaking of musics

    “It’s disappointing that we as a society can’t have fun or enjoy ourselves without any altercations sometimes,” Chris Brown tweeted early Sunday morning.

    i know

    i owe all you guys a new irony meter

    sometimes I just don’t think before i post these things

    happyfeet (8ce051)

  31. 25. A full triathlon is a full day affair. Afterwards you mill about talking to competitiors and attendees about the experience while eating fruit and drinking electrolytes. Doubt he’ll be in his hotel before 10 PM.

    gary gulrud (46ca75)

  32. i just worry

    happyfeet (8ce051)

  33. 32. Indeed. The big worries go with the tyros, who have to be pulled from the water or the semi-pros that over-extend on the bike and go into tachycardia somewhere on the run.

    On a full heart rates are checked at the turnarounds. Cramping is a serious risk to finishing.

    gary gulrud (46ca75)

  34. i owe all you guys a new irony meter

    i just think it’s a shame there were survivors.

    redc1c4 (abd49e)

  35. Key? Key? There is a key?

    SPQR (c4e119)

  36. Great that your kids recognize that, Patterico. Good on you for exposing them to enough music that they have picked that up.

    I used to be able to tell if a note, chord, or interval was sharp or flat (but I was not very good at the name of the note, or sing or whistle it correctly.) The music staff at the U where this was discovered said this was a variation on relative pitch. Mostly it was (and still is) annoying if the error is large.

    htom (412a17)

  37. My understanding is that kids who are involved in music from infancy retain the perfect pitch they are born with. Much the same occurs with tonal languages, like Chinese. That may be a reason why so many classical musicians are appearing in China.

    Mike K (90dfdc)

  38. I agree. I just think it’s cool that my kids can tell.

    I must be musically illiterate compared with them because this particular singer shown performing at the Bowl last night sounds like she’s performing “Come Together” in the correct key. I couldn’t tell the difference between her version and the original one if my life depended on it. OTOH, this person and the back-up singers are warbling quite poorly.

    Mark (14a4db)

  39. On the other hand, I see no reason to have Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in any other key than. C minor.

    AZ Bob (1fc59b)

  40. My daughters have this too. The elder one corrected my singing of a Radio Disney song, and sang it to me in another key. I said, “That’s just a different key.” But then it hit me that she might have perfect pitch. I asked her to sing middle C, and lo, she hit on the spot. I sing in my church choir, so I knew of and envied this phenomenon.

    Usually children need some musical training by the age of 5 to realize it and make use of it. Choir directors will love your kids. Playing a string instrument is also much easier. Try to get them reading music. If you go to church, have them try sight-singing the hymns–preferably the alto, tenor, or bass line (Lutherans and Episcopalians have the best hymnals).

    My elder daughter, who plays piano, viola, and sings, notices when radio stations or youtube speed things up, whereupon she shudders. Read “How Music Works” by John Powell for a nice discussion of this.

    Neither I nor my wife has perfect (or absolute) pitch, but my niece does. Enjoy your kids!

    Golden Eagle (4e9369)

  41. What is interesting is that there are some who say each key has its own mood.

    AZ Bob (1fc59b)

  42. I am amazed by people who have perfect pitch. Heck, I’m amazed by people who can carry a tune. I love music, but God saw fit that others should be able to create it. Regardless, I do sing quite loudly in the car when I’m alone.

    Ag80 (eb6ffa)

  43. hot cheetos n takis!

    hot cheetos n takis!

    goin to the QuikTrip for sum hot cheetos n takis!

    omg what the hell happened to the QuikTrip this looks like a war zone now how’m i gonna git me any takis

    don’t talk to me

    all i wanted was sum hot cheetos n takis

    Missouri sucks ass

    happyfeet (8ce051)

  44. ==some who say each key has its own mood==

    I think there is truth to that, AZ Bob. I just quickly played the first 17 full chorded notes of “Guide me oh Thou Great Jehovah pilgrim through this barren land” starting with middle C and then again and again going up the scale starting over on every key, black and white, through to B. So, 12 different versions of the 17 relative notes, each version one right after the other. Of course each version was a little higher than the previous one but there are also obvious differences in brightness, tonal warmth, and depth. Some for example sounded a little happier, some comforting-like and some more dirgelike–yet it was the exact same melody every time just performed in a different key. It was much more noticeable to me than had I not done them all in immediate succession. Composers definitely take the mood into consideration when they choose the key–especially for opera. I wonder if Pat’s children may be picking up the mood differences in the sound as a partial clue to the key differences that they noticed.

    I’m enjoying this thread and reading people’s stories about musics. Thanks for the little change of pace, Patterico

    elissa (cf9943)

  45. I must be musically illiterate compared with them because this particular singer shown performing at the Bowl last night sounds like she’s performing “Come Together” in the correct key. I couldn’t tell the difference between her version and the original one if my life depended on it.

    Best as I can tell, she’s singing it in f# minor, as I say in the post. The Beatles did it in d minor.

    Patterico (9c670f)

  46. gary gulrud (46ca75) — 8/24/2014 @ 8:50 pm

    According to the linked video clip, the grand jury investigating the Michael Brown shooting is composed of 6 white men, 3 white women, 2 black women, and 1 black man. Now someone check my arithmetic, but I think that adds up to 12. Isn’t a grand jury 23? Or is this some Missouri thing?

    Milhouse (9d71c3)

  47. A piano tuner once told me that my daughter has perfect pitch, because when she was about 5 years old, she kept humming the correct note when the tuner hit an out-of-tune key, thereby confusing her electronic tuning equipment. But that doesn’t sound like what you describe. From what I am reading in the comments, what my daughter was doing sounds more like it involved relative pitch.

    Charlie W. (db0d55)

  48. @41:

    As a Palie, I love that the hymnal has all four parts printed. At my mother’s funeral this past November, Dad & I (we’re both basso profundo) sang the bass parts of all the hymns.

    Captain Ned (d080c3)

  49. I want to sing, but my doctor told me that it could be bad for my throat. People who heard me might try to cut it.

    nk (dbc370)

  50. The Powell book I mention in #41 describes an experiment that disproves the keys-have-moods idea (pp. 175-180). The idea arose through compositional tradition; composers wrote music in the presumed key to match the music’s mood. By the way, some of the putative moods are as follows:

    A major and E major: bright and cheerful
    C major: neutral and pure
    E flat major: romantic and serious
    F sharp major: complex

    Golden Eagle (4e9369)

  51. l have perfect pitch. My sister only played an instrument for a few years, and she had it too.

    When I sit in with bar bands, they often “tune down” a half-step to help the singer hit the high notes. I can do it, but I’m always transposing in my head. Even on a keyboard with a setting for tuning up/down, it doesn’t ever feel right to hit the C key and hear a B.

    It’s a curse and a blessing. When the elevator chimes or a car door opens, I often hear the start of a song just from the one note. My gym’s elevator plays the start of a Squeeze song, coffee in bed I think.

    carlitos (c24ed5)

  52. I can throw a rubber ball against a wall and catch it when it bounces back. I think of that as being perfect pitch.

    Mark Johnson (38989d)

  53. I have perfect pitch to the extent that when I sing a song it will be in the key I’m familiar with…the one I’ve heard it in…though I have no idea what key to identify it as.

    We won’t discuss my tendency to go a half-step flat.

    creeper (545a20)

  54. Commiserate with @Steve57. The only pitch I have is black and sticky. Worked in various countries for 14 years. During those years, I avoided singing to avoid causing an international incident.

    LTMG (94c4c3)

  55. “Missouri sucks ass”

    Wrong part of Missouri, happyfeet.

    If you’re in Ferguson, you’re in Misery.

    My brother used to live in Florissant, about six miles from the troubles. But he worked doing deliveries in a pizza place that was about 1.5 miles away.

    It suffered armed robberies on a regular basis. One while my brother was in the restroom. He wisely didn’t exit.

    luagha (5cbe06)

  56. Can people with perfect pitch tell what telephone number is being dialed from the touch tone sounds?

    Sammy Finkelman (c2ec36)

  57. Did you know about the problem of pitch inflation?

    Some idea of the variance in pitches can be gained by examining old pitchpipes, organ pipes and other sources. For example, an English pitchpipe from 1720[2] plays the A above middle C at 380 Hz, (info) while the organs played by Johann Sebastian Bach in Hamburg, Leipzig and Weimar were pitched at A = 480 Hz (info) (a difference of around four semitones). In other words, the A produced by the 1720 pitchpipe would have been at the same frequency as the F on one of Bach’s organs….

    …Pitch inflation

    During historical periods when instrumental music rose in prominence (relative to the voice), there was a continuous tendency for pitch levels to rise. This “pitch inflation” seemed largely a product of instrumentalists’ competing with each other, each attempting to produce a brighter, more “brilliant”, sound than that of their rivals. (In string instruments, this is not all acoustic illusion: when tuned up, they actually sound objectively brighter because the higher string tension results in larger amplitudes for the harmonics.) This tendency was also prevalent with wind instrument manufacturers, who crafted their instruments to play generally at a higher pitch than those made by the same craftsmen years earlier.[citation needed]

    On at least two occasions, pitch inflation had become so severe that reform became needed. At the beginning of the 17th century, Michael Praetorius reported in his encyclopedic Syntagma musicum that pitch levels had become so high that singers were experiencing severe throat strain and lutenists and viol players were complaining of snapped strings. The standard voice ranges he cites show that the pitch level of his time, at least in the part of Germany where he lived, was at least a minor third higher than today’s. Solutions to this problem were sporadic and local, but generally involved the establishment of separate standards for voice and organ (“Chorton”) and for chamber ensembles (“Kammerton”). Where the two were combined, as for example in a cantata, the singers and instrumentalists might perform from music written in different keys. This system kept pitch inflation at bay for some two centuries.[3] ….

    ….British attempts at standardisation in the 19th century gave rise to the old philharmonic pitch standard of about A = 452 Hz (different sources quote slightly different values), replaced in 1896 by the considerably “deflated” new philharmonic pitch at A = 439 Hz.[2] The high pitch was maintained by Sir Michael Costa for the Crystal Palace Handel Festivals, causing the withdrawal of the principal tenor Sims Reeves in 1877,[7] though at singers’ insistence the Birmingham Festival pitch was lowered (and the organ retuned) at that time. At the Queen’s Hall in London, the establishment of the diapason normal for the Promenade Concerts in 1895 (and retuning of the organ to A = 439 at 15 °C (59 °F), to be in tune with A = 435.5 in a heated hall) caused the Royal Philharmonic Society and others (including the Bach Choir, and the Felix Mottl and Artur Nikisch concerts) to adopt the continental pitch thereafter.[8]

    In England the term “low pitch” was used from 1896 onward to refer to the new Philharmonic Society tuning standard of A = 439 Hz at 68° F, while “high pitch” was used for the older tuning of A = 452.4 Hz at 60° F. Although the larger London orchestras were quick to conform to the new, low pitch, provincial orchestras continued using the high pitch until at least the 1920s, and most brass bands were still using the high pitch in the mid-1960s.[9]

    The Stuttgart Conference of 1834 recommended C264 (A440) as the standard pitch based on Scheibler’s studies with his Tonometer.[10] For this reason A440 has been referred to as Stuttgart pitch or Scheibler pitch.

    In 1939, an international conference[11] recommended that the A above middle C be tuned to 440 Hz, now known as concert pitch. As a technical standard this was taken up by the International Organization for Standardization in 1955 and reaffirmed by them in 1975 as ISO 16. The difference between this and the diapason normal is due to confusion over the temperature at which the French standard should be measured. The initial standard was A = 439 Hz (info), but this was superseded by A = 440 Hz after complaints that 439 Hz was difficult to reproduce in a laboratory because 439 is a prime number.[11

    Sammy Finkelman (c2ec36)

  58. Can people with perfect pitch tell what telephone number is being dialed from the touch tone sounds?

    Sammy Finkelman (c2ec36) — 8/25/2014 @ 10:54 am


    carlitos (c24ed5)

  59. Can people with perfect pitch tell what telephone number is being dialed from the touch tone sounds?

    Sammy Finkelman (c2ec36) — 8/25/2014 @ 10:54 am

    Perfect pitch isn’t required. Probably would help, though. Generating the tone pairs without equipment is difficult, you’d have to whistle a chord. There are eight tones, total, used in pairs; you only hear ten of the pairs.

    :plays with mouth:

    you might be able to generate chords by moving your tongue and cheeks seperately, getting the air in your mouth to have front-to-back and side-to-side resonances. I’ve heard there were people who could whistle a connection, but never saw it. (Talking to modems and whistling 2600Hz is much easier.)

    htom (412a17)

  60. I’ve got pretty good pitch (although it was better when I was younger.) One of my daughters has perfect pitch. When she was young, if we dropped a coin on the linoleum floor of the kitchen, she could tell what note it was.

    David in Cal (a4b47c)

  61. David in Cal (a4b47c) — 8/25/2014 @ 5:32 pm

    One of my daughters has perfect pitch. When she was young, if we dropped a coin on the linoleum floor of the kitchen, she could tell what note it was.

    I expected you to say she could tell what coin it was.

    Sammy Finkelman (7d0d47)

  62. I have perfect pitch, and my mother envied me because she didn’t. (I think I got it from my father.) When I was little, I became the family party trick; I’d get called into a living room full of guests, positioned with my back to the piano, and would have to name the notes my mother randomly played. In college, when somebody spilled the beans to the music theory professor, he used the knowledge to try to trick me with harder interval tests (i.e. I had to name both pitches he was playing, rather than the second one based on what he said the first one was). And because of that stunt, the college (and the world) lost a music major. Such a pity. (Not.)

    CrankyBeach (4924c3)

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