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?

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