Imagine the color red. Now imagine green. Pretty easy, right? Now imagine a C sharp. What about a B flat? For most, this task is nearly impossible. However, there are a select few hiding in our population that can do this with ease, due to their perfect pitch.
For these dignified few, the tasks of identifying a color and naming a note are essentially the same. They can hear a note and be able to recognize its pitch within seconds. While it may seem like all musicians have perfect pitch, many people require a reference note. Once they hear a C, they can identify the next note based on its distance from the original note. People with perfect pitch don’t need this accommodation.
Obviously, people aren’t born with the knowledge that a musical note is a particular pitch. So how do people gain perfect pitch? The basis of perfect pitch isn’t argued: It’s a skill that is learned and originates in the brain. Those who have it link musical notes to their name, just like your average person can correlate a hue to a certain color.
Some people think perfect pitch is an acquired skill. When they are young, they learn to link notes and sounds as they learn to link words and sounds. In this theory, people with perfect pitch learn to recreate notes after they hear them, then as they discover musical notes, they attach notes to sounds.
Others think that the skill is genetic. They claim that there is a “perfect pitch gene” that is passed down from previous generations. The skill would therefore be innate; the child is born able to recreate pitched noises, and once they learn the names of notes, they can easily identify them.
At this point, you may be thinking, “Do I have this incredibly cool skill?” Well, spoiler alert, you might, but it may not mean anything. Perfect pitch, while it requires some innate skill, doesn’t mean much if you don’t learn some music theory. Think of it this way: You can tell the difference between colors, but you can’t communicate this knowledge without knowing the names of the colors. The perfect pitch test requires this knowledge. It plays 10 different notes and asks you to identify what the note is. If you name the note in a few seconds, you probably have perfect pitch.
The first three tasks are simple: The first consists of a single note played alone. The next two are a little harder; they ask about a set of notes called a musical scale. This is where music theory knowledge is crucial — after all, you can’t name a scale without knowing scales to begin with! The rest of the quiz asks about a variety of musical sounds like melodies, chord progressions and even more notes.
Believe it or not, this test is easy for hit singer and songwriter Charlie Puth. There are many videos on the internet showing Puth recreating a note in two seconds and naming it even quicker. He says he developed the skill when he was 4 years old and has even cited it as the reason for his suspension from school when he was younger.
Puth’s abilities have been the topic of YouTube videos made by several musicians, many of whom express their awe for his skills. One of these musicians is Charles Cornell, who made a video reacting to Puth’s interview with iHeartRadio.
Cornell disapproves of the interview’s downplaying of Puth’s actual musical skills and overhyping perfect pitch as an innate, superhuman ability. As he says, “In the musical world, everyone knows someone with perfect pitch. It’s not that common, but it’s definitely not super rare.” The line in the interview that really cracks Cornell up is when, in response to the interviewer’s shock and awe of Puth’s knowledge of the C major triad, Puth says, “I just study.”
In his video, Cornell offers an alternative ending to Puth’s interview. He says that the interviewer could’ve simply described perfect pitch, had Puth guess a few notes and been done with it. Perfect pitch doesn’t warrant a crazy reaction, and discussions about it should focus on the valuable musical knowledge it requires.
In the same interview, Puth discusses his skill in relation to his career. Much of Puth’s work is actually on other peoples’ music as a producer or writer, and his perfect pitch is useful when listening to other artists sing. If someone decides they would rather sing in a different key, it’s easy for Puth to quickly make the necessary changes to the track.
For people who aren’t award-winning pop artists, there are also more casual uses of perfect pitch, mainly in the form of tuning. Vocal groups singing a cappella often need a reference note before they begin singing to ensure they are all on the same pitch. In instrumental groups, the pitch of string instruments often needs to be adjusted. Guitars, violins and ukuleles all need to be tuned regularly to ensure that whatever note they play is actually that note. For a person with perfect pitch, these tasks can be done quickly and without a tuner.
Puth has brought attention to perfect pitch specifically, but are there other “perfect” skills? Turns out, yes. It’s much less lauded, but perfect rhythm exists too. People with perfect rhythm are able to sustain a consistent beat in complete silence. It seems that perfect rhythm does not require theoretical knowledge like perfect pitch; it’s just an innate skill.
Testing perfect rhythm is also simpler than testing perfect pitch. It takes just one try: hear a tempo and continue tapping at the same speed as the tune fades out. Obviously, perfect rhythm is not quite as useful as perfect pitch, so it’s no wonder that it’s less known. A musical rehearsal has never been made easier because one of the players could continue in tempo once the song ended.
In the case of any specialized skill, the uses are often limited. When you find a use for it, however, it becomes deeply important to your success. Charlie Puth has shown this clearly; his perfect pitch was once a detriment to him in school, but by working it into his career, he has made it a trademark point in his public persona and professional work.