Michael Moyes is Director of Admissions at Berklee Online. He finished his studies at Baylor University, where he studied Piano Performance and Business. Michael has performed Piano as a soloist, in combos, and accompanied by full Orchestra. He holds Master Certificate in Arranging and Orchestration from Berklee Online. He also teaches bluegrass banjo in the Boston area. You can hear some of Michael’s music on the Berklee Music Network and on Soundcloud.

Does anyone else listen to WNYC’s radio lab? I thought so. How about when you are on the subway, exercising, cooking dinner, picking your kid up at daycare, or at any other socially acceptable moment? Great!! Looks like I’m in good company.

Recently I heard an archived podcast called “Music Language” and it completely blew my mind. Everyone should listen to it after reading the rest of this blog.

To get things started, here is my definition of perfect pitch…

Perfect Pitch – The ability one has to identify the pitch of a frequency without having the aid of a musical instrument or a reference tone. If I play you a middle C and then follow-up by playing a sequence of notes that you correctly identify, that doesn’t prove you have perfect pitch!!! Even musician and educator worth a damn understands that perfect pitch can NOT be learned.

Well, after listening to “Musical Language” I am not so sure anymore. Cognitive Psychologist and possessor of perfect pitch, Diana Deutsch is very interested in tone languages such as Mandarin Chinese. Languages like Mandarin rely very heavily on tones since the pitch frequency and fluctuation of a word is intimately connected with the meaning.  One popular set of words to showcase this is (Mâ, Mā, Mà, and Ma) which can mean mother, hemp, horse, or a reproach depending on the inflection and pitch. This relationship with tone is so hardwired in native speakers that their day to day pitch consistency is identical. Professor Deutsch made audio recordings of people speaking a few chosen words on multiple days and the pitch was indistinguishable one day to the next. See what I mean? Totally mind blowing stuff! It’s like me saying “good morning” everyday but having the frequency sound identical (regardless of whether I am sad, happy, tired, or hungry) every single day. What does this have to do with perfect pitch? In the US and other Western nations only about 1 out of 10,000 people have perfect pitch. People who were raised speaking and listening to a tone language have been shown to be 9 TIMES more likely to have perfect pitch.

My initial reaction: My 8 month old son will only be listening to Mandarin Chinese from here on out.

Let’s alter my original definition …

Perfect Pitch – The ability one has to identify the pitch of a frequency without having the aid of a musical instrument or a reference tone. If I play you a middle C and then follow-up by playing a sequence of notes that you correctly identify, that doesn’t prove you have perfect pitch!!! Even musician and educator worth a damn understands that perfect pitch can NOT be learned (unless you are between 6 and 12 months old and are regularly exposed to a tone language).

So if replicating these notes doesn’t confirm that you have perfect pitch, what is happening? It means you have relative pitch, which can indeed be learned through ear training. If you have a reference note (like the middle C from the definition), hearing the intervals between that note and the others can help you tease out the correct pitches. How does this work?

Let’s use a childhood classic to get a few pitches in our head. The root note is C. When we get to the note D “your”, you should note that the difference between the notes (the interval) is a major 2nd (get that in your ear!).


Now listen to the beginning of “Silent Night”. Same deal, major 2nd.


You can find hundreds of examples of all intervals (ascending, descending, augmented 4ths, Major 7ths, etc.) to exercise your brain and develop relative pitch. For an ascending tritone, think of Bernstein’s “Maria” from West Side Story. A descending perfect 5th? The Flintstones theme! There are also ear training courses like Basic Ear Training 1 and Harmonic Ear Training that will help you develop an incredibly intimate relationship with sound and harmony.

Let me ask you this musicians: Why do you want perfect pitch so badly? What are you missing out on? The folks I know who have perfect pitch tell me that they always hear car horns honking F# or elevators dinging with Db’s. As awesome (and maddening) as that sounds, I will stick with what I can control and develop my ear through ear training. I’ll leave the Mandarin to my son.


Berklee Online’s next term begins on January 14th, 2013.

Find out more at berkleemusic.com or contact a Student Advisor:

1-866-BERKLEE (USA) | +1 617 747 2146 (Intl) | advisors@berkleemusic.com

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    I think that perfect pitch can be more of a curse than a blessing. I had a roommate with perfect pitch freshman year and it drove him nuts!

    I have heard the same thing from folks with perfect pitch. That being said, on the surface it sounds really awesome for a musician! They say Beethoven, Mozart, and other great composers had PP.


    I grew up listening to music mom played cello, piano, rrecorder, I followed suit starting on piano at 8, then add cello, later add f horn (this was a killer since the written notes did not “sound” as written. I played soprano and tenor recorder but once again, the f instruments were murder. Singing and reading music has always been OK unless it is transposed. Then I have always been stuck. Playing and singg where the written lines move in and out with movable C cleffs I can handle – cello and tenor clef is a case in point. I got my degree in music education with an emphasis in applied voice, I am a tenor, life was easy to get a job often. Now I am a retired computer programmer and the sounds in my house drive me nuts. The living room fan is in b, the refrigerator is d mostly, the furnace changes. I got through listening tets at the University by memorizing the key of the listening test piece. I shifted gears in my car by listening to the pitch of the transmission – always had a stick shift car. Anyway it is damned handy to have, though everybody has always wanted me to make mistakes and that can be a pain, but the sounds in the world don’t always cooperate. So what is “normal”? anyway?

    Good to hear from someone with perfect pitch here, thanks for sharing! I like the idea of some things (shifting your car gears for example) being more natural thanks to your ear. Very cool example.

    totally agree, as a lover not very rich music such as reggae sound is just like that .. Like the color of the music is what counts .. eh I played trombone in large wind orchestras including Argentina and Brazil. Greetings and I agree with your thoughts and post. Marcelo quin http://www.positiveradioreggae.com positive radius Staff

    Thanks for your note Marcelo. Listening to positiveradioreggae right now, nice way to start the morning!

    eyy, that there is very good thanks .. jaa mmoyes great sound and message .. regards genius! we are reading! good news for you !

    ey… amigo, gracias por escuchar la radio.. por la buena vibracion, regards y gran abrazo otro dia sigo leyendo mas publicaciones tuyas excelentes

    ey … friend, thanks for listening to the radio .. the good vibration, regards big hug and another day I keep reading more excellent posts .. yours if no borders now haha peace

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