[Smt-talk] Perfect pitch and aging

David Froom dfroom at smcm.edu
Wed Feb 8 06:29:05 PST 2012

I'm one of those people that had hyper-acute perfect pitch.  I couldn't sing in choirs that drifted off pitch unless I transposed.  I became a pianist, but couldn't play a piano that was out of tune, nor a guitar with a capo.  When I learned saxophone (tenor), I had to re-learn music reading to be able to "hear" C as Bb; and switching to alto or baritone was so difficult that I never did.  I quit violin because it was so hard to play in tune.  I was able to detect pitch accurately in clicking rocks or snapping fingers -- anything where there was a whisper of a pitch.  My eartraining challenge was learning to hearing intervals and chord inversions instead of just naming the notes -- and, of course, score reading with transposing instruments.  My pitch would accept about 1/6 tone up or down, but when it got to a 1/4 tone, I was confused.  I was locked in on A-440, and could, with some effort, re-adjust my ear to a different A with a week or so (say, if I was out of town and the only piano for me to play was 1/4 tone flat).

Beginning around 50, it was incredibly distressing to find that my pitch was drifting.  Now I'm 60, and I've accommodated myself to no longer completely trusting my ear.  I'm now starting to understand the folks who have perfect pitch for just the piano, since that's what I now seem to have, but even that is not 100% anymore.  My pitch is drifting down.  I identify something typically a half-step low.  If it is in A, I identify it as Ab.  It feels like a kind of lazy listening, and if I try to focus intently, once I understand that I'm hearing flat, I can "sharpen" it (it feels like sharpening vision by concentrating to bring something into focus).

I have heard that there is a physiological explanation for this.  It is at least comforting to know that it isn't mental degradation...

David Froom
Prof. and Chair
St. Mary's College of Maryland

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