This is the first part in a series of articles about perfect pitch. If you would like to know more, you can also read Pt2″Perfect Pitch:Not so perfect after all” and the Pt3″Creating EarTrain’s Progression Mode”.
If you, like me, have been intrigued by perfect pitch at some point in your life, chances are you have come across the phrase “color hearing”.
But what does color hearing mean?
We, humans have a multitude of senses, however, we are mostly visual types. Out of all senses, we use sight about 83% of the time. Next comes hearing, which we use about 11% of the time, and the other 5% is split between the remaining senses. In short, sight has an advantage over the other senses. Which is why it is common to refer to the vision analogue when talking about perfect pitch.
Sight is the ability to interpret the surrounding environment using light in the visible spectrum reflected by the objects in the surrounding environment. Different frequencies, in the reflected light, are perceived as different colors.
Just like sight, hearing is the ability to perceive sound by detecting vibrations. Different frequencies result to different tones. Unfortunately, unlike sight, we cannot identify different frequencies. (At least those of us who don’t have perfect pitch). All we can perceive is the relative distance between tones, we can say that “this tone” is higher pitched than “that tone”. Unlike sight, where we see a color and know it is red, here we listen to a tone and can’t say if it is a C or an F.
But how exactly a person with perfect pitch perceives the auditory world?
A person with perfect pitch knows the exact color of each tone, not just the relative distance between them. He knows that “this tone” is a C and “that tone is a D”. The visual analogue is a colorful world. And the visual analogue for those of us without perfect pitch? It is a grayscale world. It even sounds scary. But it is true. If we could only perceive the relative distance between colors, (which means that we wouldn’t know that yellow is yellow, we could just determine that it is lighter than blue) we would only see shades of gray.
In short, this is why perfect pitch is important to all musicians and music enthusiasts. Without perfect pitch we cannot hear the music as it is. Not only we lose information (imagine the same picture in color and in black and white) but also we might lose “the joy of music”.
What does this mean? Are we trapped in a grayscale world, never to "see" the color in music?
No, good news. Unlike common belief there are studies suggesting that perfect pitch can be developed, you don’t have to be born with it. To get an idea how it works, we can once again refer to the visual analogue which can give insight on how people with perfect pitch perceive the sound. Imagine trying to explain the color “red” to someone who lives in a black and white world. You would say something like: bright, vibrant, intense, whereas you would describe aqua probably as mellow, muted, soft.
It is exactly the same with sound.
People with perfect pitch can “listen to” certain qualities in different tones, that the rest of us cannot perceive. For them, C can be “bright” whereas B can be “dull”. These qualities are there, it just takes some practice for those of us without perfect pitch to conceive them. Sure it is not easy, if it was, everyone would have achieved it by now. It needs hard work, determination, and guess what? You can never rest, even if you manage to achieve a degree of perfect pitch. You need to constantly polish your skill. But knowing that there is a whole new colorful world out there, waiting for you, I think it is worth the trouble.