What is your experience with Perfect Pitch?

On Monday morning, I was on the treadmill running, and I came across this article about a child in Atlanta who has perfect pitch.

I've always believed that perfect pitch was far more rare than some of us believe.

Maybe it's because mine isn't perfect!  :-)

I certainly appreciate the information that expert researchers in our field contribute to our work, but doing it is not a passion for me.  

So, today, I am asking for data from YOU based on your experience!

Here is mine!

I've often said that my research lab is my middle school choral music classroom where I've taught well over 10,000 students over the course of my career.

During that time, to my knowledge, I've never encountered a child who had perfect pitch.

Maybe someday soon?!  

The reason I am pretty certain that I've not encountered perfect pitch is because of how I structured my sight singing program, S-Cubed.   I didn't follow the traditional model of singing in the key of C, then F, then G, and so on.  

I didn't follow that model because early in my career, I noticed that my middle school beginners struggled reading notes below the staff on ledger lines.  Starting the teaching of sight singing in the key of C seemed to created a barrier to learning.  I also noticed that my beginners struggled reading notes when the stem directions changed.  For example, going from A to B on the treble clef...Some of the children thought the B was lower than the A simply because the stem pointed down.

For that, and many other reasons that are too detailed to cover here, I decided to create a program that at least, in part, would focus on training their young eyes on how to interpret the "dots" and "stems" regardless of key or key signature in the early days of their training and to do it all while using what I call "varied but comfortable DO".   This concept means that, in the beginning of their training, we choose to have our beginners sight sing in keys that are comfortable for their voices (usually C, C#, D, D#, E) regardless of the notes that are written on the page.

Don't panic...we don't do that permanently!  After several weeks, we move to the real keys and use moveable DO!

One of the other reasons I use "varied but comfortable DO" early in the program is because middle school children whine "This is too high" when they try to sight sing in the keys of F and G.  So, I removed the obstacle.  When our beginners are learning this new and complex skill of sight singing, they are already self-conscious.  If they are worried about it being "too high", they stop focusing on building the skill sets we are striving to teach, and they shut down.

...At least that was what I experienced.

...And almost every sight singing method I encountered in my early days of teaching went from the key of C to F to G and gradually added more sharps/flats to the key signature, and for singers, I realized it wasn't necessary.   Later?  Absolutely....but there was no need to follow the instrumental model for young singers in the early days of learning to sight sing.  We don't teach conjugation to them while they are learning to speak their first complete sentences, so it made sense to me to build other skills first.

During the time the students are sight singing notes like high A on the treble clef without any accidentals in the key signature, there hasn't been a single middle school student in 25 years who has said "Mr. Duncan...is that the real DO?"  Or "That isn't the right pitch."   

When I made the decision not to use the real keys in their early training with sight singing, I didn't think about the students who might have perfect pitch.  I was only focused on how to help my true beginners to be less confused about turning those dots into sound.

Once my students have developed strong skill sets and problem solving techniques, then we learn the theory behind the key signatures, and all of the things that singers need as they work toward becoming literate, educated musicians.  

So, here is my question for all of the middle school music educators out there who've encountered hundreds and even thousands of middle school students:

Have you encountered students who had perfect pitch?  If so, how many times have you encountered students with this incredible gift?

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  1. Hi Dale. I haven't encountered any students in my middle school choirs who have perfect pitch, and like you, I've had over 10,000 in my teaching career. I do, however, have a son with perfect pitch. His elementary music teacher discovered this while she was demonstrating something on the piano. Like you, my "do" is where my students can successfully sing the exercise, so when my son job shadowed me for the first time, he was very quick to point out that I wasn't singing what was printed on the page. He would tell you that perfect pitch is both fantastic and a curse.

  2. I have had one student with perfect pitch. He was from a very musically active family and he came in to my choir telling me right away that he had perfect pitch. I said, "That's great!" but I didn't realize the obstacles both he and I would face. He truly did have perfect pitch. The pitch written on the page was the pitch he heard in his brain and he could sing it "perfectly." If I wanted to alter the pitch to allow for what you call "varied and comfortable DO" (I think that title is perfect) I had to re-write it for him. After a few months, we were able to work it out where if I decided to sing something in a different key for vocal ease, I could tell him the key we would be singing in and in his mind he would "transpose" the music. This would take just a little bit of time for his brain to process, but he would do it, then we could proceed.
    The most difficult situation was if the choir was singing a cappella and would go a bit flat or sharp, he would stay true to pitch. You would think this would be good - would pull the whole choir back on pitch, but it was disturbing for choir members singing around him that didn't understand what was happening. Even though we had discussions about this perfect pitch situation and that he was staying on pitch, others felt like he was the one off pitch, and unfortunately that's what it sounded like to the listener. He continued to sing through high school but he had a lot of struggles while dealing with his "gift."
    Since then I have always seen perfect pitch as both a blessing and a curse.

    1. Awesome story! Thank you for writing it! I hope it helps others who encounter children with perfect pitch!

  3. Dale, my daughter actually has perfect pitch. We discovered this when she was 3 years old. My mom was singing one of her Disney songs from a cd we bought her and she said, "Grammy, you're singing it wrong." We finally figured out she meant it wasn't being sung in the key she first heard. She can sing any note on request and immediately name any note played on the piano. I was her elementary school music teacher and before she began school we had a conversation that sounded like this. "Honey, I will sing a song but it won't always be in the same key. Please do not correct me if this happens!" :) Needless to say, it was an interesting six years with her. Towards the end of elementary school, she started singing in other keys and let me know it was perfectly ok to change where "do" was in the song. ;) Now that she's in middle school, she's had to learn the hard way that not everything she hears is something she should offer up to the class. Her teacher did let the class know she had perfect pitch, and sometimes asks my daughter to give them the starting pitch to a piece if they are singing a cappella. Overall, speaking as a teacher AND as a parent, it really seems to be both a blessing and a curse. However, it's been a great starting point to help teach my daughter about using good judgement when she offers up her musical thoughts to her peers!

  4. Hi Dale. I teach in Hong Kong and interestingly, every year there are students in my classes with perfect pitch. This year I'm teaching five choir classes (Elementary level, 2 middle school choirs and 2 high school choirs) and there is at least one student with perfect pitch in each of those choirs. For example, in a children's choir rehearsal this year, I started a song on the wrong pitch and one of the students said, "Mrs. Wible, I think you're singing in the wrong key. ..sure enough, I was!". Some of the older students have complained if the piano is tuned a bit flat. We have a lot of native Chinese speakers (tonal language) and many of them are also string players from a very young age. Maybe this explains the high incidence of perfect pitch.

  5. During my teen years in a music program in high school, I knew at least one girl who had the perfect pitch. She became a singer song writer.