This question is one that sparks the interest of every musician in some way, shape or form. When I was 11, I was a real smart ass kid. Let me tell you...I would go on the first Friday of every month to mass. Not a big surprise when I tell you that I attended private catholic school all of my life until college. I used to steal the programs from mass and fold them and put them into my back pocket. The programs for mass didn't have music on them. They were only lyric sheets. At the end of the day, I would go home and sit down at the piano and begin to play the hymns I had remembered from mass that day. After a few minutes, I would have them down from memory and play them in the right keys and all of that. Then, the next day I would waltz into Sr. Gladys (my first piano teacher) and sit at the piano and play them for her. She always acted so proud when I did that, but I think after a few years of this she really started getting annoyed. When I was eleven she retired and because the school didn't have the brains to find a new music teacher who could be available to play first Friday mass, guess who they used? Anyway, what the hell does this story have to do with perfect pitch? A very good question. I cannot stress enough that I didn't just tell it to show off. It really is at the heart of my answer to this question.
My friend Tony Asaro and I have an ongoing argument about the use of fixed do solfege vs. movable do. Part of my side has always been that the use of fixed do helps musicians to develop pitch memory while the use of movable do helps develop relative pitch. Why is it that from around the age of 9 or so, I suddenly could just pick up those hymns from memory and sit down at the piano and reproduce them in the correct keys and with accompaniments that were almost identical to those of Sr. Gladys? Did I have perfect pitch since birth and suddenly just discover it only 3 years into my piano studies? This, in my opinion is unlikely. As I thought about this, I remembered something else Sr. Gladys did with me on a regular basis right from the beginning when I was 6 years old. She would sit me down at a table across the room from the piano. She would play random measures at a time from the short little pieces I had been working on and she would ask me to write them down. I would have a copy of the score in front of me, so it was sort of like multiple-choice dictation. Later, when I was older, she would do it without letting me look at the score. Perhaps it was in this simple activity that my pitch memory began to really develop. What a blessing it was that I had a teacher who had the sense to do this with me from such a young age. This alone, by the way, is proof positive that not enough teachers give their students the credit they deserve. It is important to know that they understand much more than we ever think they do. I heard Mark say a quote once (the origin of which I don't know): "No one could ever possibly be as dumb as you think I am."
Last month, I attended the EAMA program in Paris for the second time. The first time I went was in 2003. A particular lecture of Dr. Philip Lasser from the Juilliard School sticks out in my mind. The discussion was on Prelude 1 from Book 1 of the Well-Tempered Clavier of Bach. This piece remains such a revolutionary composition to this day because there is no doubt that this work is written proof that there is a difference between any 2 pitches that are enharmonically equivalent. Because of the laws of tension and release as well as the hierarchy of the overtone series, one can justify beyond reason that the tension in a D-Flat pulls the ear in a completely different direction than the tension in a C-Sharp. This first prelude systematically goes through all twelve pitches in the chromatic scale and is arguably a "Twelve Tone" composition by the definition that the atonalists give us (HA!). But what is a C-Sharp or a D-Flat or a C-Natural? Of course, with the major advances in the science of acoustics over the centuries, we are now able to say that it rests at a certain and specific frequency (ex. A-440 is always A-440). But did Bach hear it at this frequency, and in this exact pitch level? Well, I think we know he didn't. The proof in not difficult to find. All you have to do is look at overly pretentious Baroque string players to realize that their "period instruments and bows" make a D or C or any other pitch sound lower than we know it / think it to be. It's usually not quite a half step lower, but almost.
So Bach's C-Natural and my C-Natural are different, huh? Does that make Bach wrong? Does that make me wrong? Or does it just mean that perfect pitch is entirely a moot point because the C-Natural that I am able to sing at the drop of a hat is the only C-Natural I know? The same one I began to systematically and methodically memorize from the age of 6 in Sr. Gladys' music room. Dr. Lasser believes that perfect pitch does not exist. I am inclined to agree with him. What does exist and what we refer to as "perfect" pitch is an elaborate system in the brain for memorizing pitches and their frequencies. This is also a reason why I am such a big fan of fixed do. In Tony's defense, however, I must say that I don't think that one should adopt fixed do as a practice until they have already developed their sense of relative pitch to a reasonably high level of ability.
People say to me: "Oh, you are so lucky to have perfect pitch!" LUCKY?! "Perfect" pitch is more often the bane of my existence than a help to me. Sure, it comes in handy when you need to warm up your choir in the hallway outside of the performance space because the deadbeat administrators of that space didn't have the sense to give you a warm-up room with a piano. However, try transposing. If you don't have the piece you are transposing committed to memory, good luck. For example, let's say I want to accompany a Schubert lieder or Sondheim's "Another Hundred People" in a key other than the written one. In my case, I MUST use the clef method to transpose because if I attempt to do it intervalically, every note I play will be produced in a counter-intuitive process. For example, when I see a G-Natural written on the page in front of me, I immediately hear "G-Natural" in my head. But if I am transposing that G-Natural down a fourth to C-Natural, then I must hear the piece in one key (because I have no choice) and play it in another key simultaneously. This is obviously ridiculous. The process is too complicated for it's own good. Instead, I must use a different clef so that when I read each note, it is conceptually the same note that I play with my hand. People with alleged "perfect" pitch must learn relative pitch. Believe me! It's harder to go backwards. I would rather have learned relative pitch first. The problem is, the effects of "perfect" pitch are usually not as prevalent until a musician is already in college. By this time, when he or she learns that he or she only operates instinctively and by ear, there is a horrible amount of back-tracking to be done to make up for this problem. There are major gaps to fill, but the musician has no choice. In my case especially, as a choir director, I must be able to put myself in the shoes of my singers. If I can't switch gears and hear it the way they are hearing it, how can I help them?
In short, if you have always wished you could be "one of those people who has perfect pitch", don't waste your time. It's really more about some stupid elitist thing (SURPRISE! Elitism in music? Who knew?!) which has nothing to do with music at all and is counterproductive. I think Nadia Boulanger would have said something like: "Well, my dear it is wonderful that you can play that piece from memory with all the right notes, but do you have any idea what just happened from the time you started playing to the time you stopped?" We must be careful with matters like these because the seriousness of natural inclination vs. what is learned with great care and toil is often at the center of what really separates good musicians from bad ones.