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F above middle C

A few weeks ago Tom asked a listener if the noise from his car sounded like an “F above middle C.” Did anyone else test the note Tom then hummed? I believe he may have perfect pitch, although in an earlier Nova Science Now episode, Tom also exclaimed, “That sounds like F above middle C.” So it may be a a stock answer he gives, and the “perfect pitch” may be a coincidence.

Tom should be thinking about the F below middle C instead of the F above middle C. The F above middle C is only up a fourth, while the F below middle C is down a fifth, which is probably what Tom downed before he gave this answer.

I am suprised at how many people have perfect pitch without realizing it. I read somewhere that perfect pitch is more likely to be present in people who receive training/education in music at an early age. I only knew one music student who had perfect pitch, but I have met a few non-musicians who have it.

“Perfect pitch” is the ability to consistantly discriminate between small frequency variations. The names of the notes associated with these frequencies are what we’ve invented and what music students learn. My son went through that training at Berklee College of Music.

Perfact pitch is innate. You either have it or you don’t. While I might be able to learn what a C note is when played in sequence or comparison to other notes, I’d never really be able to tell if it’s flat or sharp without some reference…or even of it’s a C note. Someone with perfect pitch can do so once they learn that the specific frequency is a C.

Example: almost every evening I play my guitar. If I sit down and plunk the G string I have no idea if it’s a G. If I play a chord, which puts it into some context, I know something is out of whack and compare the notes on the various strings to correct it. Regularly I do the whole guitar using a tuner, because it’s easy to tune the strings relative to one another and have the entire guitar flat or sharp without even knowing it.

While these two are blues musicians, I suspect it’s a stock funny answer. Perfect pitch really is not common. If you doubt my word watch a few episodes of American Idol.

We can even make the discussion more complicated. In this country, the A above middle C is 440 hz. Many European orchestras used to tune to an A of 435 hz. I don’t have perfect pitch, but I do play French horn which is F as opposed to other instruments that are in C, or in B-flat. Even without perfect pitch, when I sing in a choir, I am constantly transposing into the horn key–from C to F. In other words, I think everything in the choral music down a fourth.

I would tend to believe it’s just a stock answer and he’s humming ‘any’ note just for laughs. ( didn’t hear nor test the hummed note )
I don’t believe perfect pitch is learned. I’ve been playing something musical since age 6 or 7. Piano first, then horns, then guitar at 11, adding bass guitar at 13 or 14 which I’ve then ( after 16 or 17) played every weekend for the last 30 years, plus singing leads and harmonies, yet still no perfect pitch. And, as says Same Mountainbike, I can always tune it within itself but to tune the whole band we need a reference point like a guitar tuner or a keyboard. For me to find the F above middle C I’d need to walk over to a piano just to know which C is middle C.

Maybe some of we musicians on the board could get together and jam! I appreciate all kinds of good music (I define as those that have melody, harmony and rhythm, “rap” doesn’t meet that criteria) though I found it really hard to fit my saxophone in with a bluegrass band.

I’m jealous of your ear. Mine’s tin. And my singing monotone. I was in a band as a kid and they other members hid my mic.

My son being a real musician, he sometimes tunes the guitar to different keys when he plays, but I just bang on the thing. I do a credible job on it, but I’m untrained.

I don’t have perfect pitch, but someone taught me a trick a few years ago that gets me in the ballpark of the right note. Find out which is the lowest note you can comfortably sing. Locate that note on the piano and then figure out how many notes away you are from Middle C. Get used to how to vocally get from the low note to C. Once you’re used to this, if you’re away from a piano or a pitch pipe you can get very close to the proper note. I sing barbershop and this is very helpful. One thing: first thing in the morning your voice is lower than usual but as soon as it’s warmed up this method is pretty accurate.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a good voice. I’m only in my church choir for filler–they put me at the end of the row. On Sunday morning, I drink a couple of Bloody Marys for breakfast then go in and sing tight end.

Okay, this may sound geeky, but I originally posted this question because I actually did go and test the note on my piano on the day of the broadcast. Then, just to be sure I brought my A440 tuning fork to work and played the re-broadcast and am pretty sure that he hit an “F” (a Major 3rd below the tuning fork note). It’s been a long time since my music school days, so I’m not so confident about what back then I suspected was my perfect pitch. So I was hoping someone with a keener (younger) ear might “chime” in.

While these two are blues musicians,

Actually, bluegrass. They actually can play fairly decently (Tom on bass, Ray on guitar, at a minimum). Try out their “Faces made for radio” video (10th anniversary show) some time.

Try replaying it with an electronic tuner next to the speaker. That should tell you exactly what note he hummed.

I had totally forgotten about this since I originally heard the episode. I do have perfect pitch, and immediately after Tom hummed in this episode, I remember thinking, “well gee, he must have perfect pitch” because he hit an F spot on. It is of course possible it was just luck, or very well practiced, but he at least made it sound as though he does have pitch.

In the Nova Science episode, by the way, the pitch the car is making is an E above middle C. Although this means that Tom was wrong, he is in fact only off by one half-step, which means he was relatively accurate. He had to hear that pitch above road noise, etc.

Also, although it would be wonderful if perfect pitch could be learned, it can’t unfortunately. You can learn relative pitch, which can be nearly as useful, but perfect pitch isn’t something you can develop, at least later in life. That being said, in the West, perfect pitch is quite rare- occurring in 1 out of every 10,000 people. In Mandarin culture, however, where a tone language is spoken, approx. 70% of people, (or at least of school-aged children), have perfect pitch.