The Ear Has It

I have some questions I want to ask, but I want you to know that I’m not asking them to be judgmental or condescending; I really just want to try to understand something that completely escapes me.

I have absolute (perfect) pitch. Even as a small child I was able to pick out a harmony to a song and sing along with it, or sing it alone, with or without accompaniment. When I was five years old, my favorite music was by The McGuire Sisters, a trio in the 1950s who sang tight 3-part harmonies. Even then, I would take turns singing along with each part. I’m not telling you this to brag. One cannot brag about something that one was born with.

Lynette was just giving a voice lesson in the living room. This pupil couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket with a lid on it. What I want to know is:
  1. Why do some people have an “ear” and others don’t.
  2. What the hell is an “ear” anyway? I mean biologically. What causes some to have it, and others not to?
  3. If you can’t sing, what is it you hear when you try to sing?
  4. When you sing along with a melody, what keeps you from hitting the correct notes?
  5. Do people who have no “ear” know that they're not hitting the notes?
I reiterate: I’m not asking these questions in any spirit of judgmentalism; I simply want to understand.


  1. I’m one of those people who can’t sing. When I was a little kid I thought I could sing and wanted to be a singer. (A star) I couldn’t hear how I sounded. When I got older, sometimes I could hear myself and I quit singing even when I’m alone.

    I envy your ability to make music. I’ve tried to learn to play an instrument too. I can’t do that either.

  2. By the way, I hate it when people say things that are meant to be encouraging, like “don’t give up” and “you can do it if you try hard enough.” Some people can and some people can’t and neither can ever understand the other.

  3. I have a partial ear. I can detect quickly when things are even slightly out of tune, but only relative to the context. I can’t tell what note a certain pitch is at like those with perfect pitch can. I can tune my guitars more accurately by ear than with electronic tuners and tell when my own voice is in or out of tune (keeping it in tune is of course a matter of exercise, which I lack, lol).

    These are excellent questions! Can really horrible singers not hear themselves or are they just not concerned with it? Most people can’t sing very well, myself included, but there are those who just plain suck, like an old boss of mine (nails on a chalkboard!!!). Yet, he always sang, and loud.

    Also, I think your voice as you hear it in your head (resonance in the skull) always sounds better than it really is. You learn this very quickly when you record it and play it back the first time. When I’ve kept to practicing, I can hit and hold notes pretty well, but my tone sucks. And as with guitar, tone is equally important in quality.

  4. There’s an old saying that asks why the most out of tune person always sings the loudest.

    Sounds to me that you have what is called “relative pitch”.

    And I think you’re spot on about sounding better in our heads than we do in real life, or on a recording. Makes me wonder how really great singers must hear themselves.

  5. I also can’t sing to save my life. But I have bad hearing and have all my life. I can’t hear myself when I sing, so to not kill others like yourself, I just don’t sing. Of course there are those times alone when it is all about having fun, not sounding good, and when I have had one to many at Ville’s. (that is a whole other story)

  6. All I can say is I have an “ear” for what I like and don’t have an “ear” for what I don’t like. Me sing? I don’t think so, I’m just a listener.

  7. Very good question, Steph.
    The sound that my brain wants to transmit as far as pitch is concerned is transmitted through my voice.
    I’m lucky.I don’t sing flat or sharp.
    These questions are very intriguing.

  8. You may have already seen this if you’ve tried to find answers online… I guess the University of California is conducting a study to identify the “Absolute Pitch” genes:

    I’ve always wondered why some people were born with this and others weren’t. And how many people who have this skill/ability might not even realize it.

    All I know is that in college I was very envious of you Perfect Pitch people when it came time for the sight singing tests…

  9. Some Right Wing NutAugust 22, 2007 at 1:59 PM

    I was waiting for a picture of you wearing a funny hat and you trying to sell me a pile of CDs to learn perfect pitch.

    Man it’s like throwing a baseball. Some are good at it other have to work at it. All the talents we are given very. If you want to do it bad enough depending on what level you were given depends on how hard you have to work at it.

    It a coordination thing I think between control of the voice box and the ear/brain.

    I’ve nailed some very hard vocals with repeated work but it was a fluke and I can not maintain any consistency in it. I don’t really want to sign so I’m not gonna work at it. But it seems to directly relate to how I control my voice and what I hear. A feedback loop of sorts.

  10. Woo, synchronicity! I was just yesterday reading an article about perfect pitch in “Psychology Today”, and reminding myself to ask you, Steph, if you have it, though I was pretty sure…

    I’m clueless when it comes to music myself; I love listening to it, but that’s all I can do…to me a key is a thingie used to unlock a door, so I’m in total awe of anyone musically talented. A friend once tried to teach me how to read music, and he couldn’t stop laughing at the pained expression on my face…

    Anyway, the article informed me that perfect pitch can distract listeners from enjoying music…is that true?

  11. A violin’s lack of intonation, a singer who’s just a hair flat, an off B string on a guitar, all cause actual pain in my left ear. A too-loud trumpet can make me nauseous, and once, when I was a kid, made me pass-out.

  12. Wow…don’t ever listen to my younger sister sing, then…it might prove fatal. :)

  13. If I’m standing next to somebody who is singing in tune I can follow along and sing in tune, correcting myself as I go. If I’m singing on my own I can sometimes hear that I’m off pitch, but I can’t correct myself. I’m your average not-very-musical person.

    I think I hear music differently to people with perfect pitch (my extended family is full of them). I think my hearing on pitch is “fuzzier” than those with pitch. And my ability to reproduce the sound is also “fuzzier”. I think it is like having average vision versus having 20/20. You can still see, just not to the same accuracy. Seeing is still a pleasure, but probably not the easy, overwhelming pleasure it is for those with perfect vision. And I’m less bothered when instruments or singers are out of tune, less bothered by the aural detail. Happier with the fuzzier picture.


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