Living with perfect pitch and Synaesthesia – what it’s really like

I was at a party last week, and a fellow dinner guest asked me what having perfect pitch was actually like. They wanted to know if it was just knowing what an ‘A’ was – and whether it could be learned. They were musical and seemed genuinely interested – so I decided for once to give them the full, no-holds-barred explanation. It’s complicated, and I get asked this a lot, hence this post.

Yes, having perfect pitch includes knowing whether something is an A or an A flat – that’s also the case for excellent relative pitch which is something that can be learned with time and effort. But for me perfect or absolute pitch is more than that.

With the caveat that this is my personal experience, and it might be different for fellow sufferers/carriers, this is how it feels for me to be a composer with perfect pitch.

Train from Gothenburg to Stockholm is in B Major – the trees outside are beautiful. Composing on the train is a wonderful experience. I love the sound of the train and how it interacts with the landscapes. Trees and lakes and the sea are generally in major keys so it feels uplifting and inspiring to me! This music was recorded in two takes – first the strings, then the piano sound.

 

Now, I’d like you to imagine you’re chatting with your conversation partner. But instead of speaking and hearing the words alone, each syllable they utter has a note, sometimes more than one. They speak in tunes and I can sing back their melody. Once I know them a little bit, I can play along to their words as they speak them, accompanying them on the piano as if they’re singing an operatic recitative. They drop a glass on the floor, it plays a particular melody as it hits the tiles. I’ll play that melody back – on a piano, on anything. I can accompany that melody with harmony, chords – or perhaps compose a variation on that melody – develop it into a stupendous symphony filled with strings, or play it back in the style of Chopin, Debussy or Bob Marley. That car horn beeps an F major chord, this kettle’s in A flat, some bedside lights get thrown out because they are out of tune with other appliances. I can play along to every song on the radio whether or not I’ve heard it before, the chord progressions as open to me as if I had the sheet music in front of me. I can play other songs with the same chords and fit them with the song being played. Those bath taps squeak in E, this person sneezes in E flat. That printer’s in D mostly. The microwave is in the same key as the washing machine.

 

For me perfect pitch is not knowing notes, it’s about living in a world where everyone resonates, every thing has music. Everything and everyone weaves together a fantastic audio symphony that I have no choice but to absorb. For me if there isn’t music somewhere, I’ll add it in. Say someone is walking along a station platform, I almost unconsciously compose a tune fitting into their footsteps – it’ll generally be in the same key as the resonance of the station. While I hear a piece of music I generally imagine a counter-melody to complement the existing melody everyone else hears. It was only on talking to my friend Jonathan in Boston that I found out these things are not typical.

It’s odd – though I’m a composer by nature, I also love encoding the melodies and harmonies I hear in music for other people to appreciate, for example – the sound of a sunrise – or the beautiful noise of an aeroplane at 33,000 feet in D major.

I recently live-composed some classical music for each of my friend’s children at a naming ceremony. They had very different personalities and I captured them each in a short musical piece recorded for posterity. It never fails to amaze me how many people agree with my musical perception of someone – even someone young! There must be something I pick up on that is there, intrinsically, inside everyone.

When I taste things, I also hear music, mainly chords – sugar and desserts almost always in major key and chocolate and coffee are particularly complex sounds, with overtones and harmonics. I love broccoli and cauliflower which are a cycle of fifths. Sushi tastes like power chords on an acoustic guitar. Lemon meringue pie is a concoction of A major chords and inversions, 7ths and minors. I’ve ‘played’ tastes to a bunch of very gifted musicians who agreed with my interpretation of doughnuts, eggs and the like. I love delicious food mainly because of the pleasurable sounds it generates for me. Roller coaster rides also kick my synaesthesia into overdrive, oh, the harmonies and melodies of weightlessness and acceleration, I’d love to live-compose in variable weight conditions like that!

For me every single piece of life is flooded with sound – so much so that I didn’t realise for many years that this is not the case for everyone.

Auditory is most certainly my main sense.

 

Finally a few other strange characteristics that may or may not be attributable to perfect pitch – listed below in case any fellow perfect-pitchers would like to add their comments!

Picking up a language is easy – once you hear which notes people associate with particular things, it’s generally just a question of working out which scale they are using. My grammar is almost always terrible but I’ll pick up vocabulary words quickly. Optimism and the desire to communicate take over once I’ve decoded where words begin and end. For me, a laugh is almost always in a major key – crying is almost always in a minor key, regardless of language.

Other traits!

  • difficulty recognising people visually – especially if I meet them again out of the original context. I can however (given enough of a sample) recognise people by gait or voice.
  • hardly ever get motion sickness
  • great sense of direction
  • rather clumsy if I’m not paying attention
  • ultra-high scoring spatial awareness and pattern recognition skills – but also incredibly unobservant in everyday situations
  • I’m rather good at opening locks!

Hopefully I’ve given you an insight into the condition. It’s clear to me now that we all encode the world differently – and in my case very intensively and musically. Though I feel surprisingly vulnerable sharing these thoughts with the wider world, it’s also a pleasure to finally explain what it’s like to have perfect pitch.

 

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38 thoughts on “Living with perfect pitch and Synaesthesia – what it’s really like

  1. This is incredibly interesting, though I do have a bit of an odd follow-on question for you. Is there such a thing as perfect rythm as well, and how do you think that might differ from the experience of someone living with perfect pitch?

    • Thanks – and thanks for your follow-on question, that’s not odd at all! I shall ask some of my percussion/rhythm-driven friends next time we are all in the same room, and report back accordingly…

  2. “For me perfect pitch is not knowing notes, it’s about living in a world where everyone resonates, every thing has music. Everything and everyone weaves together a fantastic audio symphony that I have no choice but to absorb. For me if there isn’t music somewhere, I’ll add it in”. Thank for explaining in such depth your synesthesia, which on the face of it, many would find overwhelming but you have embraced with aplomb. Brava!

  3. As a guitar player with a similar condition I have the pleasure/pain of not only knowing what notes come from every object and event I encounter during the day, but the fretboard I see in my head becomes instantly populated with all the relevant scale shapes/chord positions for the sounds I have just heard. It’s very useful given that I’m a music teacher, but sometimes I wish I could switch it off and just enjoy listening to things like everyone else.

    • Wow! you see a fretboard! And shapes! For me I see a mixture of what I’m going to call a colour/landscape with my own version of a musical score overlaying the colour/landscape with more detail. The whole thing is 3D and moves in space depending on my body position. It generally is above my field of vision when I close my eyes.

      As to switching it off, when I get a cold or inflamed sinuses, my head gets bunged up and my pitch is slightly skewed and my world becomes duller – I don’t like that at all.

      Thanks for your comment – your version was great to hear about!

  4. I just had to leave a comment because this blog post really struck a chord with me – ha, no pun intended!

    I shared it on my FB as I have a lot of people who work in the arts/musicians and people who work in or have a lived experience of mental health, particularly personality disorder.

    Obviously, this is completely different to synesthesia. However, there were some striking similarities.

    There were a couple of random things you said at the end that struck me: you thought everyone was like that and it was a shock to discover after a conversation with someone that this was unusual. It fits the thinking of schema theory that when your world view lens is so different to that of others, that to cope it becomes your normality.

    You also mentioned other traits associated with the condition: very poor facial recognition of people and finding it hard to recognise people out of context. I get this – I didn’t realise how bad it was until my boyfriend commented on it. I got two people mixed up who I had been working with for months. I’d always put it down to dissociative symptoms, where you are not always 100% there all the time, lost in the safety net of a dream world. It made me wonder if because your senses are taken up with sound, what is going on around you is not absorbed as well.

    The other trait you mentioned was finding patterns in things more easily. This can also be a Bipolar trait. It made me wonder if there are some similarities in the way the brain works with the two – that for some reasons similar pathways are developed that aid this ability?

    All purely conjecture and no evidence to back them up or link them, but intuition and testing links is what helps you make discoveries… Even if I am just chatting rubbish 😉

  5. I’m also a perfect pitch person – I totally get the colour thing, and the inevitability of musical sound associated with every sensory experience. I don’t think I have the level of synesthesia that you have, though. One odd thing: I had an ear infection when I was little that made me hear everything slightly flat – I had to shut myself away from all sounds (as far as possible) until it was better because every sound I heard made me feel physically ill because it was ‘wrong’. My small son has aspects of synesthesia, but not so much with sounds – for him it’s more touch and taste and smell. Makes me wonder whether the tendency towards highly developed senses is hereditary, even if it manifests differently?

  6. I must say that “Living with Perfect Pitch” as the title is somewhat misleading. “Living with Synesthesia” might be more accurate? As I understand it, perfect pitch is a subset of synesthesia if you have a type of synesthesia that involves pitch. My 13-year-old son has pitch-color (and therefore perfect pitch), letter-color and number-color synesthesia. I am always asking him about it, it just fascinates me. Although it can get annoying and distracting (he also has ADHD), he thinks it is definitely a plus to have the condition and wouldn’t give it up for anything. He takes advantage of it by using it to remember events or to memorize music, for example. We are a very musical family. It is so interesting to hear your pieces, and of course to take a glimpse into your world! 🙂

    • Interesting thoughts! Yes perhaps I might add Synaesthesia to the title, respondents with perfect pitch seem (so far) to have varying degrees of synaesthesia as well – some of us get it more intensely! I love hearing other peoples’s experiences of this!

  7. Wow, this blew my mind. I’m a musician and I have synesthesia, but it’s a little different. Instead each note being different, each phrase is different. It’s the overall feel of the music that has color and shape. Because of that, I don’t have perfect pitch (Although I’ve always been super jealous of those who have) but I have pretty good relative pitch, especially for my age (16). The one thing that’s a little confusing is chords and their names. since I also have graphame-color, the name of a chord could be an entire different color than the chord itself, which is confusing. (I don’t nessesarily differentiate between individual chords, just types of chords.)

  8. This just highlights what a special thing music is. One of my relatives is a music teacher, also with the ability to play along within seconds, and we’ve similar tastes. He picks up “colours” in the melody and harmonies that I’ll never spot, in contrast I’ll hear patterns in the rhythm he doesn’t notice. No two people will hear the same thing, but can still equally appreciate the same composition for different reasons. Scale this up to thousands of us going to the same concert, all having a unique interpretation of what’s being played, yet all enjoying the experience. That’s always amazed me.

  9. Incredibly fascinating, and may explain why I am so incredibly sensitive to musical notes in songs. Just listening for a brief moment to your Morning Sunrise brought a strong, warm feeling in my chest and teary eyes. “You Never Give Me Your Money” by the Beatles always gives me this powerful jump in my heart – in a very specific brief moment in the song. I’m only learning chords now so will hopefully be able to name the specific point in which there is a drop in the song and switch in emotions. Thank you for you incredible insight and experience. :^)

  10. “When I taste things, I also hear music” is very well said for many of us with perfect pitch and synesthesia. Perfect pitch cannot be taught. Autism and perfect pitch are the reasons why my non-verbal autistic clients make glorious piano music when taught in the classical tradition.

  11. @Tamar Whyte
    “The other trait you mentioned was finding patterns in things more easily. This can also be a Bipolar trait. It made me wonder if there are some similarities in the way the brain works with the two – that for some reasons similar pathways are developed that aid this ability?”

    There’s a lot of interesting and accessible information about that in Oliver Sacks’ Musicophilia. Well worth a read.

  12. I have the same understanding of my perfect pitch and synesthesia. The images I get in my head from the sound will grow into a composition almost instantly. My non-verbal piano students especially shine in this area.

  13. Whew, so glad I am not the only one! With me, it is colour-encoding and seeing/hearing/tasting colour, including auras!!! Seriously thought I was crazy for years! Yes, I am a singer and have perfect pitch too!

  14. I’m “tone deaf”. When a couple of notes are played to me I can tell that they’re different, but I struggle to discern if one is a higher or lower than the other. Attempts to play a musical instrument usually devolves into behaving as as human sequencer, trying to reproduce the action required for the notes in the required sequence. Although I do enjoy listening to music it doesn’t immediately generate emotions, usually it prompts memories of the first time I heard it and how I was feeling then.

    It’s interesting that you find learning languages easy, I find them extremely hard. I wonder if music is just a side-effect of language.

  15. What advice would you give to someone who wants to pick up ‘relative pitch’? I wasn’t born with perfect pitch, but would really like to be able to play along to songs I hear, and find what note is being played at any one time. Is this actually doable, considering I’m 32 and haven’t formally studied an instrument yet?

    • It’s never too late to try.
      I would suggest as a first go, sit in front of a keyboard, just concentrate on the first sung word of the song you want to pick up, put that bit on repeat and keep playing different notes with your right hand until you find the one that fits. I imagine that you’ll pick up some kind relative pitch by dedication and trial and error. good luck!

  16. Hi, this is really fascinating! I’d be interested to know at what point you started experiencing these associations. It seems that your experiences occupy a “world” of western diatonic harmony, which would perhaps suggest that you had a concept of, e.g. “F major” before developing this type of synaesthetic perception.

    • Hi Jamie, thanks for your comment, that’s a very interesting thought. As I grew up with a piano, my first external association of sound with key would have been on an equal temperament western diatonic scale. In fact I used to be very distressed when things would be flat or sharp. Lucky for me I had an electronic music tutor when I reached the Royal College of Music who could see my suffering. He introduced me to a whole world of pitch – microtonal music, serial music, indian/javanese tuning, modes and Steve Reich to name a few. I don’t mind these days if people sing out of tune. Though unexpected sound for me is still rather distressing!

      Most of the time I explain my musical associations to people who might not have formal musical training, so it’s easy to use western diatonic scale to explain it, though within this context I will normally mention wide wide thirds for example, or flat flat notes, which I guess is a nod to the weird flexible world of sense and sound I experience!

  17. Reading this makes me so sad and envious; I feel I’m at the other end of the spectrum. I love listening to music of all kinds, and it often moves me deeply. I would love to be able to create my own music, but I have great difficulty translating what I hear to an instrument. If you were to play me two notes, it would take a few repetitions to work out which one was higher and which one was lower. As for working out which key things are in…

    You have a wonderful gift. Do continue to appreciate it and share your compositions with the world!

  18. HI there, really enjoyed this blog. I’m a musician although more for fun these days, but I’ve always heard the musicality in speech, trains, everyday noise. So much so that if there are two conflicting sources of sound in a room I find it incredibly hard to be in there, like listening to two uncomplimentary tunes together. My kids have learned to be understanding with this ‘weird’ trait of mine. I also can’t shop in most trainer stores because the ‘music’ played there just jams my transmission completely and makes me want to run away! I could probably put up with it if I wasn’t trying to make choices about visual things at the same time!
    anyway, thanks and I like your tunes too.

    Ben

    • Ben, Anthony, thanks so much for leaving your experiences – they are so interesting and different to mine! I love that so many people are fascinated with how music affects us, and how we all perceive it differently. It’s a real pleasure to read and respond to your comments.

  19. Thanks for this great blog and sharing. I am awful with music, but have a similar experience in that interpreting my observations and conversations using data and maths. It took me years to realise why I was always misunderstood, since I am always direct and look for solutions in binary. Really found your story fascinating!

  20. Dear LJ Rich,

    I have always been able to learn songs by ear, but have no musical training. There was music all around when I was a kid, my parents played in various groups, but I never was taught any of it. However I started to play different instruments later, and with no Piano or musical training at all learned a Phillip Glass song when I was about 13, and did other things of that sort on other instruments, ect. I couldn’t ever pay attention long enough to learn tabs, so I started learning songs by ear, and can pick out chords this way too. I just don’t know any music theory, so I don’t really know the names of the notes, and how they correspond. I am teaching myself this now, hence the reply.
    Does this mean that I have the potential for perfect pitch?
    I also dream songs, and can sing them when I wake up. No matter what I am doing a song is always stuck in my head, and I can always tell Actors by their voices. Let me know if this sounds like I have something of the sort, but it just has not been properly trained/developed.

  21. I have perfect pitch, but I’m not a composer and actually learned music theory pretty late (in college), so though I find it fascinating, I feel as if I can’t do anything with it. But it wasn’t until I took theory/solfege in college that I realized I had perfect pitch (up until then, I thought everyone could differentiate notes).
    I don’t really have the same musical experiences as you (ie, I don’t hear music when I eat food). However, when I was younger, I used to come up with songs in my head for different people (and still remember some to this day). Though I don’t do this any more, I still have a tendency to associate people with music (for example, I met a roommate right after listening to a catchy song for the first time, and so whenever that song comes up, I either think about her or how awkward I was the first day that we talked). I don’t see this as being a ‘perfect pitch’ association, though.

  22. A beautiful share! I particularly like the references to other traits. To me they make you appear to be a physicist/ mathematician not a musician… Life has taught me that music vs math / physics are like opposite sides of the same inner coin. You will find Temple Grandin’s books interesting, if you haven’t read them before.

  23. My son says:”that’s like me!!”, he has enjoyed reading your description. He seems to see colours with sound as well as hearing music to accompany visual stimulus. He enjoys creating music and rhythm too. As a non musician, I find this utterly magical and astounding. It is a gift, how rich your lives must be for having that extra sense.

  24. I think many of your things are unique to synthesia rather than simply having absolute pitch. Like tastes having chords, no one with just perfect pitch is going to hear a chord associated with a taste. Things like car horns, or the hum of a plane engine, sure. Laughter, well, that’s a bit more abstract, but still possible, some people have more melodic laughter than others, some people laugh pretty atonally.

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