More than half of the 50 special needs students I see weekly have perfect pitch. While this phenomenon appears to be more prevalent among students such as mine, it is nonetheless found in the general population at large.
I have developed a simple method for determining if someone has perfect pitch or relative pitch (the ability to name or match a note when given a reference note), which can be found in my book “Perfect Pitch in the Key of Autism”
I also discuss perfect and relative pitch extensively in the chapter I wrote in the 2010 release of “Islands of Genius” by Dr. Darold Treffert.
Many music teachers are visual learners and learned instruments themselves by being good sight readers. However, it is always best to seek out a music teacher or therapist who has experience with perfect pitch in order to better adapt to perfect pitch students.
Below are several case studies based on my private practice. Keep in mind that all of my students have special needs to a certain degree but that perfect pitch is by no means exclusive to such individuals.
Annie has a diagnosis on the autistic spectrum. Every week she would sing her favorite songs perfectly on pitch. After six weeks of piano instruction, Annie could name and identify the notes she learned on the piano, as the notes were played. Annie also demonstrated that she could “sight sing”, i.e., she could sing notes on pitch when seeing their letter names.Annie G. – age 6
Jordan, 6, is severely autistic, having few self-help skills (i.e, he couldn’t dress himself). He loved doing music activities and eventually learned how to play piano using letter names. One day, I played a note for him and he said, “That’s a G.” He was right. I tested him over and over on different notes, and he was always correct. Then I played two notes at a time, then three, and he named all of them correctly. Jordan’s parents saw their son in a new light: they began to focus on what he could do rather than what he could not.Jordan – age 6
Gavin was born with severe autism and lacked confidence in himself before starting music therapy. Once he discovered he had perfect pitch, however, his attitude began to change. Every time he came for his lesson, he would ask to be tested for perfect pitch, purely because he became so satisfied when he correctly named the notes he heard. He continues to learn music by ear because his learning disabilities prevent him from learning visually.Gavin – age 12
I’ve taught Ryan, who has perfect pitch, for 14 years. Even when he was 4, I knew he had perfect pitch — I would play a song like “The Wheels on the Bus” and would stop mid-song and ask, “What note comes next?” He would then be able to name the note correctly, even at such a young age. As he grew older, we worked to improve his sight-reading abilities and he has become such a strong visual learner that he prefers to read music first rather than hear it.Ryan – age 18