Legend has it that, while visiting a farm with his parents, Mozart heard the squealing of a pig and immediately yelled, “G-sharp”. The adults around him rushed to a piano to identify the sound. Sure enough, the pig’s squeal was a G-sharp. This ability, known as having “perfect pitch”, means that you can identify a musical note without referencing a musical instrument. Sounds easy? Try it! It’s deceptively difficult.
Having Perfect Pitch is an ability that tends to be associated with gifted musicians like Mozart, unless, however, you speak Yoruba. Yoruba is a tonal language spoken in Niger, Benin, and Toga. In tonal languages, a word’s meaning is derived from the pitch at which it was spoken. In Yoruba, the word “bi” can mean “to deliver a baby”, “to ask”, and “to throw up”, depending on whether it is spoken with a high, middle, or low pitch. Obviously, if you speak Yoruba, your survival depends on your ability to discern these subtle differences! Your ears are constantly engaged in making decisions based solely on slight variations in pitch.
As a result, people who speak tonal languages are more likely to develop perfect pitch… a skill that I, and many other piano players, desire to possess. The benefits of having perfect pitch, as Mozart did, are endless. By possessing the ability to hear accurately pitched sounds in one’s head, composing, memorizing, and sight reading all become vastly easier. Imagine looking at a piece you have never seen before and knowing exactly what it will sound like!
Fortunately, and what brings me greatest relief, is that perfect pitch is not a biological trait. It can be learned. So, spend hours “testing” yourself at the piano bench… or sign up for a Yoruba language course… if you can find one.