Music Synesthesia & Perfect/Relative Pitch
Dictionary.com defines synesthesia as “a condition in which one type of stimulation evokes the sensation of another, as when the hearing of a sound produces the visualization of a color.” Basically, this means your senses get crossed up or overlap. I’ve heard Pharrell and Kanye, among many others, claim to experience this phenomenon and they’re able to “see” sounds. I know the feeling; I'm a synesthete. I “feel” sounds and I believe everybody else does, too. I don’t think people literally see sounds, they just associate them with what resonates with them. For many of us it’s color. I hear sounds and feel/think colors in/around me. When I touch an “F” on the piano I feel the color orange somewhere. When I hear an F Major 7th chord I feel a mix of orange, green, yellow, and blue since F Major 7ths feature the individual notes F (orange), A (green), C (yellow), and E (blue). That palette of colors immediately tells me what chord is being played (without needing to double check on a guitar). This all relates to what's known as “relative and perfect pitch” (also called absolute pitch).
Based on reading Perfectpitch.com, I understand relative pitch as having the ability to know the difference between D Major and D Minor chords and perfect pitch is knowing that what you hear is a version of a very specific note (in this case “D”, and not any other note). Some people experience one or the other, some won’t understand what I’m saying at all, and some get the concept of both (like me). I tell people that it’s a gift and curse with the side effect being that I can’t turn that part of my brain off, whenever I hear music or musical sounds. Somebody can honk a horn and I’m hearing an “E flat” (also written “Eb”) or another person drops a spoon and it dropped in the key of “G” to me. This was my goal, though, and I hope I never lose this “superpower” (a former student called it that).
I believe I trained myself to have perfect/relative pitch. I’ve read about studies suggesting that you have to be born with that ability, unless you develop it very early as a child (e.g. New Atlas), and maybe that’s true, but how can you prove that? I think you can be born with the ability to learn anything, if your brain is relatively functioning. At about the age of 20, I was determined to be able to hear a song on the radio and be able to reproduce it from scratch... without help or sheet music. In order to get there, I had to realize that I associate sounds with colors. I took songs I already knew (in 12 different major keys) and I identified the colors they made me feel/think of (Stevie Wonder’s “My Cherie Amour” is in “C sharp” (C#) so I felt a dark yellow color when hearing it). Then, I took those reference songs and compared new songs to them. Example, I heard Rihanna’s “Umbrella” for the first time and thought “this reminds me of ‘My Cherie Amour’, so it must be in ‘C#'.” That key became vividly clear to me and from that point on I didn’t need a reference anymore. So, if you can’t detect pitch quality already, I can and you can, too.