Eigenmodes of averaged small-amplitude perturbations to a turbulent channel flow – which is one of the most fundamental canonical flows – are identified for the first time via an extensive set of high-fidelity graphics processing unit accelerated direct numerical simulations. While the system governing averaged small-amplitude perturbations to turbulent channel flow remains unknown, the fact such eigenmodes can be identified constitutes direct evidence that it is linear. Moreover, while the eigenvalue associated with the slowest-decaying anti-symmetric eigenmode mode is found to be real, the eigenvalue associated with the slowest-decaying symmetric eigenmode mode is found to be complex. This indicates that the unknown linear system governing the evolution of averaged small-amplitude perturbations cannot be self-adjoint, even for the case of a uni-directional flow. In addition to elucidating aspects of the flow physics, the findings provide guidance for development of new unsteady Reynolds-averaged Navier–Stokes turbulence models, and constitute a new and accessible benchmark problem for assessing the performance of existing models, which are used widely throughout industry.