About Perfect Pitch

Being able to name notes you hear can seem like a magical ability, and when you meet someone with “perfect pitch” it can be impressive and inspiring. But perfect pitch is not necessarily the road to take, if you want to learn those skills yourself…

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Today we’re going to be talking about perfect pitch. This is something that came up in my recent interview with Steve Myers from Theta Music Trainer, when we were talking about how he got started with ear training and learned to play by ear and improvise.

We didn’t talk much about it but there was one huge and important point: Although he studied some perfect pitch training, it was not the way he actually found success in his ear training. So I wanted to unpack that a bit because it’s a road a lot of musicians go down and, as I’ll explain in this episode, it’s a very misguided one due to some big common misunderstandings about perfect pitch.

Okay, this is a bit of a hot topic, and it can be quite a contentious one.
So I’m just going to lay it out.
Here’s the two-line summary of this episode:
Can you learn perfect pitch? Yes.
Should you try to learn perfect pitch? NO!

Here’s the slightly longer version:
Can you learn perfect pitch? Yes, but it’s incredibly slow and even if you work hard at it, it’s seriously unlikely you’ll actually get good enough for it to be useful to you.
And there is a much easier way to get all the wonderful skills you’re hoping perfect pitch would bring you.

This show, The Musicality Podcast, is a lot about trying to demystify the process of becoming more musical.
To help you to see that even really inspiring and impressive musicians weren’t blessed with an effortless gift.
They worked hard to learn those skills – and that means you can too.

Perfect pitch is a great case in point, because the idea that you need perfect pitch to be an amazing musician, or that you need to be born with it to stand a chance – and also the idea that learning this magical talent is the only way to become a great musician. These are myths and delusions that hold musicians back from achieving all they could.

So if you’ve ever wondered about perfect pitch yourself, I hope that this episode will help to show you a better way.

We’re going to talk about:
– What exactly is perfect pitch
– Why people want perfect pitch
– Can you learn perfect pitch
– What is the alternative to perfect pitch
– And why that alternative is so much better.

Now I might get a bit rant-y in this episode. And I apologise in advance for that. But to be clear: I am not bashing on perfect pitch. If you have perfect pitch, great! Use it, enjoy it, more power to you. What I am bashing on is musicians who don’t have perfect pitch thinking they need it to be great, or thinking that learning it is the best way to get an instinctive freedom and power in music.

So let’s dive in.

What exactly is perfect pitch?

Simply put, it’s the ability to name a note you hear without any reference to a known note.

So if you haven’t heard any other music, and someone plays a single note on a piano and you can name that note just by hearing it, for example “That was an E flat” – that is perfect pitch.

Now before we continue we need to clear up a couple of things that are not perfect pitch.

Perfect pitch does not have anything to do with singing. Singers often talk about being “pitch perfect”, and yes it’s true that having perfect pitch can help you as a singer, for example to sight-sing or to find the right pitch for your starting note. But always being in tune when you sing is something quite separate from perfect pitch.

The other thing which is not perfect pitch is if you already know a note’s name, or the key of the song, and then you’re able to name other notes. To give a simple example, if someone plays a C on piano and tells you that it’s a C, and then they play another note at random and you can name that note – that is not perfect pitch. You could use perfect pitch to do that, clearly, but if your brain is making use of knowing the name of another note you heard, that’s actually relative pitch. You’re comparing the two pitches and making a relative judgement.

So I actually prefer the term “absolute pitch” to mean “perfect pitch” because it makes clearer that this isn’t about always being perfectly in-tune. And it is about judging pitch in absolute terms, not relative to any other known pitch.

I’ll continue using the phrase “perfect pitch” for the sake of this episode and because it’s the term most people are familiar with, but normally I would call it “absolute pitch”.

Alright, so with that cleared up:

Why do people want perfect pitch?

Well, if we go back to the simple example of naming a single note out of nowhere – that’s kind of cool. It’s a neat party trick. I knew a musician, I’ll just call him THJ to respect his privacy, who used to have fun by announcing the notes of car horns and other random beeping sounds when we were out and about. That was pretty funny, and it is a beautiful demonstration of how music can be such a core part of somebody that even random sounds have a musical meaning.

But beyond that kind of party trick, what is perfect pitch useful for?

It’s basically a shortcut. If we think about the skills of musicality, a lot of them are related to pitch:
– Playing melodies by ear
– Recognising chord progressions
– Composing music
– Transcribing music
– Improvising

Naturally, being able to directly name the notes you hear or imagine in your mind is a really useful thing! You can directly play them on an instrument or write them down.

So clearly, perfect pitch is really useful. And when you meet a musician with perfect pitch who can essentially effortlessly do all these things, it’s impressive and inspiring.

But here’s where people get misled. Perfect pitch is absolutely not the only way to do these things!

We’ll talk more about that in a minute. But first, you’re probably wondering: if perfect pitch is such a cool shortcut and is so useful to the musicians who have it – can you learn it yourself?

The answer to “Can you learn perfect pitch?” is “Yes” – but only barely.

The scientific research on the subject shows that in general you need to be born with perfect pitch, or at least have it from a very young age. It’s not understood what causes that, though there is a higher prevalence in countries where the spoken language is tonal, for example Mandarin. It’s not clear how much it’s nature versus nurture but anecdotal evidence suggests both have a role.

Based on that you might think “Okay, well I wasn’t born with it so never mind”. But unfortunately it’s not quite that simple, and this is where musicians get misled.

It is possible to develop some degree of perfect pitch as an adult.

The way I like to explain it is that actually we are all biologically capable of perfect pitch – it’s just that our brains didn’t think it mattered, so we don’t interpret sound in that way. But there are clear examples that you can re-train your brain to care about perfect pitch.

One example is audio engineers. It’s normal for them to do ear training to recognise different frequency bands, for example to adjust the EQ on a recording or live sound and fix problems or enhance the overall mix. That is using a form of perfect pitch where they need to go directly to a certain frequency band. Experienced engineers can spot things down to a band that’s a third of an octave wide – which is four semitones, corresponding to just a few notes. They’re not going to one specific note name, but they’re getting pretty close.

A second example is that if you ask someone to sing a song they know well, often they will actually sing it in the correct key. Their memory for that music has stored the absolute pitches, and they are exhibiting a kind of perfect pitch when they sing the right notes.

That leads on to a third example, which is the one form of perfect pitch ear training which I do recommend, and that is memorising a single “reference pitch”. Some musicians choose A440 that orchestras tune to, guitarists sometimes choose the low E string, pianists often middle C. The idea is just to pick one pitch and regularly practice trying to remember it and sing it, then check your answer. This can gradually reinforce your memory for this pitch and give you a simple way to do perfect pitch-like tasks. More on that later.

So clearly there is evidence that our adult brains are capable of learning perfect pitch.

But here’s the catch: to get to the level of instantly recognising any note, and to do it even when there are multiple notes played at once like in an actual piece of music – is incredibly hard and slow-going. I’ve been working in ear training for almost a decade and I have yet to meet or hear from a single person who has reached this level as an adult.

What I have heard from is hundreds of musicians who have spent months or even years chasing this goal and getting to only a rudimentary level, where they can recognise a handful of notes, reasonably reliably. And generally still can’t apply that to more than the most basic musical tasks.

There are a few common methods for learning perfect pitch. One is the simple “guess and check on a regular basis” that I mentioned before. A second is to really listen deeply and try to hear the “pitch colour” characteristic of each note. This is popularised by a very well-known ear training course. I don’t want to be sued so I won’t name names, but if you search online for “learn perfect pitch” you’ll find it. And the third method is analogous to the “reference songs” way of learning interval recognition, where you try to memorise certain melodies which start from each note, and rely on your musical brain’s desire to autocomplete to let you recognise a note you hear based on what melody it sounds like it’s starting.

I could go into depth about each of these. I’ve tried them myself, I’ve had students try them. And I think all that’s worth saying is that they all sound reasonable and they all deliver some encouraging early results after a week or two which might make you think it’s worth persisting. But as I said before I have yet to meet a single person who has developed anything close to full perfect pitch who didn’t have it from childhood.

Okay, so enough doom and gloom. Time for the good news.

Let’s recap why we might want to learn perfect pitch. We said it could help you:
– Playing melodies by ear
– Recognising chord progressions
– Composing music
– Transcribing music
– Improvising, and
– Party tricks

The good news is there is just one of those where perfect pitch is the only way to do it. Can you guess which?

There is an alternative to perfect pitch, which can help you do all the others. Play by ear, improvise, transcribe, compose…

And that’s: relative pitch. Recognising notes not in absolute terms, but relative to the other notes around them. This is how our ears naturally interpret music, something I talked more about in our recent episode on solfa.

Relative pitch is the kind of ear training which Steve Myers succeeded with and which led him to develop the highly-successful Theta Music Trainer. It’s the kind of ear training we focus on exclusively at Musical U. Because it’s the kind of ear training which lets you quickly and reliably learn to do these amazing musical skills.

So the one thing relative pitch can’t do for you? Yes, it’s the party tricks, like declaring that a car horn is a B-flat. And actually even those are within reach if you use the “reference pitch” method and a well-developed sense of relative pitch. I’ll put a link to more about that in the shownotes.

With relative pitch ear training it doesn’t matter what musical abilities you were born with. It doesn’t matter if you’re young, middle-aged or retired. It just works. It can be adapted to suit any instrument and it can be used for any pitch-related tasks in your real musical life. With the right kind of training it can be a matter of months before you’re freely and confidently playing by ear or improvising – and it can absolutely get you to the level where other people see what you can do and assume that you must have perfect pitch.

I’m not going to talk more about relative pitch for now – this episode’s already running long, and it’s something we’ll be covering in depth in many more episodes of the podcast. And I’ll have links in the shownotes so you can learn more about it.

I hope this discussion has been useful for you if you’ve ever wondered about perfect pitch, thought about trying to learn it yourself – or if you’re already a few months into trying and starting to wonder if it’s ever going to work out… The good news is that all the skills you’ve been craving are learnable – but perfect pitch is not the solution.

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