Can Perfect Pitch be learned!?  What is Relative Pitch and do I have it??  How can I develop my ear??


As I began to write this column, my cell phone began beeping - at the same pitch - over and over. I immediately could tell that the pitch was an interval of a perfect fifth away from the tonal center of the music I had on in the background.  Not being able to name the pitch or home key, I could nevertheless tell that the interval between them was that of a fifth. This perfectly illustrates our topic today! Being able to identify intervallic relationships between pitches is called Relative Pitch.  By contrast, a person who can name both the intervallic distance AND the actual note names - without having to think about it - has ABSOLUTE PITCH, also called PERFECT PITCH.

Let's look at perfect pitch first. A person who has perfect pitch can do these things: (1) Assign note names to individual pitches as they are played on any instrument; (2) name the key of a given piece of music; (3) identify the notes in a given chord; (4) sing a pitch without an external reference; and (5) name pitches heard in everyday life (a car horn, a bell). Keeping in mind that this skill (or genetic predisposition) in its highest levels may be on a contiuum (some people seem to have a more advanced 'version' of perfect pitch), it is possible a person with perfect pitch can do most of these things, and perhaps not be able to always execute numbers (3) and (4).  Persons from cultures where there is a greater use of pitch in language (called tonal language), have a greater likelihood of possessing perfect pitch (especially dialects found in Africa and Asia, where one word may have four different meanings, depending on what pitch accompanies the word).  This gives many researchers reason to believe that extremely early childhood experiences with pitch may be required in order for true perfect pitch to develop.

Individuals with perfect pitch invariably remember always having had it. Such people often talk about this ability as being analogous to seeing - and naming - a color: in the same way that a person sees a color and knows it is red, a person with perfect pitch hears a note and knows it is Bb. There is a pitch memorization involved that associates the pitch with a note name, every time. For some, the skill is so advanced that the person can tell how many 'cents' the pitch is off from the tempered scale. Another person with perfect pitch has described it this way: "I basically have twelve buckets, and every note I hear goes into one bucket. I can get fooled if you give me a note that's in between pitches". More often, this does seem to be the type of perfect pitch that most people possess [if they have it at all], where a pitch is assigned a predefined pitch area.


Despite the fact that home ear-training courses have been around for a hundred years, promising the development of perfect pitch, experts and researchers (with surprisingly few exceptions) seem to agree  that genuine perfect pitch cannot be learned later in life. In a recent study by Levitin and Rogers (Dept. of Psychology and Center for Interdisciplinary Research in Music, Media, and Technology, McGill University, Montreal), the conclusion was that "absolute pitch, the rare ability to label pitches without external reference, appears to require acquisition early in life".

Assuming that all of the above is true about perfect pitch, as a musician without that innate ability, what am I to do? Like the vast majority of aspiring musicians, I am left with only one option: develop the sense of Relative Pitch.  This skill can be learned, and there is no doubt about that!  This skill involves the practice of hearing pitch relationships. A person with well-developed relative pitch can do the following, once an external reference note or chord has been provided: (1) assign interval names to pitch relationships heard (such as perfect 4th, minor 3rd, etc); (2) hear and name ranges of sounds (major, minor, diminished, augmented, etc); (3) hear and name chord qualities (major7, minor7, etc); (4) repeat on their imstrument phrases/melodies as soon as they are heard; (5) hear key movements and know what the distance is. Valuable skills, all!  For players interested in improvised music, these are indispensable! Next month we will take a Hardball look at concrete things you can do to develop your sense of Relative Pitch, and thus advance your skills in improvisation.



The Levitin & Rogers study:


Pitch:  It's All Perfectly Relative   November 2007
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