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How Do I Get Perfect Pitch?

February 5, 2012

As a music teacher, I have had music students ask me: “how do I get perfect pitch?”  This is a tough question to answer, because there is little definitive medical guidance on perfect pitch, such as whether it is genetic or if it is a skill that can be learned.  Growing up, I had perfect pitch but I don’t remember how I obtained it – I just don’t recall ever not having it.  In this article, I will explore what perfect pitch is, why certain people have it, and recommendations on how you can obtain perfect pitch.

What is Perfect Pitch?

According to Wikipedia, the definite of perfect pitch (also known as absolute pitch), is:

“Absolute pitch (AP), or perfect pitch, is the ability to name or reproduce a tone without reference to an external standard.”

People with perfect pitch possess the ability to perform all or a majority of the following:

  • Identify individual pitches by name (e.g. A, B-flat, C-sharp) without an external reference
  • Listen and name the key of a given piece of music
  • Identify all the notes of a given chord
  • Accurately sing a given pitch without reference to an external tone
  • Name the pitches of common everyday noises such as electronic devices or car horns

In everyday terms, individuals with perfect pitch can name musical pitches accurately without having any reference point.  For example, if someone plays a random note on a piano, a person with perfect pitch would be able to listen and name the correct note instantly without looking.  When a piece of music is played on the radio, a person with perfect pitch would be able to identify the notes being played, including the notes of the chords and bass line.

Relative pitch is similar but more limited.  People with relative pitch can hear one identified original pitch, then identify other pitches relative to the stored memory of the original pitch.

Why Do Certain People Have Perfect Pitch?

Perfect pitch is rare among the general population.  It is more prevalent among professional top level musicians that started music study at a young age, but even still it is quite rare.  Most people with perfect pitch do not recall when they obtained it.

In 2010, a study called University of California Genetics of Absolute Pitch Study was conducted by Dr. Jane Gitschier at the University of California, San Francisco.  Although still in progress, the study had the following preliminary findings:

  • Start at an early age – The majority of individuals with absolute pitch began formal musical training before age 7.
  • Genetics – A sibling (with early musical training) of an absolute pitch possessor is about 15 times more likely to possess absolute pitch than is another individual with early musical training but with no family history of absolute pitch.
  • Fades with time – Pitch perception tends to go sharp as subjects age.  None of the subjects past the age of 51 identified all of the tones perfectly, unlike their younger counterparts.
  • Distortion – Absolute pitch possessors tend to err on G# far more than any other tone (hypothesized given the use of A as the universal tuning pitch in Western music and there being varying frequency standards for A, i.e. A440).

Research is still ongoing to find if there are genetic variants (i.e., DNA changes) that are enriched in individuals with absolute pitch.  This study is a fascinating one, and one that we will surely keep our eyes on to see how it unfolds.

How Can I Learn Perfect Pitch?

People with perfect pitch appear to fall into two categories: one group who have always had the ability, and the other group who have acquired the ability at a later age.

If one is not born with perfect pitch, the following are some ear training exercises I would recommend to help improve your ability:

  • Interval identification – To help develop perfect pitch, you must first be adept at relative pitch ability.  This involves learning to identify intervals accurately and instantaneously.  Practice listening to random note intervals and recognizing patterns to identify them.  My childhood piano teacher taught me the following mnemonic tools.  For example, to identify a 4th interval, think of the Here Comes the Bride.  To identify a 5th interval, think of the Star Wars theme.  To identify a 6th interval, think of My Bonnie Lies over the Ocean.  To identify a 7th interval, think of Somewhere Over the Rainbow (the 1st to 2nd note is an octave, then the 3rd note is the major 7th).
  • Practice playing by ear – Try playing songs from ear as often as you can, without the help of any sheet music.  This will train your ear to listen carefully and help identify relative pitches.  Don’t worry if it is frustrating at first – part of ear training is trial and error until you can recognize patterns.
  • Ear training exercises – There are numerous ear training software available, even free ones online, that one can access to practice developing your ear.  This will include practicing the identification of notes, scales, chords, intervals, cadences, and others.  Student enrollment in music exams such as ABRSM music exam or Certificate of Merit will train and test students in ear training.
  • Keep playing music – The more you play, the more your ear listens to the instrument you’re playing.  After many years of continuous practice, you will begin to be familiar with the timbre and frequency of certain notes, thus making them easier to identify.
  • Try testing your perfect pitch periodically – Periodically, you may wish to have a friend or music teacher play random notes on your instrument and practice naming them instantaneously and as accurate as you can.

Even if one is not born with perfect pitch, with patience and continuous practice, you can learn techniques to help develop the ability to obtain perfect pitch.  If you intend to acquire perfect pitch, just be reminded that it often takes years to obtain.  But don’t be discouraged – it is possible!  Good luck in your journey, and happy listening!

 

About the Author

Theresa Chen is based in Los Angeles, CA and runs two music education websites, Opus Music Education and Opus Music Worksheets. If you are interested in joining one of the web’s premiere music teacher directories, please check out Opus Music Education at http://www.opusmusiceducation.com.  To download free music education worksheets, visit http://www.opusmusicworksheets.com.

 

Go back to Opus Music Education homepage.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. February 27, 2012 1:01 pm

    Thank you for your insightful article. My daughter has perfet pitch and has fallen victim to a music teacher in high school. He will play a chord, add a note that does not belong. To answer the question is impossible for my daughter. Should I sue the teacher or is there a erasonable method for her to overcome such frustration?

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