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The limits of learning perfect pitch

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  • The limits of learning perfect pitch

    I read an article recently that discussed the phenomenon of perfect pitch, concluding that people either "have it" or don't. That is, it seems to be an all-or-none property. These findings do not imply that people cannot learn to be perfect, however, it also does open up the possibility that all known cases of perfect pitch are just people who have had it all along.

    I am curious, has anyone actually found success in developing perfect pitch?

  • #2
    I think someone can either throw hard or they can't. A good fastball is genetic. Can a good curveball be taught? Maybe but the ability to throw a great curve for strikes is more difficult and perhaps a natural gift.

    I've never met someone with so-called perfect pitch but I'd like to see it in action when they call out note names as I play my keyboard behind the curtain.
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    • #3
      I met a pianist with perfect pitch. She could pitch any tone even environmental sounds. Said musically, it can get in the way.
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      • #4
        This is how my brain exhibits "perfect pitch" I can not sing a suggested note accurately unless I think about it long and hard without comparing the note to a song I hear in my head that I know is in the key of that song. And I can not accurately name a random played pitch without comparing it to a song in my head that is in the key of that pitch. But what I can do, with 100% accuracy everytime, is sing dead on key any suggested song or part of song, be it instrument or vocal, as long as I, of course, have heard the song. I don't know to what degree this ability falls under perfect pitch, but it has always pretty much given me the ability to instantly repeat anything I hear in just about real time on multiple various instruments and with my voice.

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        • #5
          Perfect pitch is the ability to name a note by name when it is played.

          Not too be confused with relative pitch which is what allows us to play by finding intervals between notes.
          Last edited by Virgman; 04-13-2014, 03:06 PM.
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          Peace on Earth and Goodwill to All Men" -- Luke 2:14

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          • #6
            Don't worry about perfect pitch. Just work on developing your sense of relative pitch.
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            • #7
              Originally posted by Jasco View Post
              Don't worry about perfect pitch. Just work on developing your sense of relative pitch.
              Also learn a good change-up.


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              • #8
                Originally posted by kurtykoo View Post
                I read an article recently that discussed the phenomenon of perfect pitch, concluding that people either "have it" or don't. That is, it seems to be an all-or-none property. These findings do not imply that people cannot learn to be perfect, however, it also does open up the possibility that all known cases of perfect pitch are just people who have had it all along.

                I am curious, has anyone actually found success in developing perfect pitch?
                I once saw a talk by jazz playalong guru Jamey Aebersold, where he described how he taught himself perfect pitch. He did it using chromatic pitch pipes, and constantly tested himself, eg when out running. Hum a note, check with the pitch pipes. Apparently it took him several months.

                Clearly he must have believed it was a useful skill - at least while he was learning it - but I don't agree. As Jasco says, spend the time working on your relative pitch instead. That's the true musical skill.
                There's nothing musical about absolute pitch; A=440 is an arbitrary reference, means nothing. A single frequency means nothing. Music only acquires meaning when pitches are set against each other, in melody or harmony; IOW, relative to each other, regardless of any absolute tuning reference. Eg, being able to recognise "do re mi" is more important than recognising C-D-E or D-E-F#. (Of course if you hear D-E-F# after hearing C-D-E, then your relative pitch will also identify the major 2nd rise.)
                If absolute pitch mattered in music, then the meaning of a song would change when its key was changed. It would become a different song, essentially.

                Some people say it would be neat to be able to identify the key a piece is in without any reference, just by listening. Neat, maybe, but never really necessary. Any time you really need to know the key (absolute pitch), you will be in a situation where a musical instrument is to hand, to check via relative pitch. Otherwise it's just a party trick.

                On the question of whether people are born with it, the research I'm aware of suggests not. It suggests those who have it as adults - who feel they've always had it - have learned it in early childhood, before the age of 6. I.e., it's learned in the same way (same time and probably using similar processes) as language is learned. We don't remember learning our mother tongue, but we weren't born speaking it.
                It seems possible to me that the same brain wiring that enables us to learn language as infants - just by listening and copying, much more easily than we can as adults - could also be applied to music, if we believe the sounds have a similar meaning and importance as the sounds of speech. The research seems to support this, showing a high incidence of PP among children exposed to music interactively via games and singing before the age of 6 (which seems to be the cut-off point). (The interactivity is crucial.)
                That would also explain the difference many people cite, between those who have PP "naturally" (ie learned as infants, before they can remember), and those who learn it as adults. Those who have it "naturally" feel it's instinctive, like recognising colours. But that's only like language. Native English speakers feel instinctive about that; we don't have to think about how to speak. Learning PP as adults is therefore like learning a new language as adults; it's difficult, time-consuming, and never feels as natural as our mother tongue.

                Another interesting observation is the much higher incidence of perfect pitch among speakers of tonal languages, such as Chinese, where the meaning of words changes according to how they're pitched. Of course, one would expect that, but the interesting thing is that not all Chinese speakers have PP (because of course pitch variations in tonal languages are relative ones, not absolute ones). IOW, speakers of tonal languages naturally develop a greater sensitivity to pitch difference, and perfect pitch seems to be a kind of accidental, occasional, by-product of that. Which of course suggests - in turn - that the two skills are aspects of the same thing: pitch sensitivity.

                More support for that (perhaps) is the phenomenon of pitch memory. This is what I think DaveAronow has - as do many people (many more than have PP). Experiments have shown that when people try to sing a well-known song from memory, a high proportion can sing it in the original key (or at least very close). What's crucial is that the song is only known in one key, eg, a famous hit recording - rather than something more variable, such as Happy Birthday, or jazz standards which are commonly heard in many different keys.
                Those people don't have perfect pitch. They don't know what key they're singing in, and probably don't even know what a "key" is. They just have a pitch memory for that particular tune.
                http://cogprints.org/643/1/pitch.HTM

                I have this myself in relation to guitar tuning (as I expect many experienced musicians do). I don't have perfect pitch, but I can tune a guitar to concert with no reference - to within a half-step of A=440. I do it by humming a low E, which I know because it's the lowest pitch I can comfortably sing.

                IOW, all musicians need to develop good relative pitch. Sometimes, perfect pitch (or pitch memory, or something like it) arises as a by-product of that, of simply paying close attention to music for long enough.
                But real absolute pitch (the "natural" kind) can be a disadvantage for a musician, if they are too attached to it as a reference for what is "correct". There are plenty of stories of musicians with PP who get very uncomfortable when having to transpose a song from its original key, or having to perform with people who are not quite tuned to concert (but are perfectly in tune with each other). Clearly that's an inhibition.

                Last edited by JonR; 04-15-2014, 04:40 AM.
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                • #9
                  Good pitching usually beats good hitting.
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                  Peace on Earth and Goodwill to All Men" -- Luke 2:14

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                  • #10
                    Perfect pitch can be just as much a curse as it is a blessing. The key is you have auditory memory and hear the notes in your mind. I believe much of this is learned from a very young age being in a musical environment. Some of it comes from developing that ability, and some may be and aptitude.

                    In any case, Naming notes is simply giving a name to the notes the person already has the ability to hear aurally in the mind. This ability does grow over time. Someone like Beethoven had a highly developed ability to hear notes and write music even when he had become stone deaf.

                    The other thing is this kind of aural imaging isn't something you get and it stays there. It has to be exercised regular to keep it unclouded, I guess would be the best word. If you have the ability to hear perfect pitch notes you also have the ability to hear noise which in itself can mask the ability to hear perfect pitches.

                    Where its most annoying is when you work with others who cant tune their instruments well or rely on a tuner instead of their ears. Being off by small amounts can be very uncomfortable and cause allot of irritation. Someone who has it will likely tell others, it may be a blessing you don't have it because it can be a hindrance in just enjoying the music you love.
                    Last edited by WRGKMC; 05-21-2014, 03:19 PM.

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