"Absolute Pitch” (Perfect pitch):

The ability to name the pitch of a note without reference to any previously sounded one (recognition) or to sing a named note without reference to a previously sounded one (recall); recognition is generally found to be easier than recall.

Absolute tonality” is the ability to name the key of a chord or harmonic passage without previously heard reference notes. The faculty is experienced subjectively as different keys having, as it were, distinctive flavours or colours that are instantaneously recognized and never confused. The absolute recognition of the single note may carry with it an implicit tonality. But the drawings of equivalences or similarities between modalities (between keys and visual colours, for instance, (as in synaesthesia) is entirely personal and idiosyncratic however self-consistent it may be, so that efforts to establish a glossary of correspondence between them by consensus are misguided and fruitless.

However, a gramophone turntable running too fast and presenting the Jupiter Symphony in C flat causes a sensory distress to the absolute pitch musician analogous to seeing purple grass or tasting salt chocolate, since the key of the adjacent semitone is so far removed in key relationship; it may add to the confusion that by the compromise of equal temperament the key note and fourth degree of C major sound like the leading note and the third degree of C flat. Similarly for the absolute pitch musician the excitement of adventurous modulations is very much an immediate sensory pleasure as well as an intellectual and aesthetic one.

With relative pitch (i.e.knowing the pitch of a reference note), for instance orchestral A sharp and using it as a fixed point for calculating other notes or tonalities, however rapidly it operates, pleasure in adventurous modulation is predominantly aesthetic and intellectual, without the sensory element.

For the possessor of only relative pitch a more complicated process is involved than that of the instantaneous absolute recognition of the single note; it is likely that the incoming stimulus must be retained in short-term memory storage while the image of the reference note is recalled and compared, the interval between the two identified, and then translated from an interval code to a name of note code.

This analysis lends point to Teplov's criterion for absolute pitch being not accuracy but speed of recognition.

Source: "The New Grove Dictionary of Music & Musicians."

Recent research by Diana Deutsch and Trevor Henthorn of the Department of Psychology, UC San Diego and Mark Dolson of Creative Technology Center, indicate that Perfect or Absolute Pitch can be also be learned. Until now, many researches have believed that this skill was only hereditary, which would be the reason to why only one out of 10000 people has it.

This results come from a study of people speaking Mandarin and Vietnamese. These two languages are very sensitive to the pitch of a spoken word - the meaning of a word is changed by the change of pitch. The researchers found "astonishing consistency" in the pitch of which words were uttered.

Their conclusion was that these people must have learned a "perfect pitch template" for pronunciation of words.

source: Scientific American

In my more than ten years as a piano teacher, I have only come across one student with absolute pitch. It was very curious this ability she was hardwired with.

She could, indeed, recognize, and name, instantly, any note I played anywhere on the piano. It was truly uncanny: she didn't know the name of all the chords I would play, but she could name off each note without thought.

I imagined her able to hear any sound, anywhere as pitches of some great universal instrument: a ecstatic experience.

Not a complete bowl of cherries, however, she recounted how in her high school guitar classes that unless she was the one who tuned the instruments, all she experienced was great discomfort.

It is indeed possible for one not born with absolute pitch to acquire it through extensive ear training and practice. I do not know all of the pitches, but I can use deduction to figure out the rest*.

The same goes with chords.

So, how does one acquire absolute pitch?

  1. Get a keyboard or instrument that is not easily detuned nor out of tune (a detuned instrument tends to completely destroy one's ear training).
  2. Begin by playing the note that is most important for your core instrument. For example, guitarists should pick E because E is an important note on the guitar. Pianists should pick either A or C. People who play instruments in concert pitch should choose Bb. And so on and so forth.
  3. Begin by playing that note. Over and over. Sit there for at least fifteen minutes playing the note in whole note intervals (of rhythm) until the pitch is indelibly burned into your memory.
  4. Play the major chord on that note. Languish in the texture. Feel the emotion. Play it until you know it cold.
  5. Play a note dissonant to the first. Play it mostly, but alternate to the first or the previous notes you have been trying to memorize every once in a while. Playing a dissonant note from the current one you are trying to learn helps one notice the difference between the two. Notice the imaginary pulsing beat between the two in your mind (imagine playing the two notes at the same time).
  6. Do the same thing with chords.
  7. After you have done about three notes/chords, stop and try imagining them in your mind. If you can without any problem, start on other chords (minor, diminished, augmented, sevenths, ninths, etc.) or notes.
  8. Always be sure to imagine them in your mind. This is key. Always do this. Do some interval training as well.
  9. Do the previous for at least half an hour a often (it isn't important to do it each day; just like lifting weights, it is good to do it a few times a week). In a month's time one should be relatively familiar with each note. In about three month's time, one should have absolute pitch.

Of course, there are multiple methods to ear training. This is the way I used, and it seems to work pretty well. Over a much longer period, however, musicians tend to get more accustomed to pitch naturally, and long-time musicians often have absolute pitch (sometimes acquired).

The pitches I have trouble with I can figure out by taking C (my core note) and matching it up to the note I am figuring out. By imagining both in my mind, I can "see" the dissonance and discover the interval. By adding the interval to the core note, I get the note I am trying to discover. (this only takes a few seconds and becomes better with time, especially with a sound ::cough, cough:: music theory understanding)

Also, be sure to play musical "mind games" with yourself every once in a while. Try to imagine what two chords layered on top of each other would sound like. Try to imagine what C half-sharp (half-sharps do indeed exist) would sound like. And so on and so forth.

* Apparently, that means I have some combination of relative pitch and absolute pitch...

...is more of a Vaudeville act than a real skill.

How can I learn absolute pitch?

Uh, you can't. Some people(read: professional musicians, by which I specifically do not mean drummers or the brass) acquire something close to perfect pitch, excellent relative pitch, over time. However, I have yet to meet somebody who recognized notes as quickly or as accurately as a person who was born with perfect pitch. Or a conductor who did not act like a snotty mass of arrogance and jealousy towards me for being born with perfect pitch. I never said that.

How can my child develop absolute pitch?

Have your child learn to play a string instrument before the age of seven. I learned to read and write music when I was four; I started to play the violin at the age of five. If the theory is true, this helped me to acquire absolute pitch. The violin is more suitable than, say, the guitar because you have to rely nearly completely on your ears to find notes with reasonable intonation. The guitar is better than the piano, because you will tune it yourself.

Is it a useful skill?

As stated above: Nope. Not very. You could write down every sound you hear, the bus slamming on the brakes, the telephone busy signal, everything - but you rarely need to.

When analyzing harmonics, it can even be distracting; people with perfect pitch always focus on absolute measures and find it hard to think in terms of intervals or chord progression.

Musicians normally learn to identify intervals quickly; for a long time, I heard, say, a C and an F and then had to fall back on counting to determine it was a fourth. I could tell you every note in a triad, but had to draw the circle of fifths to compute its hamonic functionality. This is the musical equivalent of a NASTY hack.

You die a thousand deaths each time you sing from sheet music in a choir; either you have to transpose to a different key in real time, or you have to watch the choir dropping farther and farther off key every minute - which is like the sound of scratching nails on a blackboard for me.

As you won't always suffer in silence, this also serves to make you the most hated member of the choir / ensemble in a matter of hours.

Doesn't it ever come in handy?

Of course it does - it's talent show material. And the Dean of our Computer Science faculty, a hobby musician, was impressed because he could not figure out how I do it. He still believes there really is a connection between musical and mathematical talent.

What he might have learned by looking at my test scores:

This is a myth.

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