Can I Learn Perfect Pitch?

By · Title Image Internet Archive (Public Domain) · Date 3/29/2018

I’m a musician and I have bad ears. In my ear training course in college, my teacher would play intervals on the piano. Going in a circle, he would point at the students and ask us to identify them. Some days, I got every single interval wrong. I’d confuse a minor sixth with a major sixth, or mix up fourths and fifths. Once in a while, I would panic and simply say nothing. The teacher would look at me with confusion, then sympathy, and then he would move on to one of my classmates.

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I felt awful for days after those ear training classes. I’d frequently decide to quit music forever. And I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. One friend told me she thought the main objective of ear training was not to improve your ears, but to see if you had the sheer will and perseverance it takes to become a professional musician. Another friend recalled how his teacher would play random notes on the piano to the class. “C-sharp!” she’d yell about a particular note, and somehow that was supposed to train them. A third friend of mine is a rock musician by training. When he started studying classical music, his aural skills teacher made him transcribe—notorious difficult, harmonically ambiguous, post-Wagnerian—lieder by Alban Berg from an iPod onto staff paper. After the two hour lesson, he would have nearly nothing written down.

It’s no wonder that a lot of musicians are insecure about ear training. It’s a difficult thing, to identify abstract musical structures consistently by ear. But these skills can be gained with persistent practice. Musicians learn to recognize intervals, chords, progressions, and given a starting pitch, can name other notes accurately. (This is called “relative pitch.”) It’s kind of like losing weight: with careful eating, regular exercise, and self discipline, you can get your dream body. Of course, there’s a reason why miracle diets remain popular. The equivalent of this for ear training would be to develop perfect pitch: if you can learn to hear every single note for what it is, there’s no need to practice regularly. Of course, like miracle diets, the scientific evidence that this is even possible is dubious. (“Either you’ve got it or you don’t,” one researcher told the Scientific American about perfect pitch in 2007.) I decided to try it anyway.

The website www.perfectpitch.com, which sells the Perfect Pitch Ear Training SuperCourse, has a kind of 1990s miracle diet infomercial aesthetic. One yellow headline reads, “Even tin ears can turn to gold.” I found myself thinking there might be some hope for me after all.

I order the set on Amazon, used, for over 100 euros. It comes with a pile of CDs and a “Handbook,” basically a thick CD booklet. One morning, I make myself comfortable next to my electronic keyboard and pop Masterclass 1 into the player. The masterclass begins by talking up the value of perfect pitch. Without it, “something is lacking,” the voice tells me. He says that listening to music without perfect pitch is like watching a movie on a black-and-white TV. There are introductions to basic concepts such as the chromatic scale and the idea of concert pitch. The voice mentions the idea of “color hearing,” but besides that, it’s basically a bunch of platitudes. After 25 minutes, I write in my notebook, “I know that perfect pitch is good. Can we move on?” Masterclass 1 is over after 30 minutes. I haven’t learned anything yet.

I decided to press on, hoping for some concrete tips in Masterclass 2. The first hint of what to do arrives: “Listen to these sounds every day,” the voice says. The sounds he means are an F# and an Eb. The F#, he says, sounds bright and twangy; the Eb, round and mellow. I think I can hear what he’s talking about. Or is it just the power of suggestion? (I’m a very suggestible person.) Before I decide, the second Masterclass is over, too. In total, two minutes of the first 53 seemed relevant.

I know it’s early, but the next day, I try and see if anything stuck with me. I listen to a bit of “Parsifal” in the morning, but no note strikes me as particularly twangy. Then, I try to imagine a bright F# and sing it. I check myself on a keyboard: nope, it’s a D.

The voice on the CD player goes by the name David Lucas Burge. His name is branded everywhere: on the CDs, the handbook, all over the website. A picture of him shows a handsome man with a beard, glasses and a fedora. In fact, he’s almost stock-photo handsome. I can’t shake the feeling that David Lucas Burge and his Perfect Pitch Ear Training SuperCourse might be a scam.

In 2017, before I bought the Perfect Pitch Ear Training SuperCourse, I emailed “Sherri,” who is listed on the perfectpitch.com website as a member of the support team. I asked her if I could interview David Lucas Burge. She answered that he was currently busy working on a new ear training course. Could I reach out in a couple of months? Sure, I said. A few months later, I write again and ask if I can try the next course. Maybe I could interview David Lucas Burge after I’ve finished trying it out myself? Sherri answers, “Mr. Burge is currently working on very large projects which are outside the sphere of music.” I’m intrigued. Like David Lucas Burge, Sherri could be a stock photo. I do a Google Reverse Image Search for her picture. I find it on other websites: www.friendly-pharmacy.com, which sells prescription drugs online. I also find Sherri, with her headset, offering loans to people with bad credit scores.

“Sherri” is a hard worker
“Sherri” is a hard worker

One day later, I move on to Masterclasses 3. This time, there is a lot of talk about how learning perfect pitch should be “effortless.” I shouldn’t try too hard, David Lucas Burge admonishes. I write in my notebook, “Is he gaslighting me?” I’m starting to get the sense that if I fail to develop perfect pitch, there will be plenty of reasons for me to think that it’s my own fault.

He also keeps bringing up his live seminars. I’m not sure if he’s trying to convince me to pay to go to one.

At least I get one real exercise to do in Masterclass 3. I’m supposed to listen to the tones—by now, we’ve covered F#, Eb, Ab, and C—read the handbook, and then listen to the tones again. David Lucas Burge doesn’t tell me what pages to read. I flip through the booklet listlessly and come across a black-and-white picture of a lady in glasses. She was Burge’s piano teacher, and her name was Hélène Rynd Vinograd. It sounds like what somebody in Iowa in the 1980s might think a European name sounds like. But I google her, and there are a few newspaper articles about her. It looks like she actually did exist.

Having “read” the booklet, I play the notes and listen to them again. Am I trying too hard, I wonder? I start over, this time trying not to squint.

Masterclass 4 is short, a series of questions: an anonymous man with a deep voice asks and David Lucas Burge answers. But the questions he asks are not the questions I want answers to. What I want to know is, Who is David Lucas Burge? Does he really exist? Is there anything behind his so-called expertise? Did he really write a book about Eastern spirituality? And why, around a decade ago, was he involved in a lawsuit against a multilevel marketing company named FreeLife, claiming that it was lying about the purity of its Himalayan Goji berries?

David Lucas Burge is nothing if not enthusiastic
David Lucas Burge is nothing if not enthusiastic

I don’t have answers to those questions yet. I do, however, have another assignment. I’m supposed to get Crayola crayons and a piece of paper; listen to each note in an octave; and find a color to match each one. Then I’m supposed to make a color chart. Anticipating my snideness, David Lucas Burge tells me not to skip this exercise. No matter how smart I think I am. He wants me to “just be a child for a while.” ¶

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