Can I Learn Perfect Pitch?

By · TITLE IMAGE INTERNET ARCHIVE (PUBLIC DOMAIN) · Date 4/12/2018

Listen to Episode 1 of Tonefoil Hat here.

“Music satisfies the heart, leading us back to the Self, to the silence within. It is hard to hang on to negative emotions when we sing and dance with our 100%. Singing and dancing connect us to the moment.” I doubt the same is true of ear training.

Listen to the audio version of this story.

That quote, however, is from a book by Perfect Pitch Ear Training SuperCourse mastermind David Lucas Burge. In 1996, with a co-author named Gary Boucherle, he published Sri Sri Ravi Shankar: The Way of Grace, dedicated to the teachings of a famous Indian spiritual guru. Maybe this book is the reason why David Lucas Burge is listed in a book about cults in the United States. The Concise Guide to Today’s Religions and Spirituality, from 2007, was published by the evangelical Watchmen Fellowship, which considers alternative spiritualities a threat. The entry about David Lucas Burge says that American Educational Music Publications Inc., his company, “utilizes the techniques of Transcendental Meditation to develop relative (i.e. perfect) [sic] pitch in musicians.” And in fact, in Masterclass 5, Burge tells me that he will soon be introducing “ear training meditation techniques.”

A page from The Way of Grace which Burge has made available online. 
A page from The Way of Grace which Burge has made available online. 

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Last week, David Lucas Burge said to buy crayons or colored pencils and assign a color to each note in the octave. I decide to treat myself to a set of 48.

I sit down at my desk and start to listen. I give an F# (“twangy”) a red, and Eb (“mellow”) a brown. A is pale blue, because it reminds me of the ocean; E natural, dark blue, don’t ask me why. Choosing a green for G, I wonder aloud if I’m bullshitting myself that I’m really hearing the notes as separate shades. The exercise, though, is fun and relaxing—a musical version of coloring books for adults.

Having chosen a color for each of the 12 notes, I continue and listen to Masterclass 5. Right away, David Lucas Burge tells me that the colors I’ve chosen to match the tones don’t actually matter. The point is to take the time to sit and listen to a single tone. “Your ear cannot help but open up more and more,” he says. Like the masterclasses before it, Number 5 is heavily padded out with trivia, to fill the CD. For example, Burge says that people who “play every instrument you can imagine” have taken his course. Then he actually goes on to list a bunch of instruments: flute, guitar, synthesizer, bagpipes.

Here are some things I glean from Burge’s chatter in Masterclass 5: People who are in a hurry won’t learn perfect pitch. Perfect pitch is not perfectionism. “You can take a shower for 10 minutes or 30 minutes, but 10 minutes is plenty.” (By nature, I am in a rush, a perfectionist, and a lover of long showers.) Finally, Burge gives me something to practice. He wants me to play thirds on the white keys of the piano and sing both notes, the lower first. It’s not pretty, but I manage it. Then he asks me to listen to a C, sing it, listen to it again. Same thing with a D. I manage this incredibly basic pitch matching exercise and feel pretty good. I imagine David Lucas Burge being proud of me.

Burge urges me to only do one masterclass a day. In the meantime, I contact Professor Elizabeth Margulis, the director of the Music Cognition Lab at the University of Arkansas. With colored pencils on my mind, I ask Margulis if there is any scientific basis to the idea that each note has its own color that anyone can hear with practice. “People can be sensitive to how frequently they hear a certain pitch,” she tells me. “You often hear a lot of the white keys, right? You can actually track those statistically, even though you don’t know you’re doing it. You have some sense of how rare or common they are, which can maybe map on to an affect of quality or a perceived color.” She adds, however, “I don’t know about good evidence there is some robust, universal pitch-color association.”

Is the Perfect Pitch Ear Training SuperCourse scientifically sound? Sometimes its materials remind me of a late-night infomercial. Other times, its insistent claims about its own transcendental benefits are like a Ponzi scheme. Yet David Lucas Burge has apparently fought Ponzi schemes in court. According to a class action lawsuit filed against the multilevel marketing company FreeLife, a man named Steve Leaser sold Burge two bottles of Himalayan Goji Juice in October 2005. Burge realized that many of the claims about the Himalayan Goji Juice’s health benefits were exaggerated or false. In September 2007, Burge published a website called www.breathe.org. The website cast doubt on the idea that the Goji berries could slow aging and prevent cancer. As the lawsuit against FreeLife alleged, “When a consumer is diagnosed with a serious disease, with little hope of recovery…the consumer becomes particularly vulnerable to any claim that a product could lessen such illness.” Burge exposed FreeLife’s product as a “scam.”

But I’m not sure that The Perfect Pitch Ear Training SuperCourse is so different than the Himalayan Goji Berries. Yes, the stakes are lower. But musicians with bad hearing, like myself, are also particularly vulnerable to any claim that a product could improve it. Is it possible that David Lucas Burge is both a crusader against and a purveyor of bad science? Did he learn something from FreeLife’s dark arts and apply it to his own career? I feel like I’m collecting pieces from many different puzzles.

Here’s another tantalizing clue. When I look up Burge’s trademark, American Education Music Publications, Inc., I find several businesses with “Earthborn” in the name. One of them sells mattresses. The man at the bottom of the website looks quite a bit like Burge. And the website claims:

via www.earthbornbedroom.com 
via www.earthbornbedroom.com 

These claims are outlandish enough that the Iowa Better Business Bureau wrote an official notice to Earthborn Bedroom. Could Earthborn Bedroom substantiate this science? Earthborn Bedroom responded by telling the Better Business Bureau to google it. The BBB did not consider this satisfactory.

After publishing Episode 1 of this story, I also exchange emails with a person who allegedly worked for David Lucas Burge for over six years. “I know enough of his secrets,” the person writes. The more I research Burge, the more questions I have about him. Is he a relatively normal guy whose main interests happen to be health products, meditation, ear training, and building rainforests in Iowa? Or is something fishy going on? ¶

Tonefoil Hat will continue on April 26.For updates, subscribe to our newsletter.