Can I Learn Perfect Pitch?

By · Title Image INTERNET ARCHIVE (PUBLIC DOMAIN) · Date 4/26/2018

Listen to Episode 1 of Tonefoil Hat here.Listen to Episode 2 of Tonefoil Hat here.

Masterclass 6 of David Lucas Burge’s Perfect Pitch Ear Training SuperCourse starts much the same as the previous five: with chatter. He tells me that through his course I will start to experience “a little Christmas of musical perception.” This will be immediate yet subtle, he says. But then, to my great surprise, he goes on to give me several concrete exercises to work on. Even more surprising, these exercises are tricky in a good way. They seem like they might actually be helpful.

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In the last masterclass, Burge had me play thirds on the white keys of the piano and sing both notes, starting with the lower pitch. Now he asks me to repeat the same exercise, this time with seconds instead of thirds. He calls this task an “ear waker-upper” and an “unlocking technique.” The “unlocking” refers to the way the ear separates out the two pitches that make up the interval.

At this point, Burge also introduces a kind of self-testing mechanism. This, too, is a good sign to me. It has a whiff of the objectivity I’ve been craving. I will need to sing the notes from the major and minor seconds correctly 20 times in a row. If I make a mistake, I will need to start from the beginning. He suggests keeping track of my scores using 20 marbles and separate paper bowls. “It gives you a sense of satisfaction when you take the marble and drop it into one of the bowls,” he says. But I’ve already spent enough money on colored pencils, so I decided to keep a tally in my notebook instead.

I give David Lucas Burge’s “ear waker-upper” exercise a try. The first day, I get two in a row correct, then four, then two, then 10, then four again. I find it somewhat harder than I was expecting—not getting it right, necessarily, but getting it right 20 times in a row. David Lucas Burge had reminded me not to do more than 10 to 15 minutes of ear training practice a day, so I stop eventually. I have a tendency to get a little obsessed with tasks, so it’s good that he tells me in Masterclass 6 not to “strain or force in any way.” There is something eye-opening about this: practicing ear training without the fear of humiliation before your peers that normally comes with ear training class. Or maybe I’m just older than I was in college and care less. Either way, my hearing eventually “will cooperate,” Burge promises.

The next day, my hearing actually does cooperate. I notice a small difference in the way I hear the major and minor seconds. The two pitches are somehow slightly more distinct from one another. I hear the lower one more clearly, which I had had trouble singing correctly. I get four in a row right, then three, struggling, for some reason, particularly with the major second of G and A. Then, finally, I reach 20, passing my very first verification round. I stop for the day with a feeling of accomplishment. I practiced for six minutes.

The next exercise from Masterclass 6 I need to tackle is another singing and “unlocking” task. This time, I’m supposed to play any two notes, black or white, with one hand. Then I’ll sing the two notes, from the bottom up.

It’s so much harder. On my first attempt, I only manage the task twice correctly in a row—1/10th of the verification round. Consonant intervals like major thirds and fourths are a bit easier than dissonant intervals, but in both cases, I have a strong tendency to only hear the top note. More often than not, that’s what I accidentally end up singing first. At one point I get so confused I can barely match pitch with a Bb.

I manage eight minutes of practice on this exercise before giving up. Again, I’m thankful that David Lucas Burge doesn’t expect me to practice for hours until I get it. In the absence of any new details about him personally—my source appears to have disappeared for now—I notice my good will towards Burge steadily increasing.

I also start what Burge terms “musical meditation.” I sing a C which is not a C, correct it, then play a C on my keyboard. Then I sing a D, and again play it on the keyboard. C again. I do this for a few repetitions. I don’t know if it’s helping me, but I do feel more relaxed after the frustration of the “unlocking” exercise.

That same evening, I attend a recital by the pianist Mitsuko Uchida. The concert is at the Pierre Boulez Saal, in Berlin, which is a circular space. For the second half, Uchida turns the piano so that I can see her hands. During the second Impromptu of the D. 899 set, an Allegro in Eb Major, I imagine that I’m hearing a certain rounded mellowness in the color of the scale. I can see when Uchida’s fingers land on an Eb major chord, but I also imagine that I can hear the bass, in particular, and recognize its red quality. David Lucas Burge describes the development of perfect pitch as moving from black and white to color hearing; I can’t say that’s how I feel, and again maybe it is just the power of suggestion, but something about this listening actually seems really different. (Then again, in the first half, when I couldn’t see Uchida’s fingers, I didn’t feel particularly aware of the colors of individual notes.)

Franz Schubert, Impromptu No. 2 in Eb Major from the Four Impromptus, D. 899; Mitsuko Uchida (Piano) 

I feel invigorated, then a little bashful. I notice, during the next Impromptu, in Gb Major, that I am attempting to quiz myself on the notes, playing a little game, rather than enjoying Uchida’s clean technique and the rhythmic and harmonic structures Schubert wrote. I have to consciously stop myself, in order to listen to the Impromptu as a piece of music and not as a collection of individual pitches. I swim back to the shore of my normal listening habits. I realize that I probably like that way of hearing better. ¶

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Jeffrey Arlo Brown

... has been an editor at VAN since 2015. His work has also appeared in Slate, The Baffler, The Outline, The Calvert Journal, and Electric Lit. He lives in Berlin.