Can I Learn Perfect Pitch?

By · Title Image INTERNET ARCHIVE (PUBLIC DOMAIN) · Date 5/10/2018

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The writer writes a sentence. He reads back what he wrote. He fixes a redundancy, then he writes another sentence. He changes that sentence, too; maybe adds a rhythmic nuance. He puts something on the page, reads it back, silently or even out loud, makes a decision about what to say next.

A painter makes a stroke on a canvas. She looks at what she’s done, her eyes firing information about the colors, texture, and composition to her brain. She adjusts the elements, adds strokes and layers until the image she wants to create takes shape. Then she goes back and fixes the mistakes—the moments of indecision or clumsy execution—as best she can until the piece is ready to be framed.

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The idea that music must be heard accurately before it’s written is strangely widespread. Matthias Pintscher says, “I would not be able to put something on the page without hearing 100 percent of it in my inner ear.” George Benjamin recalls what he learned from Olivier Messiaen: “The most severe musical error for a composer [is] not to internally imagine every note, rhythm and timbre.” In a viral video, the theme music for “Twin Peaks” spills out of the composer Angelo Badalamenti, apparently fully formed before he even touches the keys of his Fender Rhodes. For a long time, I believed this was the only way to compose music, and the fact that I wasn’t capable of it meant that composition was not for me.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SwvSFOEfHJE

Lately, I’ve begun to question this assumption. It strikes me as a strange one that doesn’t apply to any other art form. Some of my favorite composers, like Jay Schwartz, Michael Maierhof, and Ashley Fure, use the computer to listen to their pieces as they compose, which means that an accurate internal ear is not a prerequisite to writing gorgeous music. There might be said to be more personality, invention and struggle in a piece that goes through endless revision than in one that comes out “perfect.” You might also say that the expectation for a work to be heard before it’s written is a symptom of classical music’s genius cult; our regrettable continuing assumption that you either have it or you don’t, where other art forms have learned that life experience and hard work are what create the artist.

It’s only recently that I’ve begun to think about this differently. Even now, I still feel insecure about my sketchy internal ear. I remember a piece I wrote when I was 20 for chamber orchestra, my first attempt at using microtones. It sounded bad; the conductor of the group and the musicians smirked at me. I felt humiliated. That is the reason why I want to learn perfect pitch, why I’m so susceptible to the sales pitch of David Lucas Burge’s Perfect Pitch Ear Training SuperCourse. If I master it, I imagine, composition would be effortless. I’ll never be unpleasantly surprised by my own music again.

In the last episode, I left off frustrated with an exercise where I had to play any two notes on the piano and sing them from the bottom up. A few days later, I try again. The last time, I managed only two correct intervals a row; this time I do better, getting up to six. I also begin to perceive a B natural, and the minor third of a B and a D, as having a unique, mellow, almost melancholy quality. I do my musical meditation, singing a C and D, and realize I’m starting to look forward to this part of my ear training practice, because it’s easy and relaxing.

Another three days pass. On my fourth try, I finally pass the verification round, singing 20 random intervals from the bottom up correctly. I move on to the next exercise: singing intervals from the bottom up again, this time wider than an octave. I’m scared that it will prove impossible, but it is actually surprisingly reasonable—maybe it’s easier to separate out the top and bottom pitches when they’re further apart. It takes me only three tries before I pass the verification round. (My intonation is awful, but Burge told me not to “become fanatical about tuning.”)

If I start to feel confident that I’m making progress, the next exercise, which I tackle two days later, quickly brings me down to earth. I’m supposed to sing three pitches from a chord this time, within an octave. I repeatedly find myself landing on the top note. Major and minor chords are particularly difficult, and on inversions I end up almost exclusively on the root tone. On May 6, my best is three correct chords in a row. On May 8, it’s five. What helps is slowing down: if I take more time to listen to the chord, my chances are better of nailing the bottom note, but it doesn’t always work. I say “fuck” and sigh to myself more than once as I record. At least I’ve been through this with the intervals before, though, and can feel like I’m getting somewhere slowly, which is better than nowhere fast. “The magic formula is, ‘Keep listening, and listening gently,’” David Lucas Burge says.

I also go to an electronic music concert by the band GusGus. Their album “Arabian Horse” is a personal favorite. At one point, they play a song from the album, but the introduction is long and drawn out. It’s not immediately recognizable. And yet, I’m convinced I recognize it from the tonality; I hear the key and know what song is coming. I’ve had a couple drinks, the venue is packed, and a straight couple in front of me has been making out nonstop the entire set, but I feel a moment of private elation through my ears. ¶

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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.