Can I Learn Perfect Pitch?

By · Title Image INTERNET ARCHIVE (PUBLIC DOMAIN) · Date 5/31/2018

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In a 2016 New Yorker article, Patrick Radden Keefe reported on a unit of the London Metropolitan Police he termed “super-recognizers.” These police officers have the ability to see a face once and then recognize it again among millions of others, and they comb vast quantities of CCTV footage, successfully identifying criminals who had previously evaded capture. There are tantalizing connections between super-recognizers and people with perfect pitch.

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A survey of the research in the 1987 book Was ist absolutes Hören?, or What is Perfect Pitch?, by the researcher Eva-Maria Heyde, shows that both abilities appear to rely on a form of extremely refined long-term memory. One of the few clear ways to distinguish between bearers of relative and perfect pitch is to ask them to sing a certain note first thing in the morning. If they’re able to do this, it means their long-term memory has “saved” the placement of the tones; relative pitch means they can identify the others only given a reference tone. It’s analogous to remembering an acquaintance’s face from the same context in which you met him, versus recognizing a criminal you saw once in a sea of surveillance footage. “A forgetting curve” over time “shows a clear separation between absolute and relative pitch,” Heyde writes.

Like face identification, which varies from “face blindness” to super recognition, perfect pitch ability is a spectrum, not a switch. I remember an anecdote about a Boston-based composer, who went to the hospital for a hearing test and noticed that a tuning fork had been marked with the incorrect frequency. It was just two cents off. Other subjects with perfect pitch described in Heyde’s book incorrectly identified the keys of transposed fugues from Bach’s “Well-tempered Clavier,” but only when the displacements were of a half-step or less; they were able to identify larger transpositions reliably. On the other end of the scale are people with “tone deafness,” or amusia, characterized by an inability to tell two different notes apart.

Why some people develop this enhanced aural memory remains unclear. In 1954, one scientist theorized that perfect pitch was related to a kind of biological clock, a single neuron that released chemicals at precise intervals, giving the brain a reference against which to process frequencies. (This hypothesis was later disproven.) Other studies have shown that perfect pitch may be connected both to genetic inheritance and to musical training at an early age. It is also more common in blind people than in the general population. And while there is still no “recipe” for developing perfect pitch, there is some evidence that it can be learned. Heyde cites a 1977 study which showed that “training for five days, 15 minutes per day, can improve perfect pitch results up to 18 percent.” Coincidentally or not, this aligns closely with David Lucas Burge’s regime for me.

One 1901 book purported to research perfect pitch abilities in animals. 

The research does cast doubt on Burge’s notion of “color hearing.” Heyde cites studies which show that people with perfect pitch recognize notes based on the root frequency; not, as the term “color hearing” implies, on the unique overtone structure of the pitch. (What we perceive as timbre is a synthesis our brains make of the various frequencies that make up sound.) Heyde also critiques the romantic notion that perfect pitch is synonymous with musicality. In the early 20th century, scientific research into the phenomenon also tended to try to “measure” musicality, an inherently subjective skill that is highly variable across cultures. Is a Western pianist with perfect pitch more musical than an Arab musician who can’t identify our “C” reliably, but hears far more microtonal gradations than the pianist? Is the pianist more musical than a composer who doesn’t hear particularly well at all, but whose abstract way of thinking about music results in stunning sonic invention?

These concerns are abstract. I also have practical concerns on my mind. How do I get enough piano time to practice my exercises seven days a week as Burge recommends? This strikes me as another area that Burge can use as an excuse in case his course doesn’t work; who will really practice the course every single day? I’m barely managing three times a week—and that’s with music journalism as my main job.

Since last time, I have made some progress on Burge’s exercises. I was working on an exercise where I had to play a chord and sing the three notes correctly from the bottom up, 20 times in a row. After a few false starts, I passed that test on May 15. The next exercise was the same, except I was supposed to play the bass note in my left hand and the other two in my right, and spread out the notes across octaves. I found this easier—despite the fact that my neighbor stopped to complain about something disturbing her in the building (“it’s not a noise, it’s a feeling”), and the shyness I felt because of that, I managed the verification round on my third try.

The tuning fork was made in 1711, the first of many attempts—some say conspiracies—to standardize pitch internationally • Photo Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons
The tuning fork was made in 1711, the first of many attempts—some say conspiracies—to standardize pitch internationally • Photo Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Masterclass 7 of the Perfect Pitch Ear Training SuperCourse included more of Burge’s bizarre platitudes, which I’m starting to enjoy in the way you might indulge a tipsy uncle. By way of explaining that having perfect pitch won’t automatically make me able to play by ear, he says, “Just because we have a hand, doesn’t mean we can play the piano.”

In this 20-minute masterclass, he gives me two new exercises. The first is to expand my musical meditation, where I would sing and play the notes C and D, with an E. Then, I’m supposed to play the notes of the C major scale on my piano, and identify them, without looking at the keys. It’s OK to use relative pitch and listen for the intervals, he says. (That fits with the research that the two really aren’t that different.) He wants me not to hurry, and listen carefully: “Take an interest in the tone. Allow it to soak a moment in the ear.”

I try my best not to hurry, but I have to admit I’m anxious to move on. This is David Lucas Burge’s fault. He keeps teasing a “Phase Two” of his course, where, he says, the real work will begin. ¶

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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.