Can an adult learn perfect pitch?

Probably not, but if I could, here’s how I would do it…

If you are at all interested in musical theory then you might be familiar with Rick Beato’s youtube channel. His videos are probably not a good place for beginners to start, but he certainly has some great content for training or established musicians. One particular video that got me thinking recently is one titled: ‘Why Adults Can’t Develop Perfect Pitch.

In case you are unfamiliar, perfect pitch is the ability to recognise and instantly recall the pitch of any note, without being given any reference note. The important part being the latter: without a reference note. That means, at the start of your day you can get out of bed, turn on the radio and hear a brand new song that you’ve never heard before, and instantly recognise what key it is in, and the names of the notes being played. Most musicians, including myself, do not possess this ability. Those that don’t will benefit from developing a good sense of what is called relative pitch. This means that you can recognise the interval between two notes, and therefore use this knowledge to work out the pitch of any note, after having been giving their first note as a reference point. So the main difference between perfect pitch and relative pitch is the need for a reference note.

So why would it be a useful skill to have?

The most obvious reason – though not a terribly exciting one – is the ability to tune your instrument without the use of an electronic tuner or a reference tone. Very often I might be asked the question: “is your guitar in tune?” And I will answer: “I think so…at least, it’s definitely in tune with itself.” By this I mean that all the strings are pitched correctly relative to one another, but that certainly doesn’t rule out the possibility that the whole guitar is pitched slightly too high or low. This means that the guitar will still sound good – at least when played on it’s own, but not necessarily match up when combined with other instruments. Without an electronic tuner or a reference pitch it is impossible for someone without perfect pitch to be sure whether or not their instrument is in tune.

Another benefit that comes from perfect pitch is the ability to instantly recognise a note. You hear a sound, and without hesitation or thought you just know what the pitch is. It would be analogous to recognising colours: no thought required, it’s just red. As a musician this would save lots of time! It would help when transcribing music, writing out melodies or even listening for the individual notes contained within a chord. You would find it easier to copy musical phrases that you hear, or pick up songs by ear. It would generally improve your overall musicianship and ability to hear and identify the cause of tuning problems.

A third reason that it might be useful to have perfect pitch, is to help you self-correct when things go wrong. Unfortunately, sometimes as a musician you may well find yourself in a situation where you’re on stage, ready to perform, but you don’t know the song. It might be that you simply forgot what key it was in, or that for whatever reason you didn’t know you were supposed to be playing this song. Maybe the band added the song in last minute or maybe you simply can’t remember how to play it. Whatever the reason, in a situation like this it can still be possible to join in with the band and simply ‘busk’ it – using a combination of listening and educated guessing. If, for example, you know the song but simply don’t know what key the band is playing it in, having perfect pitch will solve the problem instantly and you can just jump right back in after the rest of the band has begun and established the key. Without perfect pitch, there is a lot more fumbling about, trying to watch the Guitar players fingers, or simply panicking and trying random notes hoping to figure out the key by process of elimination. If, on the other hand, you don’t know the song at all – but you play a melody instrument such as trumpet, flute, or saxophone – you can usually get away with just embellishing the music. Essentially this would be just making something up and knowing that it will work as long as you know which key you are in – and therefore which scale to use. With perfect pitch this process will be quite straightforward – you will get the key instantly, rather than going through the same process of trial and error as described above, or indeed turning to the piano player and yelling “what key?” When they can’t hear you over the racket the drummer is making.

So there are a number of reasons why this would be useful…

But, in Rick Beato’s video, he claims that it is impossible for an adult to learn perfect pitch. He argues that rather than trying to do so, we should be improving our relative pitch as this actually can be developed and improved with practise. 

However, in contrast to this, I distinctly remember an old singing teacher of mine telling me that the opposite was true. He explained to me that, although many people appear to have the ability of perfect pitch inherently, it can also be trained. In order to begin this training process, we used to start our singing lessons by simply asking me to sing an A. And, although it was a somewhat short-lived effort, I actually remember getting a little better at it over time. So was my singing teacher wrong? Were we wasting our time? Should we have even bothered trying? Let’s explore this a little further.

 At this point you may wish to watch the video in question (if you haven’t already), as I will be referencing it later:

At a key point later on in the video, Beato recalls a story about how at a very young age he heard his son Dylan sing the Star Wars theme tune and noticed that it was in the correct key (Bb major). Later, when he played a Bb on the piano, Beato asked his son what note he was playing, and he would reply “Star Wars!”. It was at this point that he realised that his son had perfect pitch.

So I thought to myself about particular times when I was able to recall a pitch exactly, or sing back a song in the correct key without having heard it recently. I rarely get it right, but usually when it does happen, it’s because I have listened to it, sang it, or played it many, many times. For example, in my career as a music teacher I have spent a lot of time tuning guitars – sometimes an entire 20-student class worth of guitars one after the other. And so, at this point I can usually get a high E string in tune, having been given no reference note. So… that’s great! I know what an E sounds like. Perhaps I’m already on my way towards the goal of perfect pitch.

Watching Beato’s video, I was also reminded of an interview that I heard with Mikey and Gerard Way from My Chemical Romance. In the interview they talk about how their most famous song – Welcome to the Black Parade – is so well known, that when they perform live, fans will recognise the distinctive opening after hearing just the first note on the piano, and start to cheer immediately. One note!  Having listened to the song many times myself, I can attest to the fact that as soon as I hear that single piano note, I will instantly recognise it and know exactly what the next 5 minutes and 11 seconds will look like. MCR fans have nicknamed this the ‘G note’ because – you guessed it – the first note of that song is a G

Now this is a similar idea, but it doesn’t quite meet the criteria of “perfect pitch”. That particular note in the My Chemical Romance song is not just a G, it’s a specific G. I don’t think that a G in any other octave would necessarily work – let alone played on a different instrument. It could also be argued that part of the sudden recognition that comes from the single note relates to that particular recording of a piano, with that specific microphone, with that specific instrument, and that specific studio production. Though admittedly this wouldn’t necessarily explain why it still works when performed live. You could also argue that My Chemical Romance songs don’t typically begin with a single note on the piano, so it’s fairly obvious which song is coming up when you hear it at a concert. This certainly helps, but I still reckon an MCR fan would experience this same reaction even when hearing the song on the radio or in everyday life, without the context of the concert.

But let’s put these problems aside for now.

Let’s look at how I could get better at recognising notes and recalling them. To begin, I would have to figure out a list of twelve different songs – corresponding to the twelve notes of the scale – that have particularly recognisable notes. Star Wars and Welcome to the Black Parade are a good starting point. They would all need to be songs that have particular significance to me – that I have heard many times – or that I am willing to hear over and over again in order to practise. 

So what method should I use? Well, part of the process would be to spend some time just listening to the songs over and over – because, as I observed earlier, I’m more likely to recall an exact pitch if I have heard a song many times. Next – or perhaps concurrently – I would also need to develop a sort of practise routine where I think about the song, try to sing back the note, then play the note on the piano, figure out how far off I was, rinse and repeat. 

But when it comes to perfect pitch, it’s still not quite as simple as that. Ironically, my own ear training and sense of relative pitch is what is going to hamper me. Because, as soon as I hear that first note, I can then work out the pitch of any note in relation to that first one. So I can only really try this once at a time – otherwise I will just be accidentally cheating and perhaps improving my relative pitch, but definitely not my perfect pitch. I can begin again after that note has been forgotten – after my “palette” has been “cleansed”- so to speak. And this can only really happen inadvertently. Psychologically speaking, it’s like trying not to think of a pink elephant – all you’re going to be thinking about is a pink elephant. The harder you consciously try, the more difficult it gets.

So I suppose first thing in the morning is the best time to do it – palette having been cleansed overnight. But this way I can only do it once a day. And if it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill, 5 minutes a day really isn’t going to cover it (it would take over 300 years  – do the math). So if I wanted to do more practise I suppose I would need to pick an amount of time that I’m likely to forget a note during – perhaps one hour, trying in the mean time not to consciously remember the note or sing the song. 

This process bears some similarities to the methodology that is commonly used when training to recognise intervals – by picking a famous song that uses that interval and associating that song with that interval. The process being: you listen to two notes – one after the other – and decide on the interval based on which tune it ‘sounds like’

But, it occurs to me that this is actually a potential problem when it comes to learning perfect pitch in conjunction with relative pitch. Using the method described above you are trained to recognise intervals regardless of key. This means that those two notes are removed from the solid grounding of the pitch that they come from. For example, learning that Maria from West Side Story is an interval of an augmented fourth, means that you would recognise it if it was C->F# or D->G# or Eb->A. This might make it harder for you to recall the actual pitch the song uses (Db->G). This is perhaps why it might be better to use folk songs, or songs that are sung in a variety of keys, when it comes to relative pitch and specific recordings when it comes to perfect pitch.

If there is any conclusion to be drawn from this it would really have to occur after having tried this method for a long period of time. So I suppose I need to get to work on that. All of this is strictly theoretical, but I very much doubt that I will be able to ‘learn’ perfect pitch. At least not in the sense of instantly recognising a note, like Rick Beato’s son. But perhaps I will be able to recall notes better and start to recognise keys – it might help my overall musicianship – just a little.

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