What has perfect pitch done for you recently?

By Miranda Wilson

I have perfect pitch, and I get asked about it a lot. Many of my students seem to think that it’s the reason I succeeded in the music profession, but it isn’t. I succeeded because I practised; because I had supportive parents and good teachers; because I studied arts entrepreneurship; because I set myself goals that other people considered unachievable; because, admittedly, I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time on a number of life-changing occasions. Perfect pitch had nothing to do with it.

Perfect pitch, to me, is more a party trick than something that genuinely helps me in any aspect of musicianship or performance. It doesn’t, contrary to popular perception, help you play in tune. It’s relative pitch, not perfect pitch, that helps you play in tune. Good relative pitch is found in all the best players, regardless of whether they have perfect pitch.

In spite of this, I’ve noticed a widespread fascination with perfect pitch everywhere I’ve been. Three students in my studio are currently trying to acquire perfect pitch, and they want to know how I got it. I didn’t always have perfect pitch, you see.

I tell them what happened: my mother sat me down at the piano and played randomly selected notes to me, and sooner or later I learned them all and could say what they were. I think I developed the ability to do this when I was about seven years old. My mother has perfect pitch, but my younger brother doesn’t. My father, who would occasionally poke his head around the door to make sure no one was injured, has excellent relative pitch, and, I think, would probably develop perfect pitch if he wanted and tried to.

I can’t explain this ability I have in a way that satisfies the curiosity of the people who study it. How do I do it? Well, here’s the best explanation I can come up with. I’ve been playing the piano since I was three and the cello since I was nine, and I’ve gone to concerts and listened to recordings all my life, so I’ve listened to a lot of notes. Somehow the notes stuck in my head and I can tell you their pitch. I can also adjust my pitch perception when I’m playing early music at A=415, because I can adapt it to the resonances of the instruments. (It wasn’t always this way. When I first had to tune my cello to a harpsichord at old pitch, I panicked. I couldn’t compute the notes on the page with the notes that came out of the cello, and the whole thing felt very strange and frustrating. Then I figured out how to listen harder to the sympathetic resonances the cello’s open strings when I played certain stopped pitches, and that helped me figure it out.)

My perfect pitch is more secure in some timbres than others. Piano and cello are instantaneous. The other stringed instruments are next easiest, then the woodwinds. I used to have to think a bit harder with brass instruments, but marrying a trumpeter has fixed that.  I never thought much about pitched percussion until I moved into my University of Idaho office, which is two doors down from the percussion studio, where students practise at all hours, and now I can hear the pitches of xylophones, marimbas, vibraphones and so on. I find that if I listen mindfully to any instrument for long enough, I memorize the pitches and can identify them all. That includes non-Western instruments that make extensive use of quarter tones.

This is the explanation to I give researchers who want to understand what makes perfect pitch work. I’ve taken part in ten or twelve studies on perfect pitch, some of them scientific, involving samples of cheek cells and the like. I’ve listened to hours and hours of electronically generated pitches and written them down. I’ve answered questionnaires and been interviewed. I don’t know if any of these studies unlocked the mysteries of perfect pitch, because I didn’t follow up with the researchers.

This brings me to the methods for teaching perfect pitch, as used by the various money-making ventures by musicians eager to capitalize on the popular yearning for the coveted prize of perfect pitch. I can remember seeing advertisements for David Lucas Burge’s ear training method in music magazines since childhood.. The sales pitch began with a charming, if over-italicized anecdote about the author’s rivalry with a high school classmate.

I’d slave at the piano for five hours daily. Linda practiced far less. Yet somehow she always shined [sic] as the star performer at our school.

It was frustrating. What does she have that I don’t? I’d wonder.

Linda’s best friend, Sheryl, bragged on and on to me, adding more fuel to my fire.

“You could never be as good as Linda,” she would taunt. “Linda’s got Perfect Pitch.”

“What’s Perfect Pitch?” I asked.

Sheryl gloated about Linda’s uncanny abilities: how she could name exact notes and chords — all BY EAR; how she could sing any tone — from memory alone; how she could play songs — after just hearing them; the list went on and on…

My heart sank. Her EAR is the secret to her success I thought. How could I ever hope to compete with her?

But it bothered me. Did she really have Perfect Pitch? How could she know notes and chords just by hearing them? It seemed impossible.

The teenage Burge goes home mortified before coming up with his own super-secret yet fabulously easy technique for learning perfect pitch. Cut to the heart-warming happy ending where he beats Linda in a piano competition. (You see? Perfect pitch makes everything better.)

Disclaimer: I’m not saying Burge’s method doesn’t work. The broad description of how he taught himself perfect pitch sounds more or less like the way I identify pitches. Though I’ve not seen the materials, I’ve read positive reviews of them by trustworthy sources. But what bugs me about this is that Burge’s advertising intentionally conflates perfect pitch with good relative pitch (cf. Linda’s ability to hear chords), good memory (her ability to play the piano by ear), and good performance (her ability to win competitions).

I can tell you as a person with perfect pitch that it doesn’t help you do any of these things. I’ve discovered in the ear training class I teach that the students with perfect pitch are often the among weakest at the subject. They’ve spent years coasting by on pitch recognition without really learning to recognize intervals and types of chords. They often aren’t especially fluent at music theory. They aren’t always the best performers. They often play out of tune. Yes, out of tune.

In short, when a student asks me breathlessly about the wonders of perfect pitch, I tell them this: “If you want to get perfect pitch, sure, spend hundreds of dollars on a method that may or may not work. You’ll be able to impress your friends for hours with your pitch recognition skills. But if you want to be a good musician, PRACTISE. Seek out the best mentors. Go to a good university. Go to summer schools and practice camps. Listen to the best recordings and live performers and model your sound on them. Study theory. Study ear training and sight singing. Study orchestral and chamber scores, analysing the formal, melodic and harmonic structures and identifying chords with Roman numerals. Refine your relative pitch with additional study into just intonation. Form a regular chamber ensemble and spend hours learning to blend your sound and temper your chords. Sing all your pieces before you play them, using solfège where appropriate. Practise. Practise. Practise more than you ever thought possible. Practise until you feel that the practice room has eaten your social life, your love life, your entire life. Then practise more.”


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