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As a companion to questions about absolute (or perfect) pitch, discussions about if the trait is achievable through training are sure to follow. After these discussions I have read up a bit on the subject, and changed my views somewhat. I thought it would be interesting to have a dedicated discussion, instead of it being spread out in comments.

So, the question is: Can any adult (barring pathological conditions) achieve perfect pitch through training?

(I have searched the existing questions, but couldn't find one with this specific meaning. That pitch perception can be improved is quite clear, the question here is if absolute pitch can be fully obtained in adulthood.)

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There are AP tests online. If one played enough, then I'm sure their results will improve. I have learned many tunes by ear, but I definitely do not have AP or even RP, since I imagine there would be much less trial and error involved if I had. –  Lee Kowalkowski Apr 7 at 9:40
    
@LeeKowalkowski: I'm also sure results will improve if the ability is exercised. The question is if full AP can be achieved. –  Meaningful Username Apr 7 at 9:49
    
www.audiocheck.net/blindtests_abspitch.php - I got 10/10 after listening to the c4 test file, refresh the page for a new test. Without listening to the test files, without revisiting answers, it was 5/10, I'm way off having AP. A faster paced game would be better for learning. –  Lee Kowalkowski Apr 7 at 10:01
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"Can any adult achieve perfect pitch through training?" - Who can say no? Are you wondering if it's not possible for any adult at all? Isn't AP just RP but using memory as the reference? –  Lee Kowalkowski Apr 7 at 10:09
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If you categorise fluent AP by the definition that it is only possible if acquired from a young age, then there's a danger any contradiction to this will be ignored, by assuming the subject must have had it all along. Until somebody figures out how to learn and hopefully teach this skill (which could be never), we're quite reasonably stuck with believing it is something like: 1. Only possible to acquire when young, and any child could learn it. or 2. Only possible if born with it, regardless if you realise it as a child... or some other theory about the subject having to be special. –  Lee Kowalkowski Apr 7 at 15:33

7 Answers 7

I achieved a degree of absolute pitch (AP) as an adult, but of course this was not done in a controlled manner, so the scientific reliability of my case is implicitly questionable.

Anyway, here's what happened:

As a student who specialized in music in high school, and then pursued a Bachelor of Music degree in college, my path follows a pretty standard one in terms of trained classical musicians (who are not identified as "prodigies" VERY early in life).

Being around people who did posses AP meant that I was able to self-define as not possessing it, since I was incapable of doing the same kinds of mental-aural recall and identification that they were. My general "aural skills" were still very good, as any of my teachers will tell you; my aural skills professor asked me "Do you have perfect pitch?" in one of the first few weeks of class. It is common for a well-trained sense of relative pitch (RP) to be mistaken for AP when you meet a younger student whose skills seem to be beyond the level of RP training he/she is expected to have undergone. At high levels of musical training and skill, a musician that possesses AP is not capable of much more than a similarly-skillful musician that only possesses RP. Music theory is based almost entirely upon RP phenomena, so all musicians must learn it.

Anyway, about 1-2 years into my undergraduate degree, I started getting really interested in aural skills in general as well as the AP phenomenon, and started doing some hardcore middle-of-the-night "internet research" on the topic. There appeared to be some anecdotal evidence that AP could be learned, but at the same time most of the "training methods" being advertised looked like snake oil salesmen.

In the end, it turned out that there was a significant mental block I had to overcome simply to the fact that B and C (or any other two notes) sound different to one another. After that, there's a lot of almost meditative work to do to listen for those differences, while connecting back to repertoire that you know and can accurately recall; and finally comes the unending process of designing and studying aural skills exercises that specifically target your learning needs with increasing difficulty. That's the basic 3-step process in my experience.

Right now, my AP skill is at the point where I can produce or recognize any given pitch out of context with a very high degree of accuracy, but with non-instantaneous response times. When I am incorrect, I'm never off by more than a semitone. In these ways, I draw a lot of parallels between training AP and training RP -- in the sense that a student makes the same kinds of mistakes at lower levels of facility. Metaphorically speaking, it's as if the aural definition I can perceive of pitch is very sharp for some notes and sometimes blurry for others, but given enough time I can "figure it out" in my head for any note. Timbral differences throw in another variable that doesn't apply as much to RP training, at least for me. I have found all of this to improve with continued study.

For these reasons, I feel that "perfect pitch" (PP) is a useful term to use as distinct from AP--though colloquially they are seen as synonyms, I like to use AP as we do in this post, but use PP to refer to the "hyper-skillful" sense of AP that we see in people who picked it up intuitively at a very young age (honed by copious amounts of formal musical training).

In conclusion, I believe that the similarities I have experienced between AP and RP in my own musical (self-)education indicate that it is possible for anyone to achieve AP or even PP through training. There is of course an understanding that people are predisposed to musical skill based on their exposure to music during their upbringing, but this impacts RP awareness and training just the same as it does AP--and no one has ever said, "Oh, you'll never be able to play like Coltrane no matter how hard you work at it, because you're not genetically predisposed." There appear to be some societal preconceived notions that you can achieve any level of skill through dedicated training and hard work, but for some reason PP is an exception that "you must be born with". I see no reason for this to be anything but that; a preconceived notion. This is the closest one I can find to it at the moment, but I am aware of a study that shows that people without musical training, when singing their favorite pop songs a cappella, more often than not, are able to do so in the correct key. This indicates that most people have some intuitive pitch memory even if they don't realize it, which is one of the primary building blocks of AP training.

I haven't been engaged in training my own AP for a couple of years since I've been out of school, but I have some long-term goals of developing software and training methods for this, coupled of course with further honing of my own skills in a more controlled context. Consider this post a prelude to more scientific findings I hope to come up with in the future!

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This is great stuff. I think that to differentiate between absolute pitch and the prodigal version of it is useful. I see it as hard to achieve a level where different tones are described to be different like different colors through training, but what your are doing is slightly different. There is a societal notion that one can achieve any level of skill through hard work, but I think it is wrong. There must be a reason why the Coltranes, Davises, Mozarts and so forth are so very rare. –  Meaningful Username Apr 6 at 20:49
    
I'd suggest the reason for prodigious rarity is that not a lot of people are willing to put in the work! And it's worth noting that the people you mention as being truly anomalous both attained a high level of skill and caused an artistic paradigm shift. In his most influential years, many trumpeters could outplay Miles, but that's not what he was known for. :-) I know many jazz and classical musicians who became what they are because they put in the work in high school and college, regardless of PP possession. (My comment on that was in reference to seeing AP acquisition as an exception.) –  NReilingh Apr 6 at 23:33
    
I am not as naive to think that anyone at a high level has not put in a lot of work. But the drive to put in the work has to come from somewhere too... I do not believe that anyone can play in a symphonic orchestra at professional level due to psychological and physiological (hence in part genetic) reasons. Anyone can improve their musical abilities and get great pleasure from it though. I think it is important to try to estimate the realistic goals before doing anything. The "anything is possible" mindset can lead to a lot of disappointments and failed attempts. –  Meaningful Username Apr 7 at 7:41
    
Good answer, good content, and I agree with a lot of your thoughts. Hearing is very underdeveloped in the US, and it is not surprising that there are no standardized techniques for AP as there are for RP. –  jjmusicnotes Apr 7 at 14:09

Before the discussions here, I thought that absolute pitch (AP from now on) was a given from birth to some lucky (or unlucky in some cases) individuals. From discussions and reading up on the subject, my understanding now is that it is related to early exposure to pitches and meaning attached to them. This could be childhood musical training, or languages like Chinese, where pitch determines the meaning of some words.

Just like children up to a certain age are very receptive to langauage, it seems as at a certain stage in development the brain is more aware of pitch. This ability is then lost, as other functions take over. (This is simplified, but so is my understanding.) Just like a child can learn several languages at an early age relatively effortless, but will struggle more without achieving e.g. the same pronunciation later in life, AP reached through training at an early age will outdo training as an adult.

The Wikipedia article states that no cases of AP achieved by adults have been documented.

As I understood the subject, the answer to the question is no, AP can not be achieved by training as an adult. It can be improved, but not reach the levels of those that "always" had the ability.

There is some discussion about this in the fascinating Musicophilia book by Oliver Sacks.

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There is recent research that indicates that even those that self-identify as having the ability to perceive absolute pitch actually don't. news.uchicago.edu/article/2013/06/11/… –  Roland Bouman Apr 6 at 5:03
    
@RolandBouman: Very interesting. Would be interesting to do the same tests with people having synethesia, e.g. seeing different colors for different keys. –  Meaningful Username Apr 6 at 12:13

I've once listened to an interview of someone with AP. The one thing that stuck to me was that he was hearing notes the way we see colors. I.e. he can identify notes by hearing them, but he has a hard time to distinguish intervals. Can you tell me how big the difference between blue and green is? Well, that's how he perceived notes. And the comparison is pretty much on spot, since light as well as sounds are just waves with a certain frequency. So I hardly doubt anyone who's born without it can learn to percieve notes like someone born with AP. But with a lot of training, "normal" people can certainly become pretty good at identifying notes.

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At the present level of science (can be summarised here, for instance), there is no obvious answer to this question.

Human ear internally contains a huge number of stereocilia of variable length. They resonate just like strings (or maybe more like rods as seem attached from only one side) in response to any sound, and the brain receives information which of the thousands of existing strings resonate, and how much. Stereocilia are arranged into staircase pattern that is also very important; if this pattern does not develop for some reason, the ear is deaf.

The picture below shows mice stereocilia, human stereocilia are similar:

These strings are "tuned" to various absolute, not relative frequencies inside the hear-able sound range, and the tuning range is narrow, just like for the normal strings. Hence the system seems providing all necessary information to tell the absolute frequency of the sound.

This anatomy is more or less the same for all humans, so it is really mystery why some are capable of absolute pitch and others not. The inner ear not just passively sends signals like a mic, but seems also receiving back some commands from the brain.

As a conclusion, you probably can always try to train and rely on your luck. With such a degree of scientific understanding, it may be fully possible that some people have the ability to train this skill while others do not. However do not forget that absolute pitch is not required to enjoy both listening and playing music and may be more sense to spend that time on the usual work with your instrument.

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I'm not (consciously) working on my relative pitch, let alone absolute pitch, so I'm not interested in it due to that. I just see it as as such foreign concept for me personally, that I have a hard time seeing how it could be achieved by training. (Probably says something about my general musicality...) Science has no clear answer yet, but the lack of any documented case compared with the effort spent, says something. –  Meaningful Username Apr 7 at 9:27

I can only answer from a completely personal point of view. For the last couple of years, I sing a C note as I walk past a piano, then check it. Just done it now, almost spot on.So, somehow, I think it can be trained. However, that's one note. If I hear a note, I have to imagine my C against it, to identify the note.Not sure if this qualifies.

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I appreciate any input, but I don't think it qualifies. Absolute pitch as I understand it is the ability to identify all pitch classes. Someone with AP should be able to identify any tone from the piano immediately. –  Meaningful Username Apr 5 at 10:55
    
That's why it was worded that way.But it may encourage others. –  Tim Apr 5 at 10:57
    
And that's very good, since this ability can be improved with exercise. I'm interested if the goal of absolute pitch can be achieved. It seems many believe this, but I haven't heard of a case where it happened. –  Meaningful Username Apr 5 at 11:01

I read somewhere (scientific American I think) that the scientists differentiate between people who have perfect pitch, who are born with it, or "always have it" and people who have learned it, which is always by means of a "reference pitch". It's like they can remember what c sounds like and then when they hear a they start at c and go down step by step. People with "true" perfect pitch apparently just "know".

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I was a bass drummer in a bagpipe band for 30 years and have heard the bagpipe note A (actually played Bb) a million times and can whistle it any time I want. The only problem is that not every band tune their bagpipes to the same Bb. So I am within the range of a semitone (up or down) all the time. I also learned to play the violin as an adult and can recognize about 10 cents when a note is wrong. The point here is that my brain has been trained to recognize one note. I believe it would be possible to achieve some degree of AP but it would take a tremendous amoumt of work to burn it into the brain of an adult.

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