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I think by now most people agree that perfect pitch is not genetic. We understand that most people who do possess perfect pitch acquire it very early in life, (around the same time most people acquire language) which makes techniques for training absolute pitch very difficult to pin down. Just as it is possible, however more difficult, to learn foreign languages after age 5, it follows that it should be possible to train absolute pitch in older musicians as well.

What specific techniques and exercises have you found to be most effective? Edit: Particularly, once one has gained an awareness of absolute pitch, what have you done to refine and hone your ability?

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I've heard time and time again that a good musician can train themself to have relative pitch, but absolute/perfect pitch requires (relatively rare) natural ability... with some training of course. –  Noldorin May 9 '11 at 3:34
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Hahaa. Unfortunate typo/Freudian slip! :P –  Noldorin May 9 '11 at 3:34
    
The ability to differentiate between tones should in part be genetic. How do we otherwise explain phenomenons as tone-deafness, or for that matter real perfect pitch achieved without training? That being said, one can exercise this ability, so it's not purely genetic. –  Meaningful Username Jan 28 at 9:16
    
@MeaningfulUsername True tone-deafness is almost unheard of (pardon the pun)--such a person would not be able to understand the way we ask questions in English. To the second point, what differentiates perfect pitch achieved without training from, say, spoken Chinese achieved without training? I believe we've definitively proven language is not genetic. Would be interested to see any research that supports your points. –  NReilingh Jan 28 at 18:34
    
Not to turn this into a nature/nurture debate, but I hope that we can agree that there are enormous differences in how good people can get at different things. Some people can't hold a tune to save their life (even after training), while others sing very cleanly from the start. To me, that would be genetic differences. The same applies here. Are you saying that every individual in any population can achieve perfect pitch? This I do not believe. –  Meaningful Username Jan 29 at 8:36
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9 Answers 9

Perfect Pitch has some different Definitions:
There are different levels of perfect pitch and absolute pitch. They are all about being able to either identify or generate (i.e. sing) notes without a recent reference. People's ability range from being able to guess right some of the time, to instantly telling you which note is not being played when someone bangs 11 out of 12 notes as a cluster on the piano. I emphasized "recent" reference, because in many ways what most people call perfect pitch in a way is just relative pitch, except you are using relative pitches they you haven't heard even that day.

Generating Notes without Reference:
I'm going to focus on the ability to be able to sing a note when you first wake up. This is often a good starting point for people that "don't have perfect pitch". The reason is, and here is the kicker, many people do and they just don't know it.

The way you can discover this is by first thing in the morning, try think of a piece you were playing the day before. Think of what key that was in, sing the not of that key, and see if you are right. Yes, you are just guessing, but what many musicians who practice a lot discover is that they guess right quite often (not always, but more often than not).

If you look at my "ability to hear music before it is played" section in this answer, I talk about learning to sight sing by only playing the note of the key as a starting reference. If you "guess" by using your memory of a various pieces in different keys you know before you play the note, you might find you tend to guess right there as well.

From this, over time, many people start to develop some sense of what many people call "perfect pitch". I think it is part learning to trust your instinct, and part developing the ability. Like many things in learning music, this process will probably take years. I think the most important thing about trying to learn this ability is to have fun "guessing", and if it just never happens for you it is not really a big deal, many great musicians don't really have this ability.

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Here's how I did it. Your mileage may vary.

I had a junior high band director who would often tune the band by having each player in a section play a B-flat and telling them whether they were flat or sharp based on the electronic tuner at the front of the room. I made a bit of a game for myself by trying to guess (to myself) whether people were sharp or flat or in tune, and I eventually got better at it.

As a result, I knew where B-flat was.

After that, it was a matter of learning where the other pitches were in relation to that B-flat until, eventually, I could identify them without referring to the B-flat at all. One thing I did to help was write a simple computer program that would play a pitch incessantly until I guessed which pitch it was. Getting the sound to stop was a bit motivating in my case. I have been able to maintain absolute pitch since, though the actual intonation does drift a bit if I have not regularly been working on it.

Note that absolute pitch is by no means an automatic pass to playing or singing in tune, nor does it replace other good ear training exercises. It certainly helps, though.

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+1. I followed a similar process with the A on my guitar. –  Matthew Read Apr 28 '11 at 13:26
    
Do you have the code for that program so that we could possibly use it as well ? –  Cody Guldner Mar 25 '13 at 18:05
    
Not anymore. This was years ago on an Apple IIgs. –  Andrew Mar 26 '13 at 18:28
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A few years ago I carried a tuning fork for a whole winter, and did notice improvement. The first week or so I would just bump the tuning fork and listen to the A. Then I started to try to guess before listening.

Having the tuning fork with you all the time, you can practice whenever and as often as you want. It takes only a couple of seconds. I believe that often is good.

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A friend of mine wrote an article on developing perfect pitch for the New Jersey American Choral Director's Association. This article is an interesting read and is available, in pdf form, here.

In short, it says that perfect pitch is a form of tonal memory, and to develop this memory, he suggests listening to specific songs that develop memory for a particular pitch:

  • A: Maybelle by Ida
  • D: You Wouldn't Like Me by Tegan and Sara
  • G: Nightswimming by R.E.M.
  • C: Wake Up by Arcade Fire
  • F: We're from Barcelona by I'm from Barcelona
  • Bb: This Time by the Smashing Pumpkins
  • Eb: When You're Gone by The Cranberries
  • Ab: A&E by Goldfrapp
  • Db: Is there a Ghost? by Band of Horses
  • Gb: Girls Just Want to Have Fun by Cyndi Lauper
  • B: Pretty Pink Ribbon by Cake
  • E: Crash Into Me by Dave Matthews Band
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I would add a caution to this method. Many times, in the process of post-production especially, the overall pitch of the recording is changed (usually raised), at least slightly. So, while a recording may be in tune "with itself," it may or may not be that close to the desired pitch standard. Learning to sing or perform specific songs, then remembering the tonal pitch of each, could alleviate this issue and still provide a useful technique. –  Andrew Apr 28 '11 at 16:31
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+1 Interesting article! I listen to classical music almost exclusively and I've become familiar with a few starting pitches, like Bach's Prelude I from WTC (C), Chopin's e minor etude (B), and Beethoven's fifth (G), but I hadn't thought of using less complicated music to simply drill a tonality. @Andrew, it seems the article's author vouches for this particular set of pop songs, but that is a good warning in general. –  NReilingh Apr 28 '11 at 22:49
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I have perfect pitch and have for as long as I can remember, but was nowhere near as developed as it is now. For the last couple of years in choir, I've been giving the starting pitches (instead of a pitch pipe). Although I'd always been able to produce and identify notes with enough thinking, it was hard and required a decent amount of thinking time before I'd get it. However, these last couple of years, I've gotten much better and now can do both almost instantly.

I don't have much advice if you're trying to develop perfect pitch, but practice helps a lot once you've got it somewhat and are looking to improve your skills. I'd imagine that frequent practice would also help in developing it – if you repeatedly try to identify notes and see how close you are, I'd imagine that you can train yourself pretty well. (Perhaps even if you can't develop perfect pitch, you can develop good relative pitch, which is common and (from what I've heard) not impossible to develop.)

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Like Kyle Brandt said, a good exercise may be to try singing a pitch before you've heard it. Perhaps from a song, perhaps simply a note (say, a C) you would like to try, then play the note on a tuned instrument and see how far off you were, making sure to sing the note along with the tuned instrument. Perhaps if you then come back in an hour without listening to anything musical and try again (having rid the pitch of your memory by doing some other activity).

I'm a firm believer in the the way the human mind learns. The more you "correct" yourself, the better you get at doing things the right way without aid. You just have to keep doing it.

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I found http://pianofundamentals.com/book/en/1.III.12 very useful.

In short, mental play, or playing in your mind is very useful and can also be used as a way to learn perfect pitch.

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Sight singing class. This can be brutal for those of us who are "pitch challenged".

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Once the start note of a song has been established, relative pitch takes over. –  Tim Feb 16 at 11:39
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I have an iPhone app called "tuner tool" that gives me exact pitch of a tone recorded by the microphone.

When i am driving in my car alone i try to sing different pitches and notes. my reference is C4. i start hitting the C4 without looking at the app and then go over to different notes. I get better over time but if that leads to an absolute pitch i don't know. It's fun to get better, however!

I would like to have an app that tests different notes and gives feedback about the results. does anybody know about such an app?

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