Is it possible to tell whether or not a single note that you hear is a white key or a black key on a piano (i.e. whether a note is natural or sharp/flat)?

Can anybody actually do this?

I've heard from my music teacher that it is possible to train people who have this ability to distinguish white-key notes from black-key without any external reference to have perfect pitch. She quizzed the whole class by playing notes and having the students write down whether they thought it was a white key or black key.

I'm really curious if anybody can actually do this, and whether or not actually do this leads to perfect pitch - I've not been able to find references elsewhere?

  • 2
    If you have perfect pitch it would be easy to tell the "white" notes from the "black" notes because someone with perfect pitch can identify any note they hear. Most of us have relative pitch though, so without context it would probably be difficult to tell if a note was a C or C# for example. The "black" notes are neither major or minor.. just sharps and flats. Once you have context, it becomes easier. If you are playing in the key of C Major (all white keys), hitting a black note will sound out of key. But A minor is all white keys as well.
    – charlie
    Nov 6 '14 at 22:36
  • Sorry, but this question is based on false premises, go back to your music teacher, and ask for clarification as to her reasons for her statements, which do not sound accurate.
    – Tim
    Nov 6 '14 at 22:58
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    @Tim I think he just confused the terms major and minor for talking about white and black keys on the keyboard. As far as I can tell there is a worthwhile question in there about distinguishing sharp/flat notes and acquiring perfect pitch. It does sound like his music teacher needs to brush up on their vocabulary. In fact I'm just going to edit the question to reflect this.
    – charlie
    Nov 6 '14 at 23:02
  • I quite often hear people say that flat and minor are sort of interchangeable. Completely wrong, of course, but I do wonder where the concept comes from. In the early stages, some of my pupils have said as much. Maybe something to do with a 'flat 3rd' in minor? But sharps and majors don't get thought of in the same way: because the 3rd isn't sharpened in a major??
    – Tim
    Nov 7 '14 at 14:48

I wrote a comment but I would like to expand a bit. First of all, the white and black keys are not major or minor by themselves. The black keys are simply some of the notes with single sharps or flats. So in C Major or Ionian, all of the white keys are in the scale. But A minor or Aeolian is also all white keys. A note can't be major or minor by itself- those qualities come from intervals: e.g. a major third is four semitones and a minor third is three semitones. Major vs. minor is more about the relationship between notes, not a quality of a note by itself.

As far as your question goes, I am assuming you are not talking about major and minor, and are just talking about distinguishing between the "white notes" and "black notes" on a keyboard, or the natural notes (C, D, E, F, G, A, B) vs. the notes with sharps and flats (C#/D♭, D#/E♭, F#/G♭, G#/A♭, A#/B♭). Technically the white keys can be represented with sharps and flats as well, e.g. D♭♭ is the same as C and F♭ is the same as E. People with perfect pitch would likely be able to distinguish between a C and a C# easily, because someone with perfect pitch can instantly identify any note they hear without context.

Most of us mere mortals have relative pitch though, so without context it would probably be difficult to tell if a note was a C or C#. Once you introduce context, it becomes easier to tell the notes apart. If you are playing in C Major/Ionian (which is all white notes), then any of the black notes will sound out of place.

Your last question about acquiring perfect pitch doesn't have an easy answer. Most people say that you can't learn perfect pitch after a certain age- it is usually children that are exposed to learning an instrument at a very young age that acquire perfect pitch (or in certain Asian cultures where the language relies more heavily on the pitch of the voice, so they are again exposed to distinguishing pitches at an early age). But consensus seems to be once you grow up (past adolescence), if you don't have perfect pitch you probably can't learn it.

What you can do is improve your ear and get good at identifying relative pitches. Relative pitch is a skill where you can identify the intervals between notes but without a reference pitch to compare them to you can't always be sure which notes are which. For example someone with relative pitch could hear two notes and be able to tell they are a perfect fifth apart, but they probably wouldn't be able to say "That's a C then a G," without any information about context. Another example would be someone with perfect pitch could sing their favorite song in the right key every time, without needing a reference note. Someone with good relative pitch would pick a note to start on, and would sing the song correctly (i.e. all the intervals would be right), but it might be in the wrong key if they didn't start on the right note.

For a practicing musician, relative pitch is an extremely useful tool. Perfect pitch isn't necessary to be a great musician.

  • 1
    Minor clarification: "Sharps and flats" are not equivalent to "black keys". Although black keys must be described with at least one sharp or flat, white keys can also be described that way. Examples: B-sharp is the same as C, and F-flat is the same as E, even though both are white keys. And of course, if you include double-sharps/flats, then for example, A might be described as B-double-flat. Nov 7 '14 at 14:16
  • E# is a white key on the piano. So is Fb B# and Cb.
    – Neil Meyer
    Nov 7 '14 at 19:22

I think it is possible even without perfect pitch, but just with a lot of ear training. If you can remember where a single note is such as middle C or concert A in your head and then consider the interval between the two then you can "calculate" what note is being played. I can hear concert A in my head without playing it just from how many times I've heard it played at concerts. I can also hear in my head certain notes associated with popular songs like Jingle Bells. In music theory in college we would use a handful of well known melodies for the various intervals in order to train our ears. There are some other notes that you if can think of a song you can figure it out. People with perfect pitch seem to just do it more directly without the calculation. Kinda like just reading instead of trying to do phonics.

There is an anecdote in a biography of Philip Glass telling about the great music teacher Nadia Boulanger where her students where expected to have perfect pitch and if not then they should at least memorize middle C and were given a tuning fork to use on the train ride to her chateau.

So it takes time, but its possible. Your music teacher's technique for training your ears may have been overly optimistic though if she expected results overnight.

Update: I was happy to report that after this I checked my memory of concert A and it was right on the money. ;-)

  • 2
    Sounds like you have partial perfect pitch. Sometimes if we hear a pitch often enough we can remember it. I can sometimes do it with songs I have listened to a lot by guessing the first note right before the song starts.
    – charlie
    Nov 7 '14 at 23:21
  • Well that's what I'm saying, if I have any sense of perfect pitch, as far as I know its been through ear training, not by natural ability.
    – deltaray
    Nov 10 '14 at 14:34

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