Do you have perfect pitch? Since the incidence of people who have perfect pitch is about 1 in 10,000, the odds are that you don’t. But if you’re a musician, there is a pretty good chance that you might know someone who does, or you might have seen someone exercise this seemingly magical ability at some time. They can instantly and infallibly name any note they hear and are able to get every note in every chord voicing they hear correct. And you have probably thought to yourself, “If I only had perfect pitch.” Maybe you’ve even tried to develop it on your own.
I remember the guitar magazines I read when I was younger always had this large, two-page advertisement for a perfect pitch training course that you could send away for. After my own frustrations with the development of my ear, I sent away for it, and what I got was a series of cassette tapes (yea, this was a while ago) that had a number of exercises on them that were designed to teach the listener perfect pitch. The idea behind this was that every pitch has its own “color” or timber. If you could memorize the color of each pitch, you could learn to accurately recall the name of any pitch you heard. This sounded great, but it didn’t work for me. Sure, my hearing improved a little, but I never had perfect pitch.
As it turns out, adults can’t develop perfect pitch. (Whew! It wasn’t just me.) Being able to memorize the sound of certain pitches isn’t the same as perfect pitch. People with perfect pitch can instantly identify the names of notes they hear and even accurately reproduce a piece of music in the correct key days after hearing it. They can sing any pitch without any kind of reference note. They can even name the pitches of everyday sounds. I knew someone with perfect pitch who once remarked that the hum of a fluorescent light in the room was a B-flat. For people with perfect pitch, hearing notes isn’t like trying remember a fact they memorized; it’s instantaneous recall, almost like a reflex. They just know the note like they know what the color red looks like.
As it turns out, this rare ability is something only babies can learn, and there are numerous studies that have demonstrated this. Music teacher and producer Rick Beato points out that this ability is developed within the first 1,000 days of a baby’s life. Ironically, Beato echos what those perfect pitch lessons I sent away for were saying about pitch. People with perfect pitch recognize the “color” of a pitch. It’s just that as an adult, you can’t learn to do this the way someone with real perfect pitch can.
However, don’t despair. You can still improve your ear through training. You can develop excellent relative pitch—the ability to determine the intervals between different notes. Beato says that is skill is actually more important than having perfect pitch. And with training, it is possible to develop relative pitch to a very high degree.
So, if you don’t have perfect pitch, and you want to improve your ear, focus on developing your relative pitch.