Mittwoch, 16. November 2016

Transition from aural to mental pitch control

Demystifying Perfect Pitch

In an attempt to demystify the term perfect pitch, or absolute pitch, a scientific basis must be established. One of the criteria for absolute pitch is accurately singing a named note without a reference. Since this is the criterion that people typically find most difficult to achieve on the road to perfect pitch, it deserves a closer look.

First, singing is required. Since perfect pitch requires this ability, any scientific approach should include the production of pitch by voice. The question is how accurate?

Second, the term “without a reference” implies the time. To be able to identify a pitch by its name, you must have heard a reference sound before. The question is how long before?

If we want to make a scientific statement, it must be measurable and reproducible. Combining the above two points, we have to fix one point, so we can gradually measure the other.

Measuring abilities is always subject to uncertainty, since the person being tested is always subject to his or her current productivity. Therefore, repeatedly testing and basing the results on statistical analysis is a common approach.

Introducing the Pitch Ability Test

To allow the test to return a single indicator for the ability, the test uses for the first criterion a fixed accuracy and uses the second criterion to evaluate the ability in seconds. The test measures the time in a similar way as the height in high-jump sports gets measured. This method seems unconventional, but it allows you to measure the retention time of pitch with enough precision. If you select a low enough time, you will always pass; if you come to your limits, the results will start to vary.

The most important point of the test is that it measures your transition from aural to mental pitch control. Since the test requires a silent period, you must have stored the pitch mentally. Taking over a pitch while you hear it is usually done aurally. That is, you control the pitch aurally. However, after a period of silence, you are forced to produce the sound mentally from memory.

The term “without a reference” is usually interpreted as eternal. However, in a test we don’t have unlimited time. Therefore, the test proposes Felix’s Pitch Point as an upper limit for the test. Felix’s Pitch Point is set at 4 minutes. Four minutes is enough to prove that the transition to mental pitch control has taken place.

Taking into account the above discussion, I have developed The Pitch Ability Test. The test is free and can be downloaded for Windows and Macintosh.

Interpreting the test  results

The test tells you, scientifically, where you stand on the road to absolute pitch based on the criteria “Accurately sing a named note without a reference”. With this test, you can estimate the necessary effort needed to improve your absolute pitch ability. Since relative pitch is much more important than absolute pitch, the test also should facilitate the decision whether trying to attain perfect pitch is worth the effort. In other words, should you spend some time doing absolute pitch training but keep the bulk of the time for other musical activities?

For more information visit: or watch the introductory video on .

Samstag, 11. Juni 2016

A Scientific Approach to Acquiring Absolute Pitch

Absolute Pitch as a Goal

Absolute pitch (or perfect pitch) is often seen as the ultimate ability for a musician. Many great musicians have absolute pitch.

But can absolute pitch be used to measure your musicianship? Barely. The answer to the question—you have it or you don’t have it—does not say a lot about your abilities. We also know that only a small percentage of the population has it. Absolute pitch covers a broad range of musical abilities, and for this reason, it is better to individually test each subject. This gives a much better picture about musical abilities.

Therefore, absolute pitch in its current, complex definition is not a useful goal.

Picking the most relevant aspects of Absolute Pitch

If we pick out just one aspect of absolute pitch, we can, of course, no longer speak of absolute pitch. However, looking at the different required abilities, one seems to stand out: the ability to accurately sing a named pitch without a reference sound. Since this ability also implies knowledge of music notation and the ability to hear deviations from a target pitch, it can be seen as the basic building block to acquire absolute pitch.

However, to my knowledge, there is no available test for the ability to reproduce a pitch with a predefined precision after a set time period, which is the main ability of absolute pitch. Now, absolute pitch is not time bound, but it is assumed that you can name the pitch of a sound without a reference sound.

This assumption is wrong. You must have heard a reference sound at least once before you can assign it a name. So the time may be years since you heard the reference sound, and the reference pitch may have been refreshed and become more precisely defined over the years, but it still holds true: you must remember a previously heard reference pitch. Many other things that we have experienced only once we can also remember as if they happened yesterday. But this does not exclude time as a factor. The incorrect assumption that absolute pitch is not time bound is also probably the reason why no such test exists.

Developing a test procedure 

Another reason why no such test exists is that you cannot directly measure the point of failure. Most exams include a maximum time limit you are allowed to answer a question. But to test how long you can accurately remember a pitch, we must figure out the minimum time limit before you start failing the test. This makes it difficult to determine an upper time limit: How can we find the maximum of a minimum we can reach?

Sports have similar challenges. For example, in the high jump, athletes can set their own minimum that they can pass, which solves the problem. If the athlete passes the set mark, then he can set a higher mark until he fails. It makes sense to set your minimum mark very close to your best achievements, since setting the level too low will make you tired until you come to your challenging point, and you may then miss your own best mark.

To determine our absolute-pitch ability, we can use a similar approach. However, since absolute pitch is defined for an eternal time period, we cannot measure this ability for people who already have absolute pitch.

Introducing Felix’s Pitch Point 

We can define a point that we think is close enough to be accepted as a reference point for the ability to count as “eternal.” In this way, we have defined Felix’s Pitch Point as the ability to reproduce four pitches correctly after a four-minute period of silence.

Since the described procedure can be reproduced under defined conditions, a scientific measurement is possible. The Pitch Ability Test allows the measurement from seconds to eternity; however, measurements after Felix’s Pitch Point are not very interesting, since they would require too much time. Felix’s Pitch Point was chosen to be four minutes and four different pitches so that the test can be done within twenty minutes.

Nevertheless, with this scientific approach, you can express your absolute-pitch ability as a simple number: the number of seconds in a period of silence after which you can correctly reproduce four freely selectable pitches.

The Pitch Ability Method

Taking and passing exams is only one point in your career. The more interesting point is the acquisition phase of a skill. Instead of just repeatedly doing tests, it is better to have a guided path towards your goal. Therefore, I have developed the Pitch Ability Method, which allows you to directly monitor your progress towards the main ability of absolute pitch: the ability to reproduce a pitch with predefined precision after a set time period.

The method requires that you actively sing or hum pitches. Since it is not easy to know which pitches you can remember and reproduce best, the method starts with eight freely selectable notes. Singers will find it easy to sing back a note in their range. To make sure that you really hit the pitch of a note, the method in the next step narrows the required precision from 50 cents to 33 cents to 25 cents. After mastering the precision, the interval of silence between the reference tone and your reproduction of the pitch is increased by 1.5 seconds, allowing you again a precision tolerance of 50 cents. This ensures that you recognize a loss in your remembering precision. This process continues until the interval of silence is 15 seconds. After that, the program will abandon the note that you are the worst at reproducing. Of the eight selected notes, only seven will be tested further. When the period of silence reaches 30 seconds, another note will be abandoned, and so on, until only one note is left after two minutes.

Felix’s Pitch Point is defined for four notes, but it makes sense during the training phase to continue with only one note. Usually you automatically develop a sense for relative pitch. Therefore, concentrating on the note you can remember and reproduce best helps you to progress faster. The generalization to the other notes will be faster and therefore more efficient than if you practiced all four notes during training.

When a period of four minutes of silence is reached, the program starts to add back your second-best note, then your third-best note, and so on. Note that after adding the fifth note, the test time is more than the proposed twenty minutes: 5 notes × 4 minutes = 20 minutes (+ listening and feedback time). And therefore lies beyond Felix's Pitch Point that is defined by four minutes silence between the reference pitch and the test. Absolute pitch abilities before and after this point are expressed in seconds as your Personal Perfect Pitch Point. The program SamePitchPlease lets you measure your Personal Perfect Pitch Point up to 20 minutes. However, the exercises after Felix's Pitch Point are only here, for your convenience. They allow you to test that you can remember a pitch correctly after Felix’s Pitch Point. Keep in mind that this is boring, and does not help you much to improve your musical skills, since a song is seldom longer than four minutes (that means, there is no advantage in keeping the tonic of a piece in your mind after it has ended (except if you want to write it down when you came home)).

In comparison to the test, the Pitch Ability Method will also give you pitch feedback. The first feedback follows immediately after the reference sound is played (see the deviation pitch curve above the training bar in the above picture). This allows you to control your vocal cord position so you can confidently learn to store the correct muscle positions in your short-term memory. The second feedback is given during the test after the period of silence (see the test in the above picture). With this feedback you get a chance to correct deviations from the target pitch. These corrections help you to better understand your memorizing process and to grasp the target pitch.

Science and Absolute Pitch 

Most articles about absolute pitch study the differences between people who have and people who don’t have absolute pitch, and they test groups (based on age and gender, whether they are instrumentalists or singers, etc.) and statistically evaluate the results. If the findings are statistically significant, this helps to better understand absolute pitch. However, the samples are often very small because absolute pitch is rare and has “super” requirements. In sports, the majority of people are not capable of running 100 meters in under ten seconds. It would not be useful to have only super-runners and non-super-runners. Just taking the time is easy and gives you direct feedback on where you stand.

So, what about a radically different approach to measure absolute pitch ability? Everybody has absolute pitch to a certain degree—yes, almost everyone can differentiate a C2 from a C6. However, that is far away from absolute pitch. But most people can improve with training. Why not just find out what normal people are capable of differentiating after minimal training? If we can do that, then we can find a training method that can effectively improve our absolute pitch ability. 

In the above-described Pitch Ability Test, I think I have found a scientific way to make the most important aspect of absolute pitch measurable, and with the Pitch Ability Method, I think I have proposed a practicable way to train your absolute pitch ability. The Pitch Ability Test is much more useful than only knowing that you don’t have absolute pitch. The test also adds a new dimension to musicianship tests—your Personal Perfect Pitch Point achievement, which is the number of seconds you can keep and reproduce a pitch with a 25 cents mean precision, if you don’t reach Felix’s Pitch Point.

Please let me know your thoughts about the proposed Pitch Ability Test that is based on a period of silence and singing precision.

For more information, visit

The pictures used in this post are taken from the video: “Pitch Ability Method - A Scientific Approach to Absolute Pitch” ( By watching the video you better understand the points they convey.

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