Wouldn’t it be nice to know where you stand on the road to perfect pitch?
Having an indicator that can show you your progress towards perfect pitch helps you to recognize and improve your weak points.
Unfortunately, the definition of perfect pitch is very complex. Wikipedia redirects a search for the term “Perfect Pitch” to the page “Absolute Pitch.” In this way, perfect pitch is often used as a synonym for absolute pitch.
In my opinion, the term “perfect pitch” should be used for describing the precision of relative pitch. Let me explain:
Wikipedia states as one of the criteria for perfect pitch (absolute pitch): being able to sing a pitch in the equal-tempered system without having a reference tone.
Unfortunately, this definition combines two aspects of pitch skills:
1) Matching a pitch perfectly
2) Remembering a pitch perfectly
Matching a pitch perfectly
This aspect addresses relative pitch skills. If you can match a pitch perfectly when singing, then this is a relative skill, since you match a pitch you’ve heard with your voice. Now, matching a pitch has nothing to do with the equal-tempered system of frequencies. You can match a pitch that is off the equal-tempered system. In fact, there are other music systems in which you have to match other frequencies to be in tune. Even in the equal-tempered system, the pitch frequencies have changed several times: “The standard pitch has not always been 440 Hz. It has varied and generally risen over the past few hundred years“ (“The History of Musical Pitch in Europe“, Hermann von Helmholtz, referenced in the Wikipedia article “Equal Temperament“.)
Since to be/sing in tune is the most important aspect of harmonic music, relative pitch is independent of absolute pitch frequencies. Therefore, the term perfect pitch should be used to express a perfect match of any frequency.
To be able to match a pitch perfectly, you must be able to recognize deviations from a given reference frequency. This is a skill that can be trained and improved with appropriate feedback. Measuring the deviation-recognition ability does not only apply to recognizing deviations from equal-tempered frequencies but is valid for any frequencies.
This insight let to the development of a relative pitch meter (see my post “Relative Pitch Indicator”).
Remembering a pitch perfectly
The second aspect addresses absolute pitch skills. You must be able to remember the sounds of absolute frequencies. Since you are not allowed to hear a reference tone, you must be able to recall the sound of a pitch from your long-term memory. Now, we all can recall song-melodies. The question is how accurately – in relation to absolute frequencies – we remember the pitches.
Recall can be learned and improved too. For example, with exercises like “growing melodies” – in which a melody grows by adding a new random note at the end and your task is to recall and replay the growing melody – you can train your pitch memory. Unfortunately, in a growing melody exercise, you will use also relative pitch skills, since you can build on the previously heard note.
To eliminate the relative pitch part, we must introduce a silence period. That means, before you are allowed to recall a note, there must be pitch-less period of a certain duration.
If we use the Wikipedia criteria, “Accurately sing a named pitch without a reference tone,” then we can – for a given silence period – measure your recall precision directly. A reproducible test can be built by letting you hear a tone – in your singing range – and after a specified silence time, requiring you to sing that tone back. The reproduction of the pitch through singing allows us to measure the deviation from the original pitch. If we need to match the pitch within a predefined precision, then the silence period – within which we are still able to reproduce the pitch correctly within the required precision – can be used to express our pitch memory as the silence period in seconds.
This insight was used to develop an absolute pitch meter (see my post “Absolute Pitch Indicator”).
Despite the title “Perfect Pitch Meter,” no perfect pitch meter has been presented. However, by assessing the values of the relative pitch meter and the absolute pitch meter, a kind of a perfect pitch meter could be constructed.
The absolute pitch meter seems to be nearer to capturing the most difficult part of the Wikipedia definition for perfect pitch. On the other hand, hearing relative pitch distances accurately is much more important for music. Harmony means that the pitches relative to each other harmonize. Therefore, a relative pitch meter is much more useful than an absolute pitch meter. Progress in relative pitch has a direct observable influence on a performance.
Nevertheless, absolute pitch training is memory training and helps to overcome forgetfulness. However, it is very exhausting. For example learning a growing random number is very tedious and therefore abandoned quickly. The merits are not easily visible. The same is true for acquiring perfect pitch.
Is the effort needed to achieve progress —compared to the merit— the killing factor for acquiring absolute pitch?
According to the article “Acquiring Absolute Pitch in Adulthood Is Difficult but Possible (July 2018)”, the authors Yetta Kwailing Wong, Kelvin F.H. Lui, and Ken H.M. Yip, believe that the findings of their studies suggest that absolute pitch continues to be learnable in adulthood. So, why then don’t we see more people that acquire absolute pitch? The simple answer —that the merits don’t outweigh the effort— deserves a closer look.
What is “Pseudo Absolute Pitch”?
To my knowledge, there exists no definition for the term “pseudo-absolute pitch.” The term is used to express that there is always a noticeable difference between acquiring absolute pitch abilities in childhood and adulthood. While this may be true, it does not prove that the brain is unable to acquire “real” (indistinguishable) absolute pitch at any age. To support this thought, let us look at the ability to learn a foreign language. You can start learning a foreign language any time after childhood. The question is: How perfectly can an adult learn a foreign language? Can an adult learn a foreign language perfectly at all? To answer these questions, there are three main topics that we have to honor:
- The term “perfect” is always relative to subjective interpretation.
- Learning exposure: The environment where the learning takes place (e.g., a foreign country) is important
- There is limited available time
Since the first aspect is subject to personal preferences, I will not dive in deeper. I will only say that the fact that a person who has learned a foreign language can get better marks on tests than natives does not mean that his language understanding is better than that of a native speaker.
The second aspect points out that, for learning a foreign language, moving to the country of the language’s origin makes a huge difference. The constant exposure to the language has a great influence on learning. However, an iron will is still necessary to overcome shortcomings. Especially, to get rid of one’s own native accent is not easy. In this way, active training is needed. In contrast to the constant language exposure, acquiring perfect pitch is much more difficult, since there is no permanent utilization of absolute pitch references. As I mentioned before, music is always based on relative pitch. Therefore, it will be much more difficult to acquire absolute pitch than to acquire a foreign language perfectly to the point where native speakers can no longer differentiate the persons origin.
The third aspect, a limited lifetime, makes it clear that a 70-year-old person probably does not have the chance to learn a foreign language perfectly. But here, we must recognize that even a 70-year-old person can still make progress in acquiring a foreign language. If we assume that acquiring perfect pitch has a lot in common with learning a foreign language —both are based on audio (listening and expressing) — then the question comes down to this: If it is possible to learn a foreign language perfectly in adulthood, why shouldn’t it be possible to acquire perfect pitch? To answer this last question we must find out how our brain functions.
How does our brain work?
To answer this question, I propose the following thought experiment: Let us assume that a person stops aging after 70 and lives for another 1,000 years.
In this case, I will argue that after 1,000 years, a person living in a foreign country will be as native as a real native, since during these 1,000 years, the person will make progress, even learn all the customs. And if the person is actively working on his or her accent, then he or she will no longer be distinguishable from natives, especially since during that period, the use of the vocabulary will change —new words will be added, and other words will vanish. This person will even be part of this process and help form the language.
If this thought experiment is true, then this implies that the brain is built for learning perfect pitch too. There are no magical wirings in the brain that forbid the brain from acquiring perfect pitch. If our goal is to understand how the brain works, then we should concentrate on looking at why the brain starts blocking accepting new concepts. One reason could be that the brain feels “overloaded,” like if you have eaten enough and your desire to eat stops. That is, if the brain no longer recognizes a need to learn a new concept, then the brain is no longer willing to transfer information from short-term to the long-term memory. The brain tries to safeguard our long-term memory from overloading. It is obvious that the capacity of our long-term memory is limited. Therefore, it seems plausible that during our evolution, a sufficient reserve for fast adaption proved to be a lifesaver. Thus, the brain starts to delimit the transfer from the short-term memory to the long-term memory. Concepts that do not bring visible progress (or reward) during a certain period simply do not get transferred.
The important lesson we should take from this thought experiment is that the brain never changes its essential learning behavior. You can still learn anything you want at any age if you have enough energy and time to do so. And the second thing we should honor is that clear, fast, rewarding feedback is a strong supporter in learning.
For acquiring absolute pitch, this means that our brain needs direct feedback to see where we stand so that we can observe our progress, and therefore, the information transfer to the long-term memory does not get blocked. We know that relative pitch deserves more attention and that relative pitch shows faster progress towards musicality. We also know that we do not have permanent exposure to using absolute pitch frequencies as references. For making progress in learning musical concepts, relative pitch will always be dominant, since during musical activity, we always have to adjust relative to other instruments. Even without other instruments —in a melody— we have to make sure that the tones are relative in harmony to each other. So, it will be very difficult to acquire absolute pitch, if we do not already have a good sense of relative pitch. Therefore, we must learn to listen carefully for relative pitch distances first, before we can start to memorize absolute pitch frequencies with the required precision.
Because we can derive a similarity between learning absolute pitch and our language-learning thought experiment, it should be possible to acquire perfect pitch — provided that we are given enough time and learning exposure. The fact that our brain will prioritize learning relative pitch just makes it very difficult to acquire absolute pitch. Most people will give up before reaching the necessary precision and speed even for relative pitch.
The first thing you should do is perfect your relative pitch hearing abilities. Since relative pitch deviations must be corrected immediately, the skill of detecting pitch deviations is essentially a speed accomplishment. Since the relative pitch meter attaches importance to reaction time, it can be used to achieve improvements in this direction. The goal should be to reach a level where recognition of relative pitch distances should become innate.
Second, the observable decline of improvement in the absolute pitch training undermines the argument —that “the effort vs. the merit is the killing factor” for acquiring absolute pitch, and not the “you have to be born with it claim” is true. To further support this claim, I need about 100 persons who are willing to spend 20 minutes a day for a period of 100 days. Please download the program SamePitchPlease and take 20 minutes each day to document your pitch recall ability progress, thus collecting data on your progress towards absolute pitch. In this way, the absolute pitch meter will collect information about the starting absolute pitch level, the improvements made, and the observable slowdown of improvement. The speed of improvement is the critical point for motivation. If the absolute pitch level cannot be improved within a reasonable time, then people will start to give up. If you give up before the 100-day period, please let us know the reason in the comment section of the export dialog in the SamePitchPlease program.
Together, the relative pitch meter and the absolute pitch meter show you where you stand on the path to perfect pitch. Don’t be disappointed if your score is low —this only shows that there is room for improvement.
Call to action
Even though a perfect pitch meter could be constructed from the results of the relative pitch and absolute pitch meter, it does not make sense, since to motivate someone, direct evaluable feedback in relation to the effort made is necessary. By measuring two aspects separately, you can better see the effect of your effort towards each of the goals: acquiring relative pitch abilities and acquiring absolute pitch abilities. Combining two meters into one meter blurs the assignability of an effort to an outcome.
The absolute pitch meter does not really help you to improve your musicality. Musicality is always a relative task –you must be in harmony relative to a given key. So, is an absolute pitch meter useless? No —it can help us to understand how the brain works. Absolute pitch is a very good field for understanding/discovering the functioning of short/long-term memory. Therefore, the observations made during a 100-day period with the absolute pitch ability test would not only help to prove/refute the hypothesis that the effort vs. the merit is the killing factor for acquiring absolute pitch, but also give some inside data on the functioning of our short- and long-term memory. The level where you start is not an issue –everybody will make progress just by the effort they put in. But everybody will also slow down in the progress curve. And then it gets boring. The aim of this call to action is to document this slowdown in acquiring absolute pitch with the program SamePitchPlease. For relative pitch, the program PitchBlitz can be used to document the learning behavior.
So, please download the free program SamePitchPlease (https://samepitchplease.com) to start your absolute pitch training, or PitchBlitz (https://pitch-blitz.com) to start your relative pitch training. After 5 days please export your statistics and send the exported file to felixthecat @ listening-singing-teacher.com. This way, I will know that you have started the training. After finishing the100-day training period, please, send me your statistics report again. Of course, if you give up earlier, I would appreciate if you send me your current statistics anyway (preferably with a short comment on why you gave up).
When I get five emails with a 5-day starting statistic, I will publish a table (https://pitchfeedback.com/Absolute-Pitch-Meter-Stats.html) showing the participant number, the starting date and the starting score. The table will contain other columns —initially empty— that will show the score after 100 days, or —if you send me an intermediate report— your intermediate score and the number of training days you have completed. You do not have to send intermediate reports. However, sending me the first report after 5 days should motivate others to also start to explore their relative/absolute pitch capabilities, because they can see that others have started (to see nothing feels like being a lonely fighter, and if you give up before the 100-day period, it is very unlikely that you will send in your finishing score). If you finish the 100-day period, I appreciate when your sending me the final report. In case you give up earlier, sending me your last report is also highly appreciated. In this case, the table will be updated with the last score and completed number of training days along with the information you reported for the reason for giving up (via clickable choices or comment).
The data I receive will be rendered anonymous, so your name will never occur in a statistic. Your email address will never be used except to check back in case of ambiguities.
Thank you for your support