The quest for perfect pitch, can it be learned?

By | March 2, 2006

A person who has the ability to tell if a given single pitch is slightly out of tune and even to sing or name any tone out of the blue without a reference note is said to have perfect pitch. (The naming is learned, the perception of pitch color differences is instant and automatic after it is learned.)I’ve seen and have performed with many amazing musicians, but there are two people who stand out in my mind as having something extra. They both sang with an effortless exactness of pitch which I could hear, but could not duplicate, even with my years of experience. Playing a few gigs with Jason Mraz freaked me out. When I first heard Bobby McFerrin as a kid at a Jazz festival, I knew there was something unique about him, but perhaps it was just his ability to mimic instruments? Years later, when I heard Jason Mraz raw, live, and unprocessed by a recording studio, I knew what it was about Bobby McFerrin which had fascinated me as a kid: perfect pitch. This is something subtle, something you can’t get from listening to records, especially these days when most studios have pitch correction.

At one point after a show Jason came out to smoke and stand with us in the front of the True Love Coffee Shop in Sacramento, CA. He then sang a few bars of one of my songs he liked a capella. This kid singing MY song sounded better than me. (And I’m no slouch!) It wasn’t just the type of voice he had, it was the exactness of the pitches he sang from memory. It was like meeting Mozart or something. Mraz heard with such exactness. I was amazed. (Oh, and Toca Rivera was there harmonizing too for a minute which was so awesome.)

perfect pitchAnyway, I’m now taking some time away from performing as a musician to see if it is possible to acquire perfect pitch as an adult. From what I’ve heard, Jason grew up singing in church choirs and I figure that’s where he tuned his ear and ability to harmonize. I grew up around music too, but we always just tuned our guitars to themselves, never to a pitch fork or a tuner. As a result, I have great relative pitch, but I can’t sing an “A” note out of the blue.

I once drove a girlfriend crazy by playing an “A” reference tone over and over for a week and trying to sing it out of the blue. I failed. This is NOT the way to obtain perfect pitch. Don’t try to memorize a tone this way. Now I’m trying some new exercises which I’ll share here. There is hope. In the last few weeks I’ve started to see progress.

You have to go slow and learn to hear in a new way. Each note has a unique “color” or character about it, so I’m told.

EXERCISE 1. Perfect Pitch Training For Guitarists. Learn to sing the open strings. Learning the strings as a new song. Sing the tune and say the notes. Sing it to yourself during the day. Sing low to high E A D G B E, and then high to low E B G D A E. Get to the point where you can do this when given either the high or low E string as a reference.

EXERCISE 1a. Wait 5 or 6 seconds. Blindly play any note on the guitar (use the wrong hand and locate a string without knowing by touch which string it is) and with that as a reference, sing the other strings using the above melody which you have learned.

EXERCISE 1b. Play any open string on the guitar blindly (see above) and name that note. Vary the amount of silent time between tests. Spend a few days working on this until you can name the strings correctly 30 times in a row.

Leave a Reply