Perfect Pitch not so Perfect?

For most of the musical world, the concept of perfect pitch is an almost magical thing. It’s something that you are supposedly born with, and can be a sign of musical genius. Musicians with perfect pitch are often envied by those without it. “If only I had perfect pitch, I would always be in tune and I wouldn’t play as many wrong notes! I would ace every ear training class and drop the needle test! I would be able to improvise with perfect freedom and sit in with any jazz group. Life would be so much better!!!!”

For people who have perfect pitch, life in an imperfectly pitched world can be a bit trying especially when dealing with their more pitch-challenged colleagues. “Can’t you HEAR that’s supposed to be a G#?!!”

Traditionally it has been believed that perfect pitch is something that you are born with, like a special genetic mutation. I have read of studies lately that link the development of perfect pitch with children who were brought up in homes where someone regularly played piano, a very fixed pitch instrument. Like learning the pitch inflections of language and of individual family members, the placement of musical pitches is imprinted from the very beginning according to this theory.

My own pitch perception wasn’t very good until my mid-twenties, when I undertook a serious practice regimen with tuner and drone which changed my ears and brain forever (in a good way!) My perception of intonation and of harmonic relationships were greatly improved, and though I doubt I will ever have anything close to perfect pitch, or even really good relative pitch, I think I can get along OK. Maybe if I worked specifically on those skills . . . . .

Anyway, this discussion was sparked by the following article on a study that was done testing whether you could ‘reset’ or influence the pitch perception of people who have perfect pitch. The results were pretty surprising, so read and enjoy! And keep in mind that if you can influence people whose pitch perception seems to be hard-wired, yours can be, too, a very hopeful thing!

Practical Intonation Practice Manifesto

Practical Intonation Practice Manifesto

1. Everything is a tone exercise. Always use the best tone production possible! Good intonation and good tone go hand in hand.

2. Don’t rush. Give yourself plenty of time to hear the sounds you are producing so you can determine if any changes need to be made. Pay attention to how it feels to produce a good note that is ‘in tune’ and memorize that feeling so you can reproduce it.

3. Regular, small bits of careful practice will achieve more than long sessions of inattentive, mindless practice.

4. Your ears are your most important musical tools. Improving your intonation is as much about improving your ears as it is anything else.

5. Words are important. The words you use to describe your practicing (or others’) influence what you will be able to accomplish. Stay away from judgmental right/wrong statements, instead try works/ doesn’t work, better/best.