perfect pitch - can it be developed?

November 3, 2010 at 08:37 PM ·

can perfect pitch be developed in middle age or later?  is it necessary or merely desirable?  is good relative pitch sufficient?

Replies (20)

November 3, 2010 at 09:13 PM ·

IME, no one can even agree on what perfect pitch IS, and you'd think it would be fairly unambiguous.

November 3, 2010 at 10:38 PM ·

If perfect pitch means, as it does for me and many others, the ability to recognize whether your A string is a few cents flat or sharp without listening to any reference pitch, the answer must be "yes", because it is nothing more then hearing the A440 tune-up in an orchestra or other ensemble, or from your own tuning fork when you start a practice session, so often that it gets embedded in your memory.  Keep tuning to A440 for long enough and eventually you will realize that you have acquired "perfect pitch" as hereinbefore defined.

November 3, 2010 at 11:40 PM ·

Not sure about the age factor.  But so-called perfect pitch -- or pitch recognition or memory -- can be developed.  Even so, for violin-playing, strong relative pitch is more valuable.

At age 7, with elementary piano training that preceded violin training, I wasn't so aware of pitch recognition, but I was much aware of it within the first few months of violin lessons.  My so-called perfect pitch, I'm sure, results from tuning to A-440 from an early age.  I retune periodically during practice sessions; so the A definitely becomes embedded in my memory.

Although I can identify individual notes readily, I'm quicker to identify keys -- that is, when I hear something in the key of A, I can easily identify it as A, because I've heard it before -- just as I can distinguish colors, because I've seen them before, or identify a voice as belonging to a certain person, because I've heard it before.

November 4, 2010 at 01:08 AM ·


please advise what to do for perfect pitch training?
i have heard of using tuning forks, a bit expensive but anyone found that effective?
also, i tried out glockenspiels at my local music stores, the cheaper one did not have perfect pitch, the one more expensive has all in perfect pitch but very big and bulky.
i tested with metronome.

is it necessary to get for the # notes too?


November 4, 2010 at 01:11 AM ·

Yes to all definitions of perfect or relative pitch.

November 4, 2010 at 01:57 AM ·

The real question is why would you want to develop perfect pitch, since unless you plan on only playing your instrument alone. 

The actual pitches have risen since the A=415 of Bach's time, and current A varies slightly from orchestra to orchestra and from piano to piano. 

When I was in school the cautionary tale against perfect pitch was of the horn player who got into Curtis but then had to quit playing altogether when it became obvious that his prized perfect pitch rendered him incapable of playing in ensembles.

Relative pitch is the better goal.

November 4, 2010 at 02:04 AM ·

 "The word Perfect should be banned from violin sites"

Except perhaps for a discussion of Perfection Pegs.

I don't use Word Perfect any more; I've discovered that Open Office is a little less expensive :-)

November 4, 2010 at 02:05 AM ·


November 4, 2010 at 02:21 AM ·

@ ruth brons


thanks. i 'll look into relative pitch.

November 4, 2010 at 03:41 AM ·

 I wouldn't think perfect pitch is necessary, as long as you can hear relative pitch and know whether you are playing in tune with everyone else. I  was told as a child that I had perfect pitch, and to be honest with you the only advantage I've ever felt is when people go 'wow' when I can sing a note on pitch (on  sight) without hearing it first.

And I do agree that yes it can be learned to some degree. When you hear the same thing over and over for years (such as the pitch of the A string at 440), it makes sense that you'll start to hear it in your head like a recording after awhile and just know whether it's in tune or not. But necessary? Doubtful. If  that were true, we'd have a lot fewer accomplished musicians in this world.

November 4, 2010 at 03:52 AM ·

Good point Julie.  Perfect pitch can be a curse as well as a blessing.  My son has perfect pitch and he started on piano several years ago; only problem is our piano was tuned to 441, so his ear was calibrated to 441.  Whenever I tuned his violin to 440, he said it sounded flat and proceeded to tune it up a notch.  It took a while for him to recalibrate his ear.  Now that he is playing with an orchestra, his ear is re-calibrated to 440.  If he plays with an orchestra that tunes to anything else, it will probably drive him crazy. 

I personally don't think perfect pitch can be developed.  I have played violin for years and I can not tell the difference if my A is tuned flat.  Perhaps people can develop a mild form of perfect pitch, but my son can easily and effortlessly name any note you play.  He does this without any special training.  It's just natural for him.


November 4, 2010 at 04:51 AM ·

Perfect pitch: situationally useful but not necessary and possibly even annoying.

Relative pitch: important and completely trainable through practice.

November 4, 2010 at 08:43 AM ·

Just a word of caution: I have known string players with perfect pitch, but their intonation was never that good. This could of course be the result of bad left hand technique as well.

November 4, 2010 at 12:17 PM ·

Just to make this more difficult: what about timbre-related, acquired perfect pitch. I've found I can recognize violin pitches, especially in first position, with really good accuracy - because of the way the instrument rings. I guess I wouldn't call it memory of the frequency, but more like memory of the "color". I'm the only person I've ever heard talk about this so I want to hear what other people say. I usually tune my A without a tuner - because of the way I listen to how the violin rings. I can tell whether my A is a few cents sharp or flat by what type of extra resonance is coming through. Also, think of how musicians on their own instruments are better at hearing pitches. In class brass I would never have any idea what note I was playing when we started exploring the partials on the trumpet. Yet, the trumpet players always knew exactly what note it was, probably by the "color" of the sound.

November 4, 2010 at 12:42 PM ·

Christopher, I agree with you all the way.  I've known the phenomenon for a long time.  For several years I've been playing Irish and English folk music,  the tunes of which are rarely in more than 1 or 2 sharps or flats (this is not the place to discuss the almost impenetrable complexities of Irish tune modality and temperament - try,  and the experienced fiddle players in these genres know that if they transpose a tune up or down a tone or two it will sound quite different  – and incidentally may distress melodeon and whistle players whose instruments most probably won't be able to handle the transpositions.  

Interestingly, if you come across an Irish tune in A major (a bright and powerful key) there is a good chance it is from Scotland where A major is often the preferred fiddle key, and if you transpose it down to G to suit whistles and melodeons you'll probably ruin the feel of the tune.

November 4, 2010 at 05:17 PM ·

good question.  is there a virtuoso reading this without perfect pitch?  would she admit it?  but seriously, a good question.  i have a friend with perfect pitch, and he says it's most annoying when he hears things played out of tune....

November 4, 2010 at 06:06 PM ·

I developed it through listening to a lot of music.  My first teacher gave me an ongoing assignment of getting to know as many pieces of classical music as I could, so starting in 6th grade I got into the habit of having classical music playing all the time.  Eventually, because of hearing the notes I played and hearing the notes others played, I became able to recognize notes.   I can't necessarily say "that A is 440; that A is 441," but I do notice when a note heard in isolation is sharp or flat.   (Example:  I have an alarm clock that beeps.  It's the first thing I hear in the morning.  I was never sure if it was a B-flat or a B-natural; finally I checked and it's a rather sharp B-flat.  So I was kind of right.)

When I hear baroque music played by HIPP groups at lower pitches, then I hear them in terms of their modern pitch:  Bach's Brandenburg Concerto #3 in G-flat, or Vivaldi's "Spring" in E-flat.

I read an interview with Viktoria Mullova where she said she had always had perfect pitch, but she lost it when she began playing HIPP-y music. 



(HIPP = Historically Informed Performance Practice)

November 4, 2010 at 06:33 PM ·


My son has perfect pitch and he started on piano several years ago; only problem is our piano was tuned to 441, so his ear was calibrated to 441.  Whenever I tuned his violin to 440, he said it sounded flat and proceeded to tune it up a notch.  It took a while for him to recalibrate his ear.  Now that he is playing with an orchestra, his ear is re-calibrated to 440.  If he plays with an orchestra that tunes to anything else, it will probably drive him crazy. 

I was in a similar situation.  My first instrument (at age 8) was the B-flat cornet.  I have perfect pitch, but it got tuned a full step down.  It took a while to transition to other instruments - but now, if I hear brass music, my ear recalibrates instantly.

I agree that absolute (as in inflexible) pitch isn't so good.  You have to be able to retune your ear (as well as your instrument) to that out-of-tune piano, for instance...

November 4, 2010 at 08:22 PM ·

Don, I don't have perfect pitch and I just started playing less than a year ago, and I can do that.

November 7, 2010 at 06:38 AM ·

I can relate very well to Bruce; my pitch sense doesn't make me nuts when different protocols are in effect, such as HIPP.  A lucky thing, since I find it very useful for improvising and arranging, although it can certainly be a challenge when I am hearing something a step off from what's on a page.  Listening to a Baroque ensemble seems easier than switching from US standard to metric -- I still haven't gotten the hang of that! 

Christopher, I get what you are saying too.  I think my own "secret" is that I hear notes as if they were made up of fibers...sort of like how each piano key actually has three strings attached, though there aren't necessarily always three "fibers."  It's as though I hear not just the present of the note, but all of its future possibilities and potential at once, every chord combination.  Maybe similar to how our brains put together ears, noses, eyes, etc. to form a composite idea of what a face is.  Keys have personalities too, much like they did when brass players had different crooks to play in different keys, and composers wrote with this in mind; E flat has been traditionally a heroic key, and E just a half step away, more ethereal.  It all probably has a lot to do with overtones, but there's a little something more to it that is hard to account for or explain.  Subtle psychological molding, perhaps.  I can also imagine colors that I associate with notes or chords, but I don't think I possess the phenomenon of actually seeing them.

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