Resources on Helping Students Develop Perfect Pitch

June 25, 2023, 11:15 PM · Hello, I have an unusual number of students who have perfect pitch and one young one who may have it (he is the younger brother of one of the students who does have it). I could use some resources on how to help them better train their ears. Any resource suggestions are helpful. Thank you.

Replies (35)

June 26, 2023, 11:23 AM · Is that even possible? Besides, from my reading perfect pitch can be a big advantage but it can also be a problem. One of my (top) teachers, who played 1st in an orchestra complained that the people with perfect pitch 'too often played out of tune'.

Most of us have relative pitch - which (at least for me) was hard work but it is very flexible.

June 26, 2023, 2:49 PM · I have always assumed that perfect pitch is a rare and inherent talent that is not that valuable and cannot be trained. What is more valuable for the rest of us ordinary aspiring musicians is interval recognition. Serious singers spend a lot of time working on their intervals, and perhaps we could borrow their method book. After learning, hearing, playing the intervals, in all fingering combinations, being able to play all of the scales and arpeggios from memory, "by ear", is a valuable skill. Another exercise, that I learned from a cellist, is to shift through all the intervals, on one finger, on one string.
June 26, 2023, 3:55 PM · Have you considered that your unusual amount of students with perfect pitch is not a mere coincidence, but is evidence that you're already training their ears optimally?

Your question is sort of a strange one. It's somewhat like saying "I have an unusual amount of students that are amazing at playing fast; how can I make them play even faster?"

As a teacher, I always try to work on my students' weakest points, while also recognizing their strengths. Personally, if I have a student with great pitch recognition, then that's probably the last thing I'll work on with them.

(it's also probably worth asking if your students actually have perfect pitch, or merely relative pitch as Elise already noted).

Edited: June 26, 2023, 4:10 PM · The important thing is we all play in tune-which someone with perfect pitch may very possibly not do.

That said, happy your students have such skills.

IMHO, this skill is not "real" in the sense that perfect pitch is relative to the instrument and scales within a piece. One *could* have perfect pitch related to piano, but that is useless to a violinist.

When I was young I was told I had perfect pitch, but honestly it's just "relative"-not as in being out of tune being relative, but relative to the scale. That is why someone who supposedly has "perfect pitch" and plays out of tune in the 1st section of an orchestra, either does not really have a good ear at all, or does not practice his/her violin. Playing scales in perfect tune-save for the double stop exceptions where relative is ok-is a much better skill than "perfect pitch" will ever be.

In short, yes I can sing 440, but mostly anyone (or at least, most of us violinists) can do that. I am not special. What is important is I practice so I can play pieces in tune at 440, 443, 445, etc., relative to the passage being performed.

June 26, 2023, 4:32 PM · In my experience, perfect pitch is ONLY developed in children who have both something of a natural proclivity and are repeatedly exposed to appropriate labeling of pitches sometime early in their lifetimes (usually before age 8 or 10, maybe even earlier).

Interestingly, in my son't precollege program, something like 75-80% of the kids have perfect pitch. This isn't an anomaly -- it is true of many, if not most, kids who started music lessons early, practiced a lot daily, and are studying at higher levels. It's also more common in children who learn tonal (verbal) languages where pitch inflection is especially important. A lot of Asian languages fall into this category.

Some of these kids (like my son) have extreme perfect pitch -- he can hear the pitch of everything in the environment around him, to the point where it took him several childhood years to learn to "cope" with all the pitches in his environment. Others, like my daughter, are less extreme. She can identify pitches by ear, but often needs to sing them out loud first.

In my experience, you don't need to do anything beyond exposing young kids to pitch and labeling it for them to develop perfect pitch. They either will or they won't. If they do, you can encourage them to keep practicing it, because like any "muscle," it can be strengthened or weakened with use.

But what you DO need to do as they become tweens and teens is teach them about theory and relative pitch. At age 10, an F# was an actual single entity for my kids. Now, they understand there are a range of F#s depending on context. In other words, they need to be taught relative pitch, and they need to be taught the theory behind it. (This is less important for pianists for obvious reasons.) To do this, we started with scales and worked on it melodically. Then arpeggios, especially the diminished and dominant), as well as starting to work on it harmonically. They have learned the written theory along with it as well.

There are some books that some students might find helpful, like Cellomind or Violinmind. While they aren't necessarily designed for perfect pitch kids, they are great at teaching intonation in both horizonal (melodic) and vertical (harmonic) situations.

Edited: June 26, 2023, 5:44 PM · My goal for pitch is teaching students to listen closely to the relevant harmonies in the ensemble, unless they're playing unaccompanied music. Then they must analyse the role of each note and decide which way it "leans, or leads". This is difficult for some, but of course, they'll only learn it by study.

My thought on Perfect Pitch, is that, as a child, once I thought I didn't have it, I wanted so much to train it in myself, that I drove my parents crazy listening to an A2 on the piano for so long, I eventually found I had it. I chose that note because of the higher overtones, that would be closer to my violin strings.
My view: training can do what you thought was impossible.

June 26, 2023, 6:45 PM · I prefer the term Absolute Pitch (like the French "Absolute Ear") since Perfect Pitch is often confused with perfect intonation.
Some folks with Absolute Pitch sing out of tune because they don't need to listen to others to find their notes; they can be nearly a quarter tone flat or sharp without leaving their selected note.

What I would call "Acquired Absolute Pitch" seems more like the precise memory of a particular timbre: my own violin A at 440Hz, vs the same violin A at 445Hz as I switched regularly from playing with classical piano to Argentine bandoneon.

A colleague with True Absolute Pitch insisted that this form was independent of timbre.

June 27, 2023, 1:39 AM · As someone who suffers from Absolute Pitch (I agree with Adrian that that is a better word) I cannot recommend that you try teaching it.
There are off course situations where it is useful such as:
- finding high notes on the fly when a lot is going on around you making it difficult to find the right note to reference for relative pitch recognition
- keeping your barbershop quartet on pitch by providing a solid base line
- the party trick of naming random notes on the piano
But it is often a nuisance:
- signing up for a baroque course only to find that they tune to 415 Hz
- playing with an organ tuned a quarter step too low
- having to transpose at a choir concert because the conductor just minutes before the concert decides that "this song will sound much better in D flat Major rather than D natural"
- not to mention the horror when the whole choir starts to slide in intonation.
June 28, 2023, 6:26 PM · Perfect Pitch can be pretty useful especially if you need to do any melodic dictation for music theory/musicianship. I feel like though it’s not something that can be developed very easily. I do have perfect pitch but from my experience, sometimes it’s not at all that great to have it. Yes you can recognise a lot of pitches without trying to figure out the notes but whenever I’m reading the alto clef (for viola), I play violin and I am very accustomed to reading the treble clef. So whenever reading the alto clef my mind always struggles to read the correct notes for the alto clef.

It’s not very easy to develop this thing I think. There are pros and cons to having perfect pitch or not having it. Usually if you have played an instrument before age of 10 it is possible to have it but I don’t think it’s something that can be simply developed. It just occurs in some people really. Like Brett from TWOSET tried to get perfect pitch but in the end it never really worked.


June 29, 2023, 2:17 AM · I am an intermediate student and whilst my everyday practice and my lessons with my teacher are helping me a lot I am also finding this course very useful in developing my ear

Of course a teacher could cover what is covered in the course but I find that taking charge of most of my aural learning needs in my own time frees up time in my violin lessons for other technical aspects

Edited: June 29, 2023, 11:16 AM · It literally makes no sense to say that Perfect pitch doesn't help with violin. It's a nearly insurmountable advantage, I'm surprised that there are any violinists at all without perfect pitch. It's literally like trying to be an athlete while being blind, it doesn't make any sense.

First off, you memorize pieces much quicker, and you don't need to look at the score.

Second, and the biggest one is intonation. Intonation for perfect pitch people is like this: 1. you imagine the note 2. train your fingers to go to the correct place, aligning with your mental image until you can do it automatically 3. profit

If you don't have absolute pitch, you've already failed at step one because you can't imagine the note, otherwise you already have perfect pitch. I'm guessing people with no perfect pitch just feel where they are and guess, hoping that they land on the correct spot? If you don't get it close enough the first time you're screwed because now you don't know if the note was too high or too low and you're now lost because you can't hear the special ring you get when you are in tune because you've accidentally overshot or undershot your shift.

Third, you get what is going on in pieces without having to study the score because you can hear what key you're in and instantly figure out how the piece is progressing theorywise with some basic music theory.

It's no wonder why virtually every accomplished violin soloist has absolute pitch without exception, perfect pitch alone is easily worth around 3-5 years of violin training (imo). I think it's one of those things where people who can see don't realize how good it is to have eyes, people who have ears don't know how good it is to be able to hear, and healthy people forget the benefits of not being ill...

One thing I am curious about is, for people without absolute pitch, what happens if you mess up a shift and now you don't know what note you are now on? You know you went too far, but you don't know if you're in G6 or G#6 territory, how do you reorient yourself without a reference?

Edited: June 29, 2023, 4:30 PM · If your "perfect pitch" is based on one tuning system (let's say A=440 Hz), what do you do when you join a group that bases their tuning on A=442 or 415 or "whatever?"

I've only known one really "perfect pitcher." He was Stan Ricker, who played in our orchestra for years. He had been a "Tone Master" recording engineer, widely regarded (google him!). He conducted our orchestra one season and he was able to do one thing I never saw before; he was able to "tune" 4 of our wind players simultaneously, while they were playing. He could tell you not only the pitch of any note but also the frequency of A for that pitch of the note. He could tell the speed of a vehicle by the pitch of the tires on the road, and could identify WW-II propeller airplanes by the pitch of their engines.
That's "absolute perfect pitch."

June 29, 2023, 12:00 PM · For me it is possible to adjust between 440 and 442. But 415 is a real struggle. I acknowledge that there are some advantages to having absolute pitch but there are definitely downsides too. I remember struggling with the concert master solos in Mahler 4 - the ones on a violin tuned up a whole step; "violin in D" basically. I don't think I could cope with playing a transposing instrument like the clarinet.
Edited: June 29, 2023, 4:03 PM · > It's a nearly insurmountable advantage, I'm surprised
> that there are any violinists at all without perfect pitch

This assumption is misguided. I know many musicians with perfect pitch who have a really difficult time coping with the reality of live performance where pitch is relative, and the interval is central. And don't get me started on the numbers of them that go bonkers when having to deal with transposing instruments, historical pitch centers, and different temperaments. There are skills related to being able to generate specific pitches, as well as matching pitch and playing specific qualities of intervals that are the most important variables for musicians.

Having so-called perfect pitch is not going to compensate for not being able to count, producing poor tone quality, or having the personality of a cheese grater. That's why not every single violinist has perfect pitch, and there are many of us with lengthy, successful, and engaging careers who were not born with perfect pitch, but have put in the time and effort to develop a functional equivalent.

I just saw a superb presentation by the Apreggione Ensemble in Boston where they performed on numerous keyboard and string instruments of different historical temperaments. To paraphrase, the existence of numerous pitch systems beyond equal temperament is a wonderful diversity in music, and those that would want to erase the existence of such things because of their insistence on perfect pitch of equal temperament are missing the forest for the trees.

I had to play in a quartet one time with someone who insisted that notes didn't move around, they had perfect pitch, and the note was the note. They didn't care about the function of the note within the greater harmonic context, and they were impossible to play with because they refused to make chords work, to the point they expected the entire ensemble to adjust everything around their note, even when they were not playing the tonic! Frustrating beyond words, and I refused to play with them ever again.

June 29, 2023, 4:07 PM · "It literally makes no sense to say that Perfect pitch doesn't help with violin. It's a nearly insurmountable advantage, I'm surprised that there are any violinists at all without perfect pitch. It's literally like trying to be an athlete while being blind, it doesn't make any sense...."

Practically every claim in this post is ridiculous. And, your analogy to a blind athlete is a bit of offensive sophistry.

There are many skills that a violinist needs--intellectual, emotional, and physical, not to mention a work ethic.

The inability to trill, vibrate beautifully, play with a stead tempo, achieve a high level of spicatto,
play at the exact required contact point, focus for long periods of time, not get nervous, think through problems, play with elegance and grace, understand style and articulation, use muscles efficiently--any of these can cut short a career. There are so many other requirements as well.

The idea that having perfect pitch is up on the list somewhere is frankly ridiculous. If anyone feels that the huge effort to memorize the sound of each pitch is somehow desirable, then go for it.

I think, however, you'd be much better off using that time to practice with a metronome, read a good book on music, record and analyze your playing, or simply practice more in general.

June 29, 2023, 4:39 PM · Relative pitch is far more important than absolute pitch. Intonation is all about intervals, not hitting a particular frequency. Those of us without absolute pitch can correct our intonation without getting lost because we hear the interval from the previous note, and in ensembles we also hear the intervals between ourselves and other people.

That said, I think this discussion has really gotten into the weeds, because OP was asking about training the ears of students who already seem to have some sense of absolute pitch. (I have no insights about this.)

June 29, 2023, 10:08 PM · There are many aspects to this question covered in the responses so far. Perfect pitch is somewhat like playing restless - lots of strong feelings on both subjects.

I was not born with perfect pitch but I have been interested in it for years. I tried the course Jo Parker mentioned and did not find it helpful. To each his own. For me this site was more useful: I have used this to develop some level of "perfect pitch" in adulthood. But I don't have perfect pitch; or at least not "perfect" perfect pitch. My understanding from perusing the internet, which jibes with my experience, is that you can learn absolute pitch to some degree as an adult, but not "perfect" pitch. The difference being the speed of recognition and perhaps the transferability - e.g. can you perfectly identify pitches just within the timbre of one instrument, or can you do so immediately from traffic sounds? The more limited version which can be acquired later is also called true pitch. I find the terms to be terrible!

Perfect pitch of course has nothing to do with intonation when playing. My son has perfect pitch, and he plays out of tune on violin if I don't remind him. However, he can instantly identify any wrong note I play on violin! Watching his perfect pitch development was very interesting. We started him playing piano before he turned 3 years old. His teacher uses the Suzuki method, and all her students learn all the Suzuki repertoire by ear, even after they have learned to read music. (Small aside, there is absolutely no negative impact of this on music reading skills, which are introduced after the student starts reading words. And music reading is practiced using other pieces, along with learning the Suzuki repertoire by ear.) My son naturally began with simple pieces like Twinkle Twinkle. His perfect pitch was apparent fairly early, but it was limited at first to the white keys – which makes a lot of sense. He struggled learning to recognize the black keys as well, but only for a little while. So whatever was going on in his brain had the seed but needed to be trained. Next came multiple notes in succession or as chords. My son’s teacher always does a “guessing game”, which we repeat at home. The student looks away and you play some notes and they “guess” the note(s). As I described, it goes in stages – white keys, all keys, one note at a time, two notes, chords, etc.

I do think this is a useful skill. Not every child will develop perfect pitch this way – it depends on age and aptitude. But I think it will be beneficial for anyone. I have some sympathy for the thought expressed by some that it would be time better spent working on technique than trying to memorize pitches. And for an adult trying to train their ears, it might be more valuable to focus on relative rather than perfect pitch. But for a young student, ear training should be part of the overall musical training. I think violin teachers do not focus on this as much as piano teachers. The instrument is probably not as conducive, but still I think more attention should be paid to this.

Edited: June 30, 2023, 1:18 AM · Those with absolute pitch perception appear to possess an innately perfect memory for the pitch of a sound so they can recognise it when they hear it again, but nobody was ever born knowing that a tone with a fundamental frequency of 440Hz is called "A". Most of us get by rather satisfactorily without ever acquiring that skill. Instead we have a kind of perceptual "constancy" for music across a range of frequencies. I doubt that many composers thought their works would sound different, even wrong, when played a semitone higher or lower than the pitch convention in use at their particular time and place.
Edited: June 30, 2023, 2:24 AM · Those with eidetic memory seem to be able to cope easily with relearning what they know when amendments are forthcoming, yet those with what I take to be eidetic memory for pitch seem to find it impossible to adjust to new situations. Does that indicate that it might be related to autistic phenomena?
Edited: June 30, 2023, 3:51 AM · Having perfect/absolute pitch and playing the violin isn't as straight forward as it sound.

To stick to the topic, train the students to hear the pitch in the head before the sound is pretty much essential, and learn the physical memory and train students to nail the finger position before making a sound. On a more advanced level, train the student to play arpeggios and listen to intervals to intervals, and I love playing scales and arpeggios with my students in different intervals. I would play 3rd higher or 6th lower (I also play chord progressions on the piano as I accompany my students on scales and arpeggios), so my student get exposed to intervals and harmonies more often. I believe this helps students to develop not just pitch awareness in relative to intervals but also they learn to play with another musician.

The ultimate training one can do essentially for free (as everyone has a smartphone to begin with) is to record own playing and listen. The weirdest phenomenon about playing the violin is the pitch perception under the ear can be so different compared to listening as an audience.

June 30, 2023, 11:45 AM · There's a very easy thought experiment to see how important perfect pitch is for the violin: if you lost it one day in exchange for some amount of money, how much, and would you continue playing the violin?

I suspect that no violinist would trade their perfect pitch for any amount of money, or the ability to do a technique they couldn't do before. I also suspect that a violinist with perfect pitch would quit the very next day upon losing it. You're not playing the same instrument without it. Relative pitch is fine and all, but what if you mess up a shift? You can't just randomly play an open string in the middle of a piece to reorient yourself...

June 30, 2023, 1:38 PM · As others have noted, pitch can also cause difficulties.

It can really screw with you when the pitch of the orchestra changes. One orchestra may play at a=430. Another may be at a=442. A third may be a french baroque pitch of a=392.

Sometimes you play at a venue with a piano or organ that is at another pitch.

Sometimes they play in equal temperament. Other times they play in other temperaments.

You have to play at the pitch of the ensemble. But your perfect pitch says the pitch is incorrect. It can be very annoying.

Edited: June 30, 2023, 2:55 PM · > Relative pitch is fine and all, but what if you mess up a shift?

This assumes that shifting is only about the aural component. That's actually the slowest transmitted data while executing a shift, and the one that the audience perceives.

The first is the visual approximation of the location of the target note, followed second by the tactile sensation of the energy expended in the movement, the type of movement and which muscle groups are used, and the contact points of the hand/arm against the instrument.

You seem to be assuming that once someone misses a shift, that they cannot find the note without perfect pitch. That's not the case at all!

June 30, 2023, 4:04 PM · I suspect it's harder for someone with absolute pitch to imagine what it's like for those of us without it, than vice versa.
June 30, 2023, 10:38 PM · R Y, I think you have a misunderstanding of what actual perfect pitch is. Well-trained relative pitch can certainly *seem* like perfect pitch to many people, but it's different.
Edited: July 1, 2023, 12:02 AM · R Y, you're asking us to imagine losing perfect pitch? You might be surprised to learn that most of us have never had it.

Among all the string players I know in person, a significant percentage of whom are professional or semi-pro, exactly two have it.

And although a higher percentage of top soloists have it than the general population, it's absolutely untrue to claim that they all have it; there are many who don't have it, and some of those who have it say it's a handicap at times.

Relative pitch works fine because we don't just forget the sound of every note as soon as we're done playing it. It's entirely natural to think of a whole line of notes in a phrase, rather than individual notes one by one.

July 1, 2023, 1:04 AM · I lost it once, but turns out it was just in the last place I looked.
July 1, 2023, 6:49 PM · I also have a question:

I'm usually able to identify notes that I hear, but it's only because I can remember what an open A sounds like while tuning, and then I just do a quick mental scale to get to the pitch that I'm hearing, and I determine the note from that.

Is this perfect pitch or no? Note that I can do it pretty much any time, even if I haven't recently heard any other notes. To me, this just seems like a highly trained relative pitch.

July 1, 2023, 8:36 PM · Erik that's mostly relative pitch but the fact that you memorized the open A is a bit of absolute pitch.
July 1, 2023, 8:54 PM · And that's where the line is blurred, Gabriel. If I can memorize the sound of a single note and then extrapolate the sound of most other notes, then I can basically pass the same tests that someone with "perfect pitch" could, particularly if I practiced this skill.

So what the heck is perfect pitch? I am tempted to say that it isn't a binary thing, but is simply a spectrum like most other things.

Tone-deaf is one end of the spectrum, and perfect pitch is the other. And we don't seem to have a name for everything that lies between those two extreme ends, which leads to a false dichotomy.

Edited: July 1, 2023, 9:26 PM · Erik, I agree!

I can *usually* pull an A "out of thin air" but only with violin (or viola) timbre.

I can often start a song--whether violin/classical or pop or another sung genre--in the correct pitch and key; but again it's by hearing it in the context of its whole sound, intro, tone, instrumentation. Right now I have Journey "Don't Stop Believing" in my head and I guarantee you if I started singing aloud I'd be right on pitch with Steve Perry, but I have no idea what pitch that is. (I think many more people do this naturally than they realize, btw.) But if you asked me to transpose it to another key I'd have to do it relatively. If you asked me to put it on violin I'd have to translate it to violin sound in my head and I *might* get it right but sometimes I have to guess and check a couple times (and if I think about it too hard I will probably lose it.) What's that? Pitch memory? Timbre memory? Or a whole-sound association?

(By the way, I just tried it in my head, and my quick initial impression was key of A for "Don't Stop Believing", but going a little further and hearing/feeling/imagining it on my instrument I'm pretty sure it's G. Am I right? I may have to go look it up now!)

[Edit: Nope! Off by a lot! But I won't post the proper key here in case anybody else wants to try it! :D ]

Edited: July 2, 2023, 1:05 AM · Yes, there have been numerous occasions when the tune that just came out of my mouth was at the correct pitch, but only when I didn't think about it first! More often the tune that I mull over in my head is correct in its intervals but nonspecific in its pitch.
July 2, 2023, 2:49 PM · I did the test and I passed, Kathryn. E Major.
July 3, 2023, 10:25 AM · I've only ever known one person with perfect pitch and he wasn't even a musician, although there was an old disused piano in his backroom.
Edited: July 12, 2023, 12:19 PM · There's a very interesting theory that children are born with perfect pitch, but almost all of them lose it as a skill that is simply not required. The article I read, many years ago, used the example of a flock of sheep, where it is an essential tool for all lambs to be able to recognise their mother's bleat in amongst a chorus of very similar bleats, and of course for her to be able to recognise her lamb's bleat.

They did a study, the details of which I can't remember exactly, but it involved asking mothers to play a specific tune, Happy Birthday or something like that, to their babies, always in the same key, before an event ( feeding ? can't remember ) where there would be a visible - or audible ? reaction from the baby, Once this reaction was ingrained, the mothers were then asked to play the same tune but in a different key. The babies did not react.

This to me seems perfectly logical. I was born into a household where there was a lot of music, my parents sang all the time around the house, my mum played violin to a middling level, around Grade 5. We listened to records. Aged around 2 I would apparently be lost for ages, sat between the two speakers of the record player with a stack of classical 33s playing one after the other. Any tunes I heard I would sing them in that key, I 'knew' whole symphonies and concertos from very early childhood, could run any piece of music in my head, always fully harmonised, not just the melody. Of course at that stage I didn't know what the note names were, just like learning any other language.

I started to play violin at 7, in a small group of 6 children. After a few weeks I was singled out for individual tuition as I couldn't cope with the other children's out of tune finger placement and I was physically correcting them. My teacher made the mistake of playing tunes to us before wer tried it ourselves, with the result that my sight reading was awful, I didn't need the music after hearing the tune once. I could just play it.

So, I have had many years playing violin, and piano I taught myself the Bach Toccata and fugue in D Minor aged around 10, never having had a lesson. That's what I wanted to play so I just worked it out by ear. As an adult I also learned and taught viola, cello and double bass, and more recently managed to overcome the immense difficulty of playing baroque violin/or viola/or cello at A 415. I do find it confusing after a while to convert forwards and backwards. A at 402 is do able, but I still can't play a piano or keyboard if it's transposed a semitone up or beyond A 415.
I drove a car I owned by the sound of the motor, and I guess I still do to a certain extent. My sight reading is fine now, but I struggled learning harmony as you just don't do anything the same way as someone without perfect pitch. Music dictation and aural was an absolute synch.

An interesting discussion...

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