Ear Training: Can You Learn Absolute Pitch?

piano-ology-aural-comprehension-is-absolute-pitch-a-learnable-skill-featuredrd-altmann-from-pixabay Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

The long short answer is “It depends” and requires some explanation…

The honest answer for 99.99% of the population is an emphatic NO!

To that end, I will share five first-hand experiences:

Experience #1: I bought and tried “the” perfect pitch course. Despite a diligent, open-minded effort on my part, it did not work for me. I heard and felt nothing, not even the slightest hint of possibility that I had or might develop the ability to hear pitches as effortlessly as I see colors. I spent dozens of hours over the course of several months giving it an honest hearing, but I did not experience even the faintest glimmer of progress or hope.

Experience #2: Of the hundreds of musicians that I have met or played with over the decades, only four of them had perfect pitch to my knowledge. Two of them claim that they “taught themselves” perfect pitch and that I could, too. Both of them confidently, and independently, suggested the very same procedure: Go to the piano, play middle C, and listen, day after day until you “memorize” what it sounds like, then move on to the next note. I have been giving this an honest effort for several years now, but have yet to hear or feel anything. I do not doubt their veracity. It is quite possible that some people can learn AP, while others cannot. It is also possible that some alleged “learners” of AP already possess a special predisposition for acquiring it without realizing how special they really are.

Experience #3: I took two relative pitch ear training classes at Berklee music school, where I asked three of my professors if AP was a learn-able skill. They did not answer with a crisp yes or no. They each strongly suggested that my time (and anyone’s time) would be much better spent on relative pitch training.

Experience #4: I asked the same professors what percentage of faculty and students at Berklee and in the professional music business possessed AP. They said it was very few, and emphasized that it is not as precious a gift as one might think. They reminded me that even the perfect pitchers need to master many other skills like reading, technique, rhythm, and memory… skills that we all need to master. One of those professors added that, of the perfect pitchers he’s known, many had issues with playing with “soul” and feeling. Again, the bottom line is this: Put your ear training efforts into relative pitch training.

Experience #5: As a serious student of psychology, I did a literature search of all the peer-reviewed AP papers I could find in reputable psychology journals. (I am happy to share them with anyone who is interested). That search yielded two important conclusions:

  • AP is very difficult to study because of it’s rarity and the near impossibility of controlling the independent variables. That said, the general conclusion, based on a combination of anecdotal evidence and controlled experiments, is this: AP requires a rare combination of nature (genetic predisposition) and nurture (early musical exposure and training) to blossom. But, even then, it develops in varying degrees.
  • I have yet to find any reputable research that demonstrates that perfect pitch can be learned after early childhood. Such widely-accepted, peer-reviewed research holds the most water in my book. If you know of any research to the contrary, please let me know. (Note: to date, nobody has come forward)

Closing Thoughts. My experiences above have convinced me that I do not have Absolute Pitch and that I am not capable of learning AP, but I would never discourage anyone else from taking the time to give AP an honest chance themselves. You might pleasantly discover that you have the gift. And should you discover that you have AP, be grateful. It is a very rare and special gift indeed. That said, you still need to work on your RP! And if you do not have AP, do not despair. The majority of wonderful musicians do not have it. While it provides enormous advantages in certain situations to the select few who do possess it, such a gift by no means makes one musical. Musicianship is much more than the ability to hear the color of every note that enters your ears. Just because you can recognize the colors of the rainbow doesn’t mean you are destined to become a great painter. Even those with AP have plenty of other musical challenges to overcome, just like the rest of us.

learn more… Ear Training Recommendations