The Unconservatory  

(The Myth of "Perfect Pitch"..... and How to Get "It," by Kirk Whipple)

V. What "It" Is
Here then is an opportunity for an improvement in our perspective; what our culture collectively — and erroneously — labels as a talent, "perfect pitch" is actually a learnable — and teachable — skill. I, my colleagues and students refer to this practice as "tonal memory." I hope that we will come to know those "rare individuals who possess the talent of perfect pitch" more simply and frequently as "people who have discovered their aptitude for tonal memory." This does not mean that I wish to in any way belittle or disparage the special qualities of those who exhibit this skill (including myself, my wife, her mother and several of my friends). Instead, I wish to open up a useful way of listening and thinking to a wider group of people.

A more complete and accurate description for this seemingly mystical phenomena would be "accurate pitch identification of externally produced tones or reproduction of memorized pitches without the reference of tone producing devices." Or in other words "being able to know the letter name of the tones you hear and whether or not they are flat or sharp to an in-tune musical instrument or accurately singing a given pitch without the aid of a musical instrument." To prove my assertions I offer a series of activities that, while they require some planning and discipline, can produce rewarding results for those willing to try.

Here, for the reader who wishes to explore the innate ability to acquire and assimilate tonal memory into real music making are a few suggestions on how to proceed.

Tools needed: A few pages in a musical notebook and a pitch reference device. A tuner’s oscilloscope is the most accurate, but a reliable (and portable) pitch pipe will do. You can purchase a pitch pipe cheaply at your local music store. It is also good to have easy access to a well tuned piano or keyboard.

The ability to read and notate music will be of considerable help in this study. If you do not read music you have two choices: (1.) Enlist the aid of someone who reads music (and who is very patient) to help you with your upcoming project, or (2.) Start taking basic music lessons now. Between one and three lessons (30 to 60 minutes each) with a competent music teacher at a keyboard is sufficient for most people to learn the basics of notation required for this study. This second option is highly recommended.

As with any musical study, a refined tonal memory takes disciplined practice. In one form or another, those who claim innate "perfect pitch" will have gone through the steps below either consciously or unconsciously. As I find this skill to be only supportive of other more primary musical skills and practices, I advise that the pursuit of advanced tonal memory be undertaken only by serious musicians or hobbyists who would find it extraordinarily fascinating.

Extra credit: Ask a well schooled piano tuner about how equal temperament works if you wish to know more about your reference scale. Extra extra credit: Pick up a copy of Harmonic Experience by W. A. Mathieu ($45.00, Inner Traditions International) and spend some time getting deeper into the subject of harmony.

Next installment:
Developing tonal memory

Other installments:
The Myth of "Perfect Pitch" - 1

The Myth of "Perfect Pitch" - 2

The Myth of "Perfect Pitch" - 3

The Myth of "Perfect Pitch" - 4

The Myth of "Perfect Pitch" - 5

The Myth of "Perfect Pitch" - 6

The Myth of "Perfect Pitch" - 7

The Myth of "Perfect Pitch" - 8

The Myth of "Perfect Pitch" - 9

The Myth of "Perfect Pitch" - 10

The Myth of "Perfect Pitch" - 11

The Myth of "Perfect Pitch" - 12

The Myth of "Perfect Pitch" - 13

The Myth of "Perfect Pitch" - 14

Table of Contents

Links for further exploration of this topic


Please join our Harmonic Experience Forum for discussions related to Harmonic Experience: Tonal Harmony from Its Natural Origins to Its Modern Expression, by W.A. Mathieu (Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions International, 1997)

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Updated: July 25, 2004 (KB)

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