The Unconservatory  

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

VI. Getting "It"
In my teaching method there are three steps to the process of bettering your tonal memory:

  1. Labeling pitches in your environment,
  2. Matching and practicing your "environmental library of pitches," and
  3. Regularly testing your growing abilities to correctly identify and reproduce pitches.

1: Labeling pitches in your environment
Begin by finding as many devices and objects in your environment that produce tones of definite pitch. Let’s call these "environmental tone referencing instruments" or "instruments" for short. Here are a few, for example: the microwave oven, your wristwatch alarm, the alarm by your bedside, the doorbell (many doorbells are a sequence of two or more distinct tones), a favorite wine glass, the boops and beeps inside your car, your car horn (careful — most standard car horns use at least two simultaneous pitches), the start-up tone(s) for your computer and other office devices, a school bell or intercom signal tone... anything that makes an identifiable and — very important — consistently precise tone. Depending upon battery strength or reliability of current, electronic devices tend to be the best reference instruments. This is due to their usual tonal accuracy and lack of acoustic complexity.

Find the precise pitches of each of your instruments. You can accomplish this by repeatedly checking the instrument tones against your pitch reference device. (Hereafter let’s just say that you are going to carry a pitch pipe!) Be sure to recheck these "reference tones" on a weekly basis against your pitch pipe; different factors can cause instruments of all varieties to change pitch. Depending upon the instrument and the particular environmental factors these changes in pitch can vary from unnoticeable to extreme. Also, be sure to recheck your pitch pipe against another reference device such as a tuning fork or oscilloscope. You want as few variables as possible in your study! If you have access to (and know how to use) an oscilloscope you can even ascribe a specific frequency to each pitch. If you have any trouble matching the pitches of the instruments to those of your pitch pipe you will need the assistance of a musical teacher or piano tuner whose sense of tuning you trust.

Catalogue the pitches of each instrument in your note book. Notate the actual pitches (including the specific octave) of each instrument on musical staff paper. For example, you do not just want to know that your doorbell starts on a C, then goes up to A, then down to F. You want to know that all three tones are (again, for example) between "middle C" and the A above "middle C." It is of further importance that you know how flat or sharp each pitch is to your pitch pipe and piano / keyboard!

For example, you may find several instruments that produce slightly different "E’s." Perhaps the E of your favorite wine glass is slightly higher in pitch than the E of your doorbell; and then maybe the pitch of your back yard wind chime is in between these two. This discrimination may be a bit tough at first, but you will come to appreciate that tonal memory is not a quiz with a small set of finite answers but, rather, a rainbow with different hues and shades to continually rediscover. The familiar objects in your universe gradually and certainly assume more vibrant qualities. Your wine glass is your "bright E," the wind chime in the back yard becomes "very middle E," and friends greet you at your front door with "dark E" and his friend "everyday C!"

After a while it should not be very difficult for you to find at least two octaves of pitches in consecutive half steps and label them in your staff notebook. Please note that most pitch pipes do not have more than one full octave of tones, so you will have to transpose octaves.

2. Matching and practicing your "library of environmental pitches"
Let’s call your growing collection of identifiable pitches your own personal "library of environmental pitches." After the initial process of learning these tones and logging them in your notebook you will want to commit the list to memory. This part of your study will be easy if you consciously take time to do it. You need to actively associate each of the tones you have carefully collected with the corresponding pitch name in the present.

For example, in the moment that the doorbell sounds you must think "dark E" and "everyday C." When your microwave burrito is ready you must think "G sharp," dinner’s ready. When you toast with your favorite wine glass filled you must remind yourself that it will return to "bright E" after the last drop. (Before that it may drop to D or D sharp.) Get it? You don’t need to do more than this, but this you must do. The point is that, at some level, you already know the frequencies of these sounds, but perhaps you have not yet named them.

3. Regular testing of your growing abilities to correctly identify and reproduce pitches
So, you think you’ve got "it"? Give yourself a test. Walk over to each of your reference instruments. Try to imagine the sound of each one before setting it off. Try to hear the microwave "G sharp." Can you sing the tone? Try it...Then press the button! You will receive instant feedback. Were you high? low? close? right on? Can you get it right the first time or does it take a few tries? Do you need to have your music teacher present to be sure? You will have to answer these and other questions as your ability to discriminate frequencies grows.

Next installment:
Using your voice as a teacher

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

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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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