Learning Relative Pitch and Perfect Pitch (Sight Singing)

Relative pitch is the ability to identify a note, given a reference. Perfect pitch (also called absolute pitch) is the ability to identify a note without being given a reference note. How good you are is determined by how accurately you can reproduce a pitch, how quickly you can identify a note, and how many notes you can identify when they are played simultaneously. People with good perfect pitch will instantly (within 3 seconds)identify 10 notes played simultaneously as a chord. The standard test for absolute pitch uses 2 pianos; the teacher sits at one and the student at the other, and the student tries to repeat the note played by the teacher. If there is only one piano, the student names the note played by the teacher (do, re, mi . . . . or C, D, E, . . ..). In the following exercises you can use either system; there is no real advantage of using one over the other. However, once you choose one system, don't use the other one until you have acquired a strong perfect pitch because the use of two systems can add unnecessary confusion and slow down your learning. I use the doremi system because the alphabet system is used in so many other places that the doremi system is less confusion. Nobody is born with relative or perfect pitch; these are learned skills. This is because the chromatic scale is a human invention - there is no physical relationship between the pitches of the chromatic scale and nature. The only physical relationship between the chromatic scale and the ear is that both operate on a logarithmic scale in order to accommodate a large frequency range. The effect of the logarithmic human hearing is that the ear hears a large difference in pitch between 40 and 42.4 Hz (a semitone or 100 cents), but hears almost no difference between 2000Hz and 2002.4 Hz (about 2 cents), for the same difference of 2.4 Hz. The human ear responds to all frequencies within its range and is not calibrated on an absolute scale at birth. This is in contrast to the eye, which responds to color on an absolute scale (everyone sees red as red) because color detection is achieved using chemical reactions that respond to specific wavelengths of light. Some people who can identify certain pitches with specific colors can acquire perfect pitch by the color that the sound evokes. They are effectively calibrating the ear to an absolute reference.

Perfect and relative pitch are best learned in very early youth. Babies who cannot understand a single word will respond appropriately to a soothing voice or a lullaby or an angry sound, which demonstrates their readiness for musical training. The best way for toddlers to acquire perfect pitch is to be exposed almost daily to well tuned pianos from birth. Therefore, every parent who has a piano should keep it tuned and play it for the baby from birth. Then they should test the child from time to time for perfect pitch. This test can be performed by playing a note (when the child is not looking) and then asking her/im to find that note on the piano. If the child can find it after several tries, s/he has relative pitch; if s/he can find it the first time every time, s/he has perfect pitch. The particular temperament to which the piano is tuned (equal, Well temperament, etc.) is not important; in fact most people with perfect pitch know nothing about temperaments and when notes on pianos tuned to different temperaments are played, they have no trouble in identifying the notes. Perfect pitch and relative pitch can be acquired later in life but becomes more difficult after age 20 to 30. In fact, even those with perfect pitch will slowly lose it starting around age 20, if it is not maintained. Many piano schools routinely teach perfect pitch to all their students. Although the success rate is not 100%, over 90% of the students succeed. The problem with teaching a group of older students is that there is always a certain percentage of "pitch deprived" students who had never been trained in pitch and who will have difficulty learning even relative pitch.

Babies can hear right after birth. Many hospitals routinely screen babies immediately after birth in order to identify hearing impaired babies who will need special treatments immediately. Because the hearing impaired babies do not receive sound stimuli, their brain development is retarded; this is another evidence that music can help brain development. For babies, the memory of external sound in the brain is initially empty. Thus any sound heard at that stage is special, and all subsequent sounds are referenced to those initial sounds. In addition, babies (of most species, not only humans) use sound to identify and bond to the parents (usually the mother). Of all the sound characteristics that the baby uses for this identification, absolute pitch is probably a major characteristic. These considerations explain why almost every youngster can readily pick up absolute pitch. Some parents expose babies to music before birth to accelerate the babies' development, but I wonder if this will help perfect pitch, because the sound velocity in amniotic fluid is different from that in air with a resultant change in apparent frequency. Therefore, this practice might confuse the perfect pitch, if it works at all. For implanting perfect pitch, the electronic piano is better than an acoustic because it is always in tune.

Having perfect pitch is clearly an advantage. It is a great help for memorizing, sight reading, and recovering from blackouts, and for composing music. You can be the pitch pipe for your choir, and easily tune a violin or wind instrument. It is a lot of fun because you can tell how fast a car is going by just listening to the tires whine, you can tell the differences between different car horns and locomotive whistles, especially by noting whether they use thirds or fifths. You can remember telephone numbers easily by their tones. However, there are disadvantages. Music played off tune does not sound right. Since so much music is played off tune, this can present quite a problem. The person can sometimes react strongly to such music; physical reactions such as teary eyes or clammy skin can occur. Transposed music is OK because every note is still correct. Out-of-tune pianos become difficult to play. Perfect pitch is a mixed blessing.

There is a method that makes learning relative and perfect pitch quick and easy! This method is not generally taught at music schools or in the literature, although it has been used by those with perfect pitch (usually without their explicit knowledge of how they acquired it), since the beginning of music. With the method described here, the pitch skills become simple by-products of the memory process. You expend little extra effort to acquire pitch recognition because memorizing is necessary anyway, as explained in III.6. In that section we saw that the final objective of memorizing is to be able to play the music in your mind (mental playing). It turns out that, by paying attention to relative and perfect pitch during the process of practicing mental playing, you naturally acquire the pitch skills! Thus, you do not only play music in your mind, but you must always play it at the correct pitch. This makes perfect sense because, without playing at the correct pitch, you lose so many of the benefits of mental play. For most, memorizing two significant compositions is sufficient to acquire perfect pitch to within a semi-tone, which is faster than any known method being taught today; for most, this should take a few weeks to a few months. Young children will accomplish this with zero effort, almost automatically; as you grow older, you will need more effort to cultivate perfect pitch because of all the other confusing sounds that are already in memory. In the following paragraphs, I will flesh out the details of how this is done. It may be helpful to read section III.6, and especially III.6j.

Therefore, the fastest way to learn relative/perfect pitch is to practice playing music in your mind at the correct pitch. Most schools teach pitch recognition by training students to sing their solfege lessons at the correct pitch. However, practicing in your mind is a more powerful and useful method than singing out loud because you are not limited by your singing abilities. I am not saying that solfege and singing are useless; they are necessary for learning the basics of music, and every pianist should learn some solfege if at all possible. What I am saying is that mental play is an even more necessary skill, which is often neglected by teachers. One of the reasons why teachers neglect this is that when you are playing music in your mind, the teacher cannot hear it. The assumption in solfege is that when you finish the solfege lessons, you will have learned perfect pitch, etc., and therefore, be able to play in your mind. But that takes too long, and can waste a lot of time because solfege lessons extend over many years. Mental play is such a necessary skill that it should be taught, starting at the first few piano lessons. Teaching early is critical, especially for youngsters, because learning pitch recognition rapidly becomes more difficult with age. The teacher can "hear" the effects of mental play by the benefits it bestows on memory, reduction in flubs, perfect pitch, compositional skills, etc.

Two useful pieces for practicing relative/perfect pitch are, Bach's Invention #1 and Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata, 1st Movement. The Moonlight has compelling melodies that make the memorizing process easy and enjoyable. Yet the complex chord transitions provide a variety of notes and intervals and the complexity prevents you from guessing the notes -- you need a considerable amount of practice and repetition before you can play it in your mind perfectly. It is also technically simple enough for everybody. The Bach Invention gives you middle C (its first note) and the C Major scale; these are the most useful note and scale to recognize in perfect pitch. Both compositions should be practiced HS for pitch practice. Later on, you should try HT in your mind, at least for the Moonlight which is easier.

Start with the Bach; the objective here is to master all the white keys first. As you memorize it and practice playing it in your mind, pay attention to each note and every interval: a semi-tone, a full note, a third, fifth, etc. The first 4 RH notes give you doremifa, 2 full tones and a semi-tone. Practice relative and absolute pitch at the same time; therefore, listen to the notes in your mind: the music, the emotions, the visualization of the keyboard, etc., will all help you to place the notes very close to the correct pitches on the piano. Here again, playing musically will be very beneficial. With practice, any error will decrease progressively with time. Therefore, test yourself at the piano frequently at first, and measure your progress.

When creating notes in your mind as you play the music, do not try to hum or sing them using the vocal chords because the dynamic range of the piano is much larger than your singing range and you need to train the mind to deal with these higher and lower notes. Also, the memory of each note for perfect pitch must initially include everything -- the harmonics, timbre, and other characteristics of your piano -- you need as many memory associations as possible in order to hasten the memory process. Therefore, use the same piano until you feel that you have perfect pitch and try to memorize every characteristic of your piano sound. Unless you have an electronic piano, you will need to make sure that the piano is not out of tune. Once you acquire a strong perfect pitch, it will work with any source of sound. Unless you are a trained singer who can sing on pitch (in which case you don't need to practice perfect pitch), you will not be able to accurately reproduce the pitch you hear in the mind. The resultant incorrect sound from the vocal chords will confuse the brain and destroy any absolute pitch that you might have acquired. The perfect pitch you initially acquire is fragile and you will probably gain and lose it several times. Just as playing in the mind frees the pianist from the limitations of the piano, mental play (instead of singing them) frees you from the limitations of the vocal chords. Our brains are incredibly powerful and, as musicians, we must learn to use all its powers, free from any artificial limitations. Too many people make the mistake of thinking that their brains have imaginary limits, thus missing out on many natural capabilities of the brain (such as perfect pitch).

After you have completely memorized the Bach, and can play the entire piece in your mind, start memorizing the C major scale in absolute pitch, the C4-C5 octave. Concentrate on learning C4; every time you walk by the piano, try to guess C4 and test it. You can try to recall just a single C4, but you will have more success if you mentally play the first few bars of the Bach, and concentrate hard on how it sounds on the piano. You can succeed with only the C4, by concentrating on exactly how it sounds at the piano, but it is easier with real music. After a few days of intense practice, start testing your pitch recognition by playing notes randomly all over the piano (without looking at the piano) and trying to guess what they are. At first, you may fail miserably. There are just too many notes on the piano. In order to improve your success rate, guess the notes by referencing to the C4-C5 octave. If you press C2, you should recognize it as C4, two octaves down. When you hear a low note, bring it up in octaves until it is in the C4-C5 range. In this way, you reduce the task of memorizing 88 notes on the keyboard to just 8 notes and one interval (octave). This simplification is possible because of the logarithmic nature of the chromatic scale; further simplification of the octave using smaller intervals is not profitable because of the strange nature of the octave. Acquaint yourself with all the notes on the piano by playing them in octaves and training the mind to recognize all octave notes of the same key; all octave C's, D's, etc. Until you gain some rudimentary absolute pitch, you will need to perform most of your practice at the piano so that you can correct yourself as soon as you wander off key. Do not practice mentally with the wrong pitch for extended periods; always have the piano nearby to correct yourself. You can start practicing more away from the piano as soon as you can keep the pitch as long as you have the first note right.

Then memorize the Moonlight and start work on the black keys. Successful pitch recognition depends strongly on how you test yourself at the piano. You should be able to think of any number of ways to test, but I will describe some so that you get an idea of how to create your own. Let's use the first 3 RH notes of the Moonlight. Memorize the sound of these notes in your mind and try to recall them later. At first, you might be several notes off if you had not touched the piano for a few hours. With practice, this error will decrease. See if you can get the first note (G#) right when you first sit down at the piano. Practice relative pitch by first making sure that one note is correct (say the second note -- C#) by checking it on the piano, then mentally play a half tone down -- middle C, and check it with the piano. Go to the 3rd note -- E, check it, come down a full tone -- D, and check it. Now go back to the first note (G#), come down half a step (G) and then, mentally, go all the way up to C4 and check it. When you test your absolute pitch after not playing the piano for a while, see if you tend to be too high or too low. See if you can compensate for this error the next time. Another way of testing is to make sure that you start on the right note by checking it with the piano, then mentally play the music for while and then check the last note you played mentally. Most people find that they tend to go flat.

Progress may seem slow at first, but your guesses should get closer with practice. Then suddenly, one day, you should experience that magical moment when you are able to identify any note on the piano, without using the center octave as a reference. Until you experience this, you do not really have perfect pitch; your guesses will not always be close, and you can easily lose it. If that magic happens, strengthen your perfect pitch by practicing to identify the notes as rapidly as you can. The strength of your perfect pitch is measured by the speed with which you can identify notes. After that, start practicing with 2-note chords, then 3, etc. Once you have a strong perfect pitch, you can practice humming the notes, and singing on pitch. That's about all the instruction you need! Congratulations, you have done it!

The biological mechanism underlying perfect pitch is not well understood. It appears to be entirely a memory function. Therefore, in order to truly acquire perfect pitch, you will need to change your mental habits, just as you have to, when memorizing. In memorizing, we saw that the change you needed was to develop a mental habit of constantly inventing associations (the more outrageous or shocking, the better!) and repeating them automatically in the brain. For good memorizers, this process occurs naturally, or effortlessly, and that is why they are good. The brains of poor memorizers either become quiescent when not needed, or wander into logical or other interests instead of performing memory work. People with perfect pitch tend to make music mentally; music keeps running around in their heads, whether it is their own compositions or music they had heard. This is why most people with perfect pitch automatically start to compose music. The brain always returns to music when it has nothing else to do. Therefore, once you learn mental playing, you may find yourself playing music in your head a lot more than you used to do. This is probably a helpful prerequisite to acquiring perfect pitch. This explains why you acquire perfect pitch all of a sudden, just as you acquire technique or quiet hands all of a sudden. You reach this point at which there are enough reference melodies in your head so that you can accurately reference your pitch. In that case, there is nothing absolute about absolute pitch -- which seems to be true. Those with perfect pitch are always adjusting their pitch because they tend to be sharp or flat at different times. If they go flat, then, how do they know? The answer is music! They play some critical music mentally, and it will sound wrong unless the pitch is right. That is why the method described here is the "natural" and probably the only way to really learn perfect pitch. That is, you need to be an experienced mental player before you can gain absolute pitch. You can't just go to the piano for a few seconds 10 times a day, practice perfect pitch, and expect to learn it if you don't keep doing it mentally while away from the piano, for a good fraction of your time. Therefore, as with memorization, the hardest part of learning absolute pitch is not the practice, but the changing of your mental habits. In principle, it's easy -- just start mental playing as much as you can.

This easy way to naturally acquire perfect pitch illustrates the importance of mental play. That is how everybody who "was born with perfect pitch" acquired it! Mozart had to play music in his mind because it was so necessary to practically everything he did -- for memorizing, for perfect performances, for composing, for dealing with music all day whether he had access to a piano or not, for saving enormous amounts of time, and a zillion other reasons. What I am saying is that mental play frees the musician from the physical/mechanical limitations of musical instruments and endows her/im with new powers. Now we can understand how youngsters, just by listening to music, can acquire perfect pitch -- they naturally tend to repeat the music in their minds, because there are few other sounds in their heads at this stage.

We saw above that you can start to lose perfect pitch after about age 20, if it is not maintained. Again, the explanation is simple: our lives become more complex as we age, and we have less time to devote to mentally playing music. We also tend to fill our minds with confusing sounds outside the chromatic scale.

Our method of memorizing using mental play needs to be periodically maintained as part of the memory maintenance program. This program automatically performs maintenance on pitch recognition. You only need to check, from time to time, that your mental play is on pitch. This too, should happen automatically because you should always mentally play at least the beginning of every piece just before actually playing it at the piano. By first playing it in your mind, you ensure that the speed, rhythm, and expression are correct. Music sounds more exciting when you mentally lead it, and less exciting if you play it and wait for the piano to make the music.

Note the similarities between "memorizing before you learn" (III. 6) which saves a lot of time and at the same time results in superior memory, and learning pitch by "playing in your mind" which also saves time and results in more powerful perfect pitch. The conventional methods of learning perfect pitch (described below) generally start with learning one note, and expanding the range using relative pitch. In our method, we learn the entire keyboard at once. This makes sense because that is the end product you want. Not only do you learn perfect pitch, but you also learn the location of that note on the keyboard (because it is combined with keyboard memory). Knowing the location of every note on the keyboard will become an indispensable skill when you start composing and improvising. We have come to the realization that, in the past, many students could not advance to concert level pianists because they were never taught mental playing.

This method works because learning pitch is a memory process. Moreover, memory is an associative process (read III.6). By playing and remembering the entire music, you instantly create a huge number of associations (melody, rhythm, emotions, keyboard location, fingering, music structure, etc.) with every note -- this huge number of associations make the exact pitch impossible to forget -- any wrong note is guaranteed to violate some association. Now that we have learned the fastest way, let's examine some conventional methods. These will be useful as supplemental exercises to help you better execute the faster method.

Conventional methods of learning perfect pitch take a long time, typically more than 6 months, and often, much longer. One way to start is by memorizing one note. You might pick A440 because you hear it every time you go to a concert and can perhaps recall it most easily. However, A is not a useful note for getting to the various chords of the C major scale, which is the most useful scale to memorize. Therefore, pick C, E, or G, whichever you tend to remember best; C is probably the best. Your accuracy may be atrocious in the beginning; you might be easily off by 3 or 4 semitones, but it should improve with time. Devise ways to increase your accuracy. One way is to identify the highest and lowest notes you can hum; for me, they are F3 and F5. In that case, F4 may be the best note to memorize. By trying to sing one octave up or down, you can find out if your F4 is too high or too low; if you started with F4 that was too high, you can't hum F5. If you practice that single note every day, at least once a day, you will eventually learn it. Of course, you can try several notes at once.

Then learn the C major scale. Given middle C (C4), can you sing all the other notes in the octave (white keys) up to C5? Given any note, can you sing another note, one full tone or a semitone up or down? Can you start with any note between C4 and C5 and sing up to C5 or down to C4? Check frequently with the piano. Next, learn the chromatic scale. Then learn the intervals: given any note, can you sing a third, fourth, fifth, or octave up or down? Learning relative pitch is fairly easy for most piano students because they have heard the scales and intervals so many times. For non-singers, it may be easier to just imagine the notes instead of actually singing them. Practice these exercises first at the piano and then away from the piano.

You can now graduate to sight singing actual music. Read some easy pieces, without the piano and see if you can play the music correctly in your mind. You might begin using music you already know, to make it easier to start. Then gradually practice on music you never played before. If you do not have absolute pitch yet, always use the piano to help you start at the correct note. Do not practice relative pitch using the wrong absolute pitch. How long it takes to learn relative pitch and sight singing depends greatly on the individual and can vary from weeks to over 6 months. After enough practice, congratulations! You have acquired relative pitch that is not only useful in its own right, but will also be helpful in sight reading.

The standard way to learn absolute pitch in music classes is via the solfege (singing exercises) route. Solfege books are readily available in stores or over the internet. It consists of increasingly complex series of exercises involving different scales, intervals, time signatures, rhythms, accidentals, etc, for voice training. It also covers pitch recognition and dictation. Solfege books are best used in a class environment with a teacher. Absolute pitch is taught as an adjunct to these exercises by learning to sing them at the correct pitch. Therefore, there are no special methods for acquiring absolute pitch -- you just repeat until the correct pitch is implanted in memory.

In summary, every pianist must learn perfect pitch because it is so easy, useful, and even necessary in many situations. Perfect pitch will not only help you to avoid flubs, but also to recover from them. Learning perfect pitch is inseparably associated with playing in your mind. Mental play frees you from having to sit at the piano in order to play your favorite pieces, and you can practice anywhere, at any time. Most importantly, mental playing is what enables you to transition from an amateur pianist to a true musician with the potential to advance to the concert level.