Can Perfect Pitch Be Learned?

In a June 11 article in the Wall Street Journal, Heidi Mitchell asked the question, “Can Perfect Pitch Be Learned?” In the excerpts quoted below she explained:

“Relatively few people in history—even musical virtuosos—have been known to possess perfect pitch, the ability to identify or reproduce any musical note without having another note with which to compare it. Mozart was said to be one of those people. Ella Fitzgerald was another. The trait is so rare, it is estimated that only 1 in 10,000 people can tell an F-sharp from a B-flat in Western cultures, where the gift has been widely studied. But can perfect pitch, also known as absolute pitch, be learned?” 

“Until recently, no evidence of an adult acquiring perfect pitch had been documented. But a 2013 study published in Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience showed adults could gain the trait with the help of valproic acid, a drug used to treat seizures and migraines.”

“Even with years of training, not everyone can learn to identify an A4 note from a G4, says Dr. Joseph P. Bradley, an otolaryngologist, ‘but almost anyone can learn to hear if a note is in or out of tune.’ Whether learning a tonal language as an adult can lead to acquiring absolute pitch has yet to be proven. ‘It’s a fascinating idea,’ he says, ‘but even if you don’t have perfect pitch, you can still enjoy music.’”


The definition of perfect pitch is tricky. 440 Hertz - beats per second - which we assign as universally accepted frequency of the note A is not so standard as we may think. Here is Fred T. Abdella writing in the New York Times of Aug 13, 1989:

The A used by most symphony and opera orchestras today for uniform tuning ranges between 440 hertz, or cycles per second, to 444 hertz. By comparison, in 1740, Handel favored an A pitched at 422 hertz. Mozart, in 1780, tuned to an A at 421.6 hertz. The French standardized their A at 435 hertz in 1858. A little more than 20 years later, Verdi succeeded in getting a bill passed by the Italian Parliament to tune at A 432 hertz. 

In 1938, an international standard for A was set at 440 hertz, but the pitch continued to rise. The New York Philharmonic, under Zubin Mehta, tunes to an A at 442 hertz, as does the Chicago under Georg Solti and the Boston Symphony under Seiji Ozawa. In Berlin, orchestras tune to an A around 448 hertz. In Moscow, the symphony’s pitch is even higher, near 450 hertz.

So when we say someone has perfect pitch today we’re not sure what we mean.

Relative pitch is much more important that perfect pitch; it refers to hearing intervals accurately. A conductor must be able to tell if someone in the orchestra is flat or sharp in relation to other instruments, and chamber groups devote great attention to staying in tune with each other by adjusting intonation. 


The ability to name notes and tonalities does not bring us closer to the music. We can admire the music more, and being able to follow the keys the composer takes us through does give pleasure: we observe a display of harmonic skill, and enter into the structure of the music as it moves along. But this is purely an intellectual process and distracts from absorbed listening. We will have admired more and listened less. Perfect pitch permits analysis, but analysis kills enjoyment. Admiration interrupts involvement.

Fortunately, the emotional content of the music, the arc of the composer’s expressive statement in sound, can be experienced without the need for external information. We need not have studied color theory to be moved by a Van Gogh landscape or a Rembrandt face. Music speaks to all who listen attentively.


When I was 7 years old, growing up in a Long Island suburb of New York City, I used to bang out children’s songs on the piano with one finger, as well as melodies from show-tunes I heard on our 33 rpm recordings.

After a while I learned the names of the notes and as a game for my friends would ask them to play a note on the piano and I would identify it correctly. They thought this was magic.

Eventually I could name up to three notes played at a time—mashed together or spread out over the keyboard. I was successful only when piano notes were played. I could not identify sung pitches or notes played on any other instrument.

Nor could I produce a note if you asked me to sing it. Mine was a kind of passive gift: correctly identifying a note on the piano.

When I was twenty, I was accepted as a conducting student by Hermann Scherchen for two years in Switzerland. Scherchen made us memorize the music we were studying, and then sing it to him. Each of us—there were three at the time—had a tuning fork that sounded the A, to insure that we sang in the right key of the piece—mine was the first Brandenburg Concerto of Bach. I remember another had the Stravinsky “Pulcinella Suite.” We also used the tuning fork as a check after singing a few pages or a whole movement of a work to test whether we had stayed on key.

We all carried those tuning forks wherever we went, challenging each other out on the streets: sounding them against wooden fences, door posts, or our own heads, to prove that what we were singing was accurate.

I banged the fork and held it up to my ears so many times during the weeks and months, that eventually I could simply bang my second and third fingers on a table without the tuning fork, hold them up to my ear, and imagine the A. I no longer needed the tuning fork, except to confirm from time to time what I heard in my inner ear and to win bets with the others.

I had taught myself complete perfect pitch. I could also produce a pitch when asked, and was now able to identify sounds on other instruments, including symphony orchestras.

This joyful ability did not last forever. At the age of fifty, I discovered I was beginning to hear music a half-step higher. I don’t know where this disturbing change came from, but others—pianist and writer Charles Rosen, and composer Virgil Thomson, for example—reported similar shifts, eventually rising in old age to as much as a whole step or more.

However, it is not too bad an impediment. Well-schooled musicians that we are, when the Eroica symphony of Beethoven sounds like it is being played in E-Major instead of E-flat, we just transpose what we’re hearing down a half-step, and there is the Beethoven we love.


for Heidi Mitchell’s Wall Street Journal complete article go to
Can Perfect Pitch Be Learned? - WSJ

Attention, Music Lovers

Music has always played a double role for us. It rewards attentive listening with stirring accounts of our inner lives, but it also serves as accompaniment to daily activities— from chatting at a bar, to slicing vegetables, to struggling with writing a novel.

The use of music as background accompaniment has a long history. As early as the tenth century, groups of wandering students—the jongleurs and goliards—performed secular songs at weddings and other court celebrations while the jolly party-goers talked and laughed as they ate and drank.

By the seventeenth century, composers were often commissioned to provide music as background for social occasions. In 1617 the German composer Johann Schein, influenced by the new Italian style of Monteverdi, wrote his “Banchetto musicale,” a series of pieces to be played during banquets as the title suggests. Georg Philipp Telemann, in 1733, published his famous “Tafelmusik”—literally, music for the table—dozens of light-hearted suites, sonatas, and chamber works calculated to amuse the guests at gala dinners. Even Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven contributed “divertimenti”—music for assorted groups of winds, brass, and strings—to provide a pleasant atmosphere at social gatherings. As if to validate the secondary role of this music, Mozart rescored an aria from “The Marriage of Figaro” for instruments only, and put the players onstage to entertain Don Giovanni at his fatal last dinner.

In twentieth-century America, the use of music in the background became big business. By the 1930s, the Muzak corporation had installed recorded music in offices, and soon developed energetic fifteen-minute segments to stimulate worker productivity in factories. Muzak's website proclaimed:


The idea of background music so enchanted President Eisenhower, that in 1952 he ordered music to be piped into the entire West Wing of the White House.

Today we cannot escape background music in public places. It assaults us in stores and restaurants, wherever there is something to sell. Where would television commercials be without music to help hawk their cars and medications? (Try watching without the sound.)

We have also let background music into our homes and studios. If we want our kids to study without the distraction, they protest. They say it helps them concentrate! I've read that the American artist Charles Burchfield could not paint without a giant Mahler Symphony urging him on in the background. We don't know if he ever really listened.

I wonder how centuries of artists and writers created their works of genius without the benefit of music to accompany their work, though some may have hired a local lutenist or harpsichord player to ease them along. What would the Sistine Chapel look like today if a band of musicians had been soothing Michelangelo as he worked on the ceiling high above them?

It's difficult to break the habit of using music as an accompaniment to other activities, to remain attentive, but it is worth the try, and you don’t need special training to follow the story of the music as it unfolds. I tell my friends that listening to background music is not listening at all; it is simply hearing—the physical registration of sounds in the brain. Listening requires active participation. When we are distracted, the composer's narrative is broken. Think of a Shakespeare sonnet without its middle lines, or a Rembrandt self-portrait, his heart-rending smile of resignation torn away.

Worse yet: in films, the expressive power of the greatest music can be destroyed by the images the music is forced to accompany. You will suffer with the viewer of Robert Bresson's film “Au Hasard Balthazar,” for whom Schubert's profound piano sonata No. 20 was ruined by its use as accompaniment to the pathetic story of Balthazar, a badly mistreated donkey.

I am particularly troubled by a celebrated surgeon I know who specializes in pediatric spinal operations, each one requiring seven or eight hours of laser-like concentration on those tiny vertebrae and thread-like nerves. The head nurse in the operating room complains that the music he insists on playing during the operation—jazz and popular songs from the sixties—is the loudest she has ever experienced in any operating room. The rest of the team find it painfully disturbing—they strain to hear his commands—but the surgeon will not lower the level of the music. He claims he absolutely needs that atmosphere in order to concentrate for so many hours. It relaxes him, keeps him positive. All my arguments with him fail: I am stumped. I cannot see what he gains from so much noise. And yet he remains one of the most successful practitioners of this highly specialized—and dangerous—surgical procedure. So I hope he keeps his music as loud as he wants.


It wasn't too long ago that background music was only available from a fixed location—in restaurants and offices, or at home on the radio or a phonograph record. The influx of portable devices has brought the internet out into the world. Now, with the arrival of cell phones and other portable devices, our downloaded favorites can accompany us wherever we go—anywhere, any time.

In a New York Times article of July 6, 2015, Jane Brody quoted from a documentary film called “Web Junkie,” which says that for many listeners, earphone music is beginning to dominate their experience of daily life, relegating the outside real world to a role of accompaniment. For these people the music no longer functioned as background: “MANY COME TO SEE THE REAL WORLD AS FAKE.”

Most people do not use their earphones non-stop throughout the day. They take them off from time to time and put them back in again. This shift from one reality to another creates a confusing sense of an interrupted flow of time. As life adjusts to these disconnected fragments, our brains adapt in various ways. One results in the fracturing of language: we learn to speak and write in hurried shortcuts, half-sentences and coded abbreviations, discarding nuance in favor of speed and simplification. Text messages are compressed into the briefest communication possible; tweets are limited to 140 characters.

It should not be surprising then, that such disjointed communication begins to affect the nature of our relationships with others. Developing closeness requires more patience and attention than a constantly distracted consciousness can give. As we become more easily impatient with each other, the developing pathways to intimacy on which lasting bonds must be built are cut short. We give up, drifting from one attachment to another.

Sadly, the inability to sustain focus and to connect, can lead to more painful feelings of isolation from the larger life of a community. Might it not also contribute to other forces at work in a dangerous unraveling of our social and political bonds?

Behind the Baton

Until the age of television it was only possible to observe a conductor's gestures from the back, with occasional glimpses of his profile when he turned to one side or another. If there were more signals to the musicians, they were not visible to the audience. 

For many decades now, thanks to television and film cameras, we have been able to watch an orchestral conductor at work, in wide and medium shots with the musicians, and in remarkably revealing close-ups. 

I have observed conductors on many television programs and I have had the opportunity to film some of the most renowned, including Zubin Mehta, Eugene Ormandy, Kurt Masur, Lorin Maazel, and Valery Gergiev. In rehearsals and concerts, I was able to observe their differences in style, technique, and approach to the orchestra. 

Some conductors rely on a commanding presence which says to the musicians, “You must give me what I ask for, to reveal how this piece must be played.” They project their strong personalities with forceful gestures that indicate phrase beginnings and endings, and changes in tempo and dynamics, but they offer no clue to their feelings about the music as it unfolds.

Others do not flaunt their authority. Rather, they invite collaboration. They conduct with intensity and even urgency, but the attitude they project is: “Come let us do this together.”

Then there are the conductors who appear neither authoritative nor collaborative.  For some reason, they remain remote and detached. They hear everything that is going on in the music, and their gestures convey clearly what they want, but they remain inside themselves, and seem only to ask the orchestra for accuracy and unity of expression. Orchestra players are sometimes bullied, sometimes coaxed, sometimes inspired: it must be difficult to be ignored.

The most interesting conductors for a filmmaker, and surely for orchestra musicians, are the ones, like Valery Gergiev, who embody the music in their facial expressions. 

How musicians understand what they see in Gergiev's face is inexplicable; it is part of the mystery of music-making itself. A composer creates a series of sounds in his inner ear and transfers them to notes on a page. A conductor, even centuries later, reads those notes, and is able to hear them as music in his inner ear. In some unfathomable way he communicates what he hears to the musicians. Naturally, Gergiev uses gestures to indicate the basic structure of the music. But it is in his dramatically expressive face that the orchestra finds the emotional content of the music. I have been at Gergiev's rehearsals and concerts often enough to see that these expressions are spontaneous and unselfconscious: they are the result of his total absorption in the music.

Somehow, the musicians understand what they see. And with only horse-hair bows and buzzing lips and banging wood and metal, they are able to embody Gergiev's deeply felt experience of the music in their playing. 

No musician can explain the mystery of this communication, but none will deny it.

* * *

It is eight P.M. Concert time. No more rehearsing, no more correcting or improving. On stage, the orchestra musicians warm up, practicing difficult passages in tonight's program. After three or four working sessions, they have been convinced that the conductor knows the scores, has strong ideas about the music, and conveys them clearly. He has insulted no one and has not lost his temper. He has maintained a business-like, cordial relationship with his players, though there may have been impatient moments when he stopped for corrections and the orchestra settled down too slowly. 

Now, whether or not they all agree with the conductor's interpretation, the musicians will give him what he asks for. They know the performance will go well. They may even hope for the magic communication between conductor and orchestra that inspires players to their most intense involvement.

The orchestra tunes, and waits quietly. The audience settles down and the conductor walks onstage. The musicians rise to share in the applause. When they are seated again they adjust their chairs and check the beginning of the music one last time. The conductor turns to them. He raises his baton. It is one of the most suspenseful moments in theater, a pinpoint of expectation as the musicians and the audience focus on the conductor. With the tension at its height – he begins.

The Day After, by Eli Miller

This morning, I woke up without feeling crippling fear and misery about the state of the world, even though there are currently 5 million refugees at the mercy of regional warlords in Syria, even though we live in a country that incarcerates 3 million of its people unjustly, even though one in 3 women I know will be or have been sexually assaulted, even though I live in a country that enslaved people and won't apologize for it, even though injustice and oppression are present everywhere.

I don't know how I did that, but there has to be a way that I can do it again, even though our president, “a sociopath, narcissist, cowardly baby” is now on this list. Because in addition to being terrifying, my crippling fear and misery are not productive; they won't help me focus my energy on what I can do to make things better.

I still love people, people still love me. Maybe that's enough to get me through the day without having a panic attack.

The writer is a 17-year-old high school senior in New York City.


Final trip to St Petersburg, End of Filming

At the end of March, 2008, we arrived in St. Petersburg for our last days of filming Gergiev. For two years we had traveled with him from his home at the Mariinsky to London and New York, to Moscow and eastern Russia, to his boyhood home in Ossetia, and back to St. Petersburg again—including a wild overnight trip from there to Moscow. It was sad for us: the rare experience of following this great musician around the world was ending.

As Artistic and General Director of the Mariinsky Theater, Gergiev had been entrusted with preserving the great tradition of Russian symphonic music, opera, and ballet. Through decades of economic upheaval and challenge, he had made the Mariinsky financially stable, and with the addition of a new concert hall, had extended its reach. Plans were now being made for building a second opera house, with modernized lighting and stage equipment, to open in 2013. 

During our two years with Gergiev we had covered many of his administrative activities. We had also filmed him conducting rehearsals and concerts. Now, as we planned our final days of shooting we asked ourselves what was still needed to fill out a complete Gergiev portrait. We all agreed: we wanted more of Gergiev's feelings about music, a difficult subject for any musician to articulate. Nevertheless we hoped he would tell us, if he could, what a life in music required of him and what it offered in return.

For a personal interview of this kind, we would have to find a private setting. So we asked about the possibility of filming him at home. He was not happy with the prospect of a camera crew disturbing his wife and three children, but Doug Sheldon, his manager, convinced Gergiev that viewers of the film would want to meet his family, and would wonder why they were left out. As he usually did, Gergiev took Sheldon's advice.

Gergiev lived in a large apartment overlooking the Neva River. The main room was a formal gathering place for guests, containing a massive wooden table, a dozen large, upholstery-backed chairs, and statues and photographs from Ossetia along the walls. The rest of the apartment was reserved for his family. It was more plainly furnished, with bedrooms, a kitchen, and a smaller dining room-study, where the children, ranging in age from six to ten, could do their schoolwork, or draw pictures with their mother, Natalya. Twenty-seven years younger than Gergiev, and, like him, from Ossetia.  She was a former folk musician who accompanied herself on an instrument resembling an accordion. There were two boys—Abisal (Gergiev's father's name) and Valery, and a girl, Tamara. 

A striking feature of the apartment was a music room, one floor below, with a high ceiling open to the main level. We heard a piano playing and went over to look down. Abisal was practicing a piece with busy left-hand figures that seemed to give him no trouble.  Along the walls of the music room were shelves containing Gergiev's many recordings and DVDs. Later, Gergiev sat Abisal on his knee and asked if he too wanted to be a musician. Abisal replied immediately that he was planning to be a captain of a large boat.

We decided to set up the on-camera interview at the big dining room table. Before we could ask him anything, Gergiev began to speak freely about how hard it was to balance his conducting career with family life. Recently he had been invited to conduct in Paris during a few free days between two other European engagements, and it had been a painful decision, as he had planned to be at home on those dates. Gergiev might have argued that he could find new supporters of the Mariinsky in Paris, as he often did on his guest conducting tours, and he may have had other reasons in his debate with himself. But in the end, it was always his life as a musician that came first.  While knowing that he would feel guilty afterwards, he had accepted the Paris offer. 

* * *

An unexpected opportunity for us arrived to film Gergiev in a concert at the Mariinsky—he was to conduct the Rachmaninov Third Piano Concerto. On an earlier trip to St. Petersburg we had filmed a rehearsal of the Rachmaninov. Now our film would be able to combine the rehearsal with a performance in Gergiev's home theater.

We set up the camera in a box a few feet above floor level, about three-quarters of the way back from the stage. From there we could connect views of Gergiev, Yefim Bronfman, the soloist, and the orchestra on our left, with shots of the audience in front of us. We could also pan up past the boxes and the four balconies, to the ornate dome of lights in the ceiling. 


But there were problems: from our position in the box we were looking over Bronfman's shoulder and could see only his right hand on the keyboard. Nor could we see Gergiev from the front; there was only the back of his head, his shoulders, and his arms. We were not high enough to look down into the winds and brass.  And though we could film the violinists in profile and the violists facing us, neither of these angles provided much visual interest. So we had to pan back and forth from the stage to shots of the audience in order to capture at least some of the excitement of a public performance. 

During the final movement we decided to concentrate on shots of Bronfman and Gergiev together, hoping that if Gergiev turned to him, we would be ready. But Gergiev occupied himself with the musicians, keeping them together with the soloist. If only we had had a camera onstage facing Gergiev. 

But we had made the right decision. Seconds before the final chords of the concerto, Bronfman looked up at Gergiev. At that very moment Gergiev, turning towards Bronfman, lifted his arms and brought them down for the last chords of the concerto, and bounced them up again, producing a deeply resonant fortissimo in the orchestra. Bronfman released his hands upward from the piano in the same after-beat. Their two gestures, with Gergiev looking clearly toward the camera, made for a terrific visual expression of the concerto's ending. 

None of the problems that often beset documentary filmmaking had spoiled our shot: there were no camera bumps, no loss of focus, no recording-sound glitches, no frustrating flickering of the lights. Everything had come together perfectly to capture that last moment with the head-on shot of Gergiev and Bronfman. Though we knew we had prepared for it, we congratulated ourselves on being so lucky. 

Those closing few seconds—and the music building to them—would provide us with a climactic finale to our ninety-minute film. 

* * *

On our last day of filming, Gergiev agreed to sit for one final interview. We still hoped that he would reflect on his life as a musician. Looking for a quiet location where Gergiev would not be distracted, we found the very room in the St. Petersburg conservatory where he had taken his first conducting lessons. A large photograph of his teacher, Ilya Musin, hung on the wall. We were kept waiting for a tense couple of hours—I went running up and down the halls in case he had gone to the wrong room. He finally arrived, saying, without apology, that he had been delayed by one of his meetings. Never mind—we had him now.

We sat him in front of an open piano, facing the camera, and began with a general question: what defines a good conductor. He answered without hesitation: an excellent ear, rigorous training, and an understanding of how to work with orchestra musicians. We tried to get him to say more about his feelings for music but he parried all our questions, discussing only baton technique and rehearsal strategy. Finally I asked him: “Is that all, Maestro, that it takes to be a good conductor?” He paused and looked away from the camera for a moment. Then he continued: “And, one must love the music so much that the musicians come to feel that they love it as much as you do.” 


* * *

After the filming, I walked with Gergiev from the conservatory to the Mariinsky Theater. This was to be our goodbye. I thanked him for the interview and for the privilege of following him around during these two and a half years. He said he hoped we had some good material and quickly shifted the conversation to something else that was on his mind. As the founder of the upcoming annual White Nights Festival, named after the twenty-four hours of daylight the northern city of St. Petersburg experiences during the summer solstice, he was busy arranging the programs and hiring the performers for this huge undertaking. There were to be sixty-seven evenings of concerts, ballet, and opera performances with major stars from many countries. He wanted me to understand how the festival had become a world-wide attraction: “Number one, other festivals don’t have the stars we have,” he said, “and the other festivals hire different conductors for different performances. Here I conduct forty performances.” 

He looked at me for a reaction. I told him that I was impressed but not surprised. He smiled, and we shook hands and parted.

* * *

The editing process took up the next two years. We used not only the footage we had shot, but also excerpts of concerts that had been videotaped by others. We wanted to show Gergiev conducting over the past several decades of his professional life, and to indicate the astounding range of his repertoire. 
In the course of our research we discovered several television programs in which Gergiev coached young conductors. In one such class he advised a student not to overdo his gestures when the musicians needed no more than a simple beat to keep them together. Gergiev stepped onto the podium to demonstrate. At a calm passage in the music, his beat became quiet. “See,” he said, “They don't really need me here; I'm not important.” The music came to a resting point and the musicians looked up at him, waiting. He turned to the violins. “I’m important now,” he said to them. “You cannot start without me.” He gave them a vigorous downbeat and they entered together. We played the scene again, and there was the title of our film: “YOU CANNOT START WITHOUT ME.”  


              Note:  DVDs of "YOU CANNOT START WITHOUT ME" can be acquired via Amazon.