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