Perfect pitch is one of those coveted abilities that exists in less than 1 in 10,000 people. In short, it is the ability to identify isolated pitches without a reference note. It is distinguished from relative pitch, where a listener needs to hear a note first to identify other notes. Even then, the beginning musician often struggles with relative pitch, let alone perfect pitch.
The general consensus among musicians is that while you can train for relative pitch, one cannot train for absolute pitch. Absolute pitch is something you are either born with or born without, and you’ll either have it for the rest of your life or never have it at all.
But is that really true?
As a musician for 11 years, I claim that you can indeed train for perfect pitch. If you asked me 11 years ago to identify a random pitch, I would not have a clue. Even a few years into learning piano, I couldn’t close my eyes and identify a pitch being played on the piano. No, perfect pitch came with training.
How I trained myself
In my case, I trained for perfect pitch by training myself to internalize a reference pitch, and associate all other pitches to this reference. Most musicians rely on intervals — the spacing between two notes — to identify one note given the other. Likewise, I learned to recognize a reference pitch and identify my intervals to identify notes. In fact, I had two reference notes that I could use.
My first reference note was a low C, two octaves below Middle C on the piano. This was in fact the lowest note that I could sing at the time I started training for perfect pitch. Because my vocal range was pretty much steady at that time, I knew that I could depend on this low C as a steady reference pitch.
My other reference note was A-440, which is the pitch that modern orchestras tune to at the beginning of a rehearsal or concert. This reference note was harder to internalize, since it was hard for me to sing. But playing in an orchestra was a real helper, as I would hear this note at the beginning of class every day.
By the method of interval identification, I was able to identify all other notes. First, I listened to the pitch in question. Then, I sang my low C, or aurally imagined the A-440. Using one of those reference pitches and the pitch in question, I judged aurally the interval between the two notes, and was able to identify the note in question.
Eventually, the sound and frequency of the low C was so internalized that I could hear it in my head without having to sing it out loud. Now, I could identify a note without singing it. However, it’s important to note that at this point, I was still relying on intervals to identify notes.
“Real” perfect pitch came when I didn’t have to think intervalically to identify pitches. At that stage, I could identify notes without thinking “C to reference pitch… a minor sixth, so the pitch is an A-flat.” I would just say, “A-flat”.
So thus, I claim that one can train for perfect pitch. I haven’t tested this claim at all, but my case is an example that this training may indeed work.