Perfect pitch refers to an ability that some people have that allows them to identify musical notes almost flawlessly with no reference note. For example, if you play a C for someone with perfect pitch, they could tell you that the note is a C, no matter what octave you are playing it in, no matter what instrument you’re playing it on, and no matter whether or not they can actually see the note being played.
It is widely accepted that perfect pitch is something you are born with and not something you can fully learn, however if you keep studying music, your ability to identify pitches will develop to a more precise degree. If you’re not one of the lucky few to have this skill, you can utilize tools that musicians have been using for generations in order to identify pitches precisely.
The ability to identify pitches based on another pitch you’ve heard is called relative pitch. If you’ve taken any singing lessons, you probably remember solfege, a tool many music educators use to teach sight singing. It’s also one of the most popular ways to develop relative pitch. Solfege is familiar to most people from the iconic musical The Sound of Music, specifically the song “Do-Re-Mi.” If you haven’t ever heard “Do-Re-Mi” give this clip from it a listen, not only because it’s an amazing part of musical theater history, but also because it demonstrates solfege perfectly.
If you haven’t taken any singing lessons, you should, because practicing vocal solfege exercises increases your ability to identify pitches. The “do, re, mi” exercises you learn in voice lessons teach you intervals. If you know that a piece of music happens to be conforming to a given scale and you can identify the root note of that scale (referred to as “do” in solfege), you can then identify any other notes by their interval to the root note.
For example, if a piece of music is in the key of C Major and the first three notes are C E G then the solfege would be do mi sol. If the piece is in D Major, however, then D F# A would correspond to do mi sol. The intervals are exactly the same, the pitches are just a step up in the key of D Major. This is a skill most professional musicians use extensively and helps them quickly sightread any music put in front of them.
Relative pitch might not be as impressive as perfect pitch when you’re at a party, but it’s certainly equally useful. You don’t have to have perfect pitch to develop the ability, all you need is the dedication to keep studying it enough that you develop the skill.
Practicing your main instrument will also strengthen your ability to identify pitches. What ends up happening is that you hear certain notes repeatedly so much that you start to be able to pick them out without really thinking about it. This will come with time and, while you may not develop perfect pitch, you’ll definitely be able to come very close.
You can also practice identifying intervals and specific pitches on a piano keyboard. Keyboards are excellent for this, as their layout conforms very closely to the layout of sheet music and anyone can pick out notes with minimal training. Simply pick a root note and practice each interval up the scale until you reach the same note an octave above where you started. Try both listening to the intervals as you play them and singing them while you play. Do this in multiple keys, and experiment a bit. After a while, you’ll be able to identify the particular sound of each interval to the point that it makes it easier for you to identify which notes are being played in a song you’ve never heard before.
So Just How Important is this Perfect Pitch?
At the end of the day, not very. If you were born with it, it’s a very useful skill, but the majority of professional musicians don’t have perfect pitch. Learning to use tools such as relative pitch will improve anyone’s overall musicianship skills though, and practicing sight singing and doing ear training exercises are beneficial for all music students.