Absolute pitch, or “perfect pitch”, is the ability to perceive and comprehend musical sound as though it were language. “Naming notes” is the most recognizable effect of this perception.
Absolute pitch is not a musical ability. It is a hyper-linguistic ability. But music and language are more similar than we ever thought before.
A language phoneme is a combination of two or more sound frequencies, to which a conceptual meaning has been assigned. The absolute-pitch mind also assigns conceptual meaning to individual pitch frequencies. Individual pitch frequencies typically occur in music, not language, which is why absolute pitch is most often associated with musicians– but absolute pitch is only a “musical ability” insofar as its possessor applies their sensory comprehension to the art of music.
Absolute pitch listeners can recognize an inherent quality of any sound, regardless of the sound’s interpreted meaning. An “interpreted meaning” might be a “musical note”, or a “door slam”, or an “engine hum”. Relative listeners may perceive the same sound quality, but can comprehend only the interpreted meaning.
The process of learning perfect pitch is that of finding literal meaning in abstract sensation. We already do this for spoken language phonemes; learning perfect pitch is, essentially, expanding the “phoneme set” to incorporate musical pitch frequencies.
Children who do not possess the apparent genetic gift of perceiving pitches can be taught. I interviewed a Suzuki instructor who told me that her violin students (aged 3-5) frequently learn perfect pitch during their lessons, and I have heard from music students who have explained exactly how their childhood musical training taught them perfect pitch.
Ordinary musical instruction does not teach perfect pitch. Sometimes perfect pitch occurs during musical instruction, because in our culture there is no other form of structured auditory training. However, standard music instruction emphasizes relationships between notes, and trains a person to listen relatively at the expense of hearing absolute pitch. Even the Suzuki method, with its emphasis on listening, trains students to listen to music, not to pitches.
Adults can also be taught to hear in perfect pitch, using principles of perceptual learning. As I have been teaching myself with the Ear Training Companion, the evidence of my own senses is undeniable; I have not yet acquired full proficiency, but I have met people who taught themselves as adults using similar methods.
The feedback I’ve received from people using the Ear Training Companion shows that the results I’ve been achieving are easily duplicated.
People with spontaneous AP have certain brain structures in common. This genetic predisposition may or may not be– but probably is– what causes them to perceive pitches as they do without any external coaching or explanation. They perceive pitches distinctly as very young children and learn the names for those pitches some time later.
The most likely reason why perfect pitch is not common, or commonly learned, is that human beings are taught to listen to sounds intellectually. We become habituated to the sensation of pure pitch, not hearing anything meaningful until some specific interpretation can be applied to the sound.
The most likely reason why perfect pitch is not taught is that the ability is not culturally, linguistically, or biologically beneficial to anyone. It’s a catch-22; we don’t teach pitches because they’re not useful, but they’re not useful because we don’t learn them.
Chris Aruffo is an actor and did extensive research on the subject of perfect pitch.