Education for Absolute Pitch

Frequently Asked Questions About Absolute Pitch

1. How can a teacher assess a student's absolute pitch ability, if the student has already been studying music?

An experienced teacher may intuitively recognize a student's ability during their first lesson. Alternately, the teacher can prompt the student to play a piece from memory, but starting in the middle of the song. A student with absolute pitch can do this easily. However, the simplest method is to let the students hear and name single tones, or reproduce sounds on a second instrument following this procedure:

The teacher plays a sound on one instrument. The student names this sound or plays it on a second instrument. If named correctly, this tone becomes a reference, so the teacher's next choice should not be adjacent to it, nor form a fourth, fifth, or octave with it. If the student correctly names or reproduces the new sound, the teacher continues the test in the same manner. If the student always answers correctly, it means that they definitely have absolute pitch.

2. How can a teacher assess a student who has incomplete absolute hearing? What if the student hears partially (levels 1-4) or conditionally (levels 6-7)?

This test is somewhat more difficult. The teacher can't simply ask outright because the student is rarely aware of their ability. Because absolute hearing often occurs with middle C, the teacher might first check the student's ability to recognize this pitch and then test other pitches at other times. In some cases it takes many class sessions before it becomes clear that the student has absolute pitch for a limited number of tones. In the best-case scenario this testing will activate the student's previously concealed absolute pitch ability.

3. Why should we assess a student's absolute hearing ability?

It's important for planning the student's training. The teacher should plan further development of the student's hearing ability via ear training, and a student with absolute hearing is more immersed in their music and can command a larger repertoire than a student who doesn't hear absolutely. If the student is unable to hear absolutely, the teacher must approach each new assignment more carefully. Also, the student's hearing ability should be improved; if the student can already hear some tones absolutely, the teacher can work to expand this ability.

4. If someone hears one pitch absolutely, and has strong "relative pitch", isn't this equivalent to absolute pitch?

The relative ear develops gradually, in connection with theoretical understanding of the entire musical system. A student's theoretical understanding is directly connected to their intelligence, interest in music, and accumulated musical experiences (such as attending concerts or playing in ensembles). It is unlikely that a young child would have advanced relative ability. Absolute pitch is a tremendous musical advantage for children. As they develop into their musicianship, strong relative skills become necessary, regardless of their absolute hearing ability.

5. But how does relative pitch affect an older student, or an adult? Does good relative pitch replace absolute pitch?

Well-developed relative pitch often provides a more sophisticated understanding than absolute pitch, especially if the absolute ear is not sufficiently trained or meaningfully used. But even when someone achieves a high degree of relative pitch, and is able to reproduce an entire scale from a single reference sound, there are still advantages to be gained from absolute perception.

6. How does absolute pitch ability develop in a person who has had no systematic training from which to learn it?

Most often, this happens when people come into contact with an instrument at an early age. For instance, they begin early with piano or violin instruction, and while training, a type of unconscious didactic listening takes place. This listening is especially attentive to pitches and is not affected by unfavorable environmental factors. (For a list of negative conditions and factors, see page 59).

In some cases listeners are trained to hear absolutely-- not systematically, but at least deliberately and consistently-- and this approach has been successful in a proportion of students.

7. Won't someone with absolute pitch always know they have it?

Although most people do know, some people are not aware of their ability.

8. Can adults with absolute pitch remember how and when their ability emerged?

Someone who has received systematic ear-training instruction, such as We Hear and Play, can usually explain how their absolute pitch developed. There are, however, examples of children learning inadvertently:

1. A man whose father was a professional violinist remembers how his father played the empty strings when tuning his violin. The pitches of the empty strings were impressed on him, especially the middle D, and became the basis of his absolute pitch ability. He later became a composer.

2. Another performer attended church regularly with his father, who was the organist. The organ sounds became the basis for his absolute ear. He later became a pianist who commanded an unusually extensive repertoire of modern music from memory. This would be unimaginable without absolute pitch.

Many people cannot explain how their ability developed. In most of these cases the origin of their absolute ear occurred in earliest childhood. The events of that time are isolated, disconnected memories which can no longer be reconstructed.

9. Why would a person fail to gain absolute pitch if, in early childhood, they were in contact with an instrument or had instrumental instruction?

There were probably too many negative factors in the environment. (For negative factors in absolute pitch education, see page 59.) They also may have had little interest in pitch sounds.

10. Do adults sometimes discover that they have absolute pitch, even though they were not exposed to music as a child?

This does happen. Their ability is often discovered by other people-- usually music teachers. As mentioned, these adults can't remember their early childhood years, but their absolute pitch development may have resulted from musical impressions they received from their environment: perhaps from television or radio, church bells, or other pitch sounds they listened to attentively.

11. What advantages does someone actually gain from absolute pitch?

A person with absolute pitch is better at playing music. But this simple answer does not say much. Let us elaborate:

1. Children with absolute pitch can quickly memorize and reproduce musical pieces on their instruments.

2. During musical instruction these children can react immediately to the teacher's voice. If the teacher sings a note, instead of naming it, the child finds the corresponding key and plays it. The child's hand goes to the correct key almost unconsciously.

3. Musicians with absolute hearing can easily read and imagine musical notes, and they are better at retaining musical pieces in memory. With absolute pitch, a musician can control a larger repertoire since they can memorize many pieces simultaneously.

4. A performer with absolute pitch has a higher sense of security even when conditions are stressful due to excitement or nervousness. They can therefore play before the public more confidently and without problems.

5. Practicing and memorizing a piece requires relatively little time. This is especially beneficial for adult amateurs who pursue other occupations and have little time for practicing.

6. A person with absolute hearing can better follow a musical performance. They can recognize the structure of the musical pieces more quickly and thoroughly, particularly with contemporary or modern music. This allows them to more firmly grasp its contents, more fully enriching their intellectual life.

7. Absolute listeners have a great advantage in an ensemble. They can listen well to other instruments and still retain an overview of the music.

8. Largely for this reason, absolute hearing has great advantages for directing, especially modern music.

12. Is absolute hearing a disadvantage in transposing, because a piece can only be "heard" in the original key?

Absolute pitch is an advantage in transposing, but the absolute listener must be well trained. With the help of their relative ear, a musician with absolute pitch can intellectually transpose a musical piece into another key. Then they can reproduce this new key more easily on their instrument.

13. Do absolute listeners have difficulty in playing instruments that are tuned differently?

The absolute listener will initially be confused. After some time for habituation, however, they can adjust their thinking to the new pitches. This is similar to transposing, in that the absolute listener mentally forms a new sound scale. After this scale is formed, the absolute musician can play it more easily.

14. What if a singer in a choir must sing a work that has been transposed to another key?

This is essentially the same situation: a person with a well-trained absolute ear can "turn off" the absolute characteristic of the song in some respects. They can then sing confidently in the new key with the benefit of their absolute pitch.

15. Can someone who learned absolute pitch at certain specific frequencies manage to play a differently-tuned instrument?

If their absolute ear is trained well, the person will have no trouble. During the education phase, the instruments used at home and for instruction must be exactly and equally tuned. The tuning must be controlled to ensure that the pitch sounds are constant. After their absolute ear has stabilized, the student can adjust to different tunings. A well-trained absolute ear is elastic and adaptable, and can identify pitches even from an out-of-tune piano.

16. Can someone with absolute pitch estimate their own ability?

Many people think that the term "absolute pitch" only applies to active absolute pitch (level 10). Therefore, someone with incomplete absolute pitch may think they don't have any absolute hearing ability.

17. Once learned, is absolute pitch permanent, or can it be lost?

If an infant is trained in absolute pitch, the ability can be lost if the regular listening exercises are neglected. (See "Absolute Pitch Training", page 8.)

There are adults who say they possessed absolute pitch as a child but lost it during adulthood. In these cases they often mean that they had active absolute pitch at one time, but now can only demonstrate passive absolute pitch. It is conceivable that their absolute pitch instruction was inadequate; it is also possible that increasing age makes it harder for them to imagine accurate pitch sounds.

Preview chapters

How to Use This Book

Preface by Christopher Aruffo

Foreword by Naoyuki and Ruth Taneda

Definition of Absolute Pitch

Introducing Traditional Notation, part 1

How to Use the Looseleaf Format

Timeline of a Child's Musical Development


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