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Methods for Training Absolute Pitch

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Minhun Kang

It’s commonly said that absolute pitch is innate. There’s a belief that it’s genetically determined whether one can have absolute pitch or not.

There is some truth to this. Identifying the unique frequency of a sound without error is something that only a machine or someone born with absolute pitch can do.

However, ordinary people can also remember absolute pitch with a margin of error of about +-50hz. Of course, this requires having a certain level of musical ear.

People born with absolute pitch find it natural to distinguish pitches and thus can’t teach how to acquire it. But if someone who didn’t have absolute pitch acquires it through training, then they can teach how to attain it.

Although not perfect, I introduce my own method developed over years of effort.

Before acquiring absolute pitch, one needs to change their perception of sound. It’s necessary to think of pitches in a visual dimension. Distinguishing pitch is similar to distinguishing the lightness of colors. For instance, recognizing the exact mix of black and white in a shade of gray is akin to having absolute pitch.

If someone has a sense of color, they can distinguish whether a dark gray is closer to black or white than a light gray.

Similarly, if one can feel whether a pitch is higher or lower than a reference point, acquiring absolute pitch becomes easier.

Just as the midpoint for distinguishing lightness is a perfect 50-50 gray, a reference point is needed for distinguishing pitch. One should choose a pitch that they think is in the most suitable position as their reference.

The A note, which sounds most stable to human ears and is commonly heard, is a good reference point.

However, I chose the C note as my reference, as it’s stable for me to produce and often starts many pieces of music.

After setting a reference pitch, one should frequently listen to, produce, and think about the sound of that pitch, preferably from a properly tuned piano or tuner.

Especially with a piano, it’s easier. Before playing, sing the reference pitch you’ve thought of. Then, play that note on the piano.

Initially, the pitch you think of might have a considerable margin of error from the actual sound. But with practice, this margin will decrease. Eventually, you’ll be able to distinguish whether a heard pitch is higher or lower than your reference.

Through consistent practice and patience, you’ll be able to recall your reference pitch with minimal error.

At this stage, you can calculate the pitch of any sound using your remembered reference pitch. However, remembering one pitch perfectly doesn’t mean you have absolute pitch. Someone with natural absolute pitch remembers all 12 notes accurately. But someone with excellent relative pitch can have the same abilities by just remembering the reference pitch.

Most with absolute pitch remember only one or two reference pitches and use relative pitch to calculate others, known as incomplete absolute pitch. They are slower in pitch discrimination than natural absolute pitchers but have a superior relative pitch. Natural absolute pitchers don’t need relative pitch, which can be a disadvantage in some situations.

Remembering every pitch and having relative pitch would be the true ideal.

The next step after remembering the reference pitch is to remember the characteristics of each pitch. Each pitch has its unique color that can’t be described in words. Capturing this is the second step. It’s best to start with the music you enjoy.

Take Chopin’s Waltz No. 7, for instance. The first note starts with G# (Ab). Someone with absolute pitch who enjoys this music would feel a slight awkwardness if it started in G or A instead. Ab gives a sense of wringing sorrow, G is somewhat lighter, and A feels like a clichéd sadness. No other note than G# can bring out the essence of Waltz No. 7.

When randomly hitting a piano key, if you can immediately think of songs (minor or major) that start with that note, then you’ve remembered the color of that pitch.

The next step is to think of the piano keys. For example, if you hear an F# note, you should be able to imagine pressing the third black key on a virtual piano. This is why people who have played instruments from a young age can easily acquire absolute pitch. Visualizing pitches greatly helps in remembering them.

It might be difficult and inaccurate at first, but it needs to become a habit. Practice is needed until you can play the music you hear on an imaginary piano. Assigning a color to each key will make it easier.

If you listen to and try to remember the unique pitch all day, there will come a moment of ‘Aha!’ This realization, which cannot be explained in words, is about remembering pitches like memorizing words. Whether you can achieve this realization will be the crossroads of whether you can attain absolute pitch or not.