learning perfect pitch: challenges and milestones so far

Quick post to pause the silence.  Been busy with a full-time-plus day job, daily music activities, and preparing for the birth of our first child.  Also played an enjoyable gig with some members of The Getback earlier this week — a mix of original hip hop / funk grooves and covers of Stevie Wonder (You Are The Sunshine of My Life), The RH Factor (Crazy Race) and Donny Hathaway (The Ghetto).

I have continued working on absolute pitch exercises with Bach’s First Invention, mentally playing it from start to finish.  Also slowly memorizing Beethoven’s Op. 27 Piano Sonata #14 (first movement), “Moonlight Sonata”, so that I can start doing the same series of exercises on this tune.

One assumption I have been making is that learning perfect pitch is an associative memory process.  This means that the more ways I can associate “hearing” a note in my mind with other thoughts or mental activities, the more robust my memory of pitch will become. In practice, while I’m mentally playing through the Bach invention, trying to “hear” the sounds in my mind, I visualize the notes on sheet music, visualize my hands playing them on the piano, or sometimes imagine how the notes feel on a saxophone (not taking into account the transposition between piano and sax).

So far this has been working!  I test myself on various notes around the keyboard 4-5 times a day.  When I try to conjure a note in my mind, I am most often able to “hear” it correctly by conjuring the “feeling” I have of how that note sounds when I mentally play the Bach invention.

Here are some of the learnings and challenges I’ve faced since starting the project to learn perfect pitch in January:

  1. I had to train my brain to not flatten upward leaps in pitch, or sharpen downward leaps in pitch.  This usually required identifying the interval in the piece that was causing my pitch to get off, then practicing only the interval until my mind stopped this tendency.
  2. Each key change in the Bach first invention used to throw off my sense of pitch.  For instance, there’s a shift from C major to G major early on, and for a while that would disorient my sense of where C was.  With practice, that’s disappeared.
  3. I’ve had more difficulty mentally “hearing” pitches that fall above or below my singing range.  Since I’m probably a tenor singing voice, anything above that took me a while to truly hear.
  4. Another challenge has been, how to practice these exercises regularly in hectic daily life?  I usually practice them on a bus to work.  This almost always is fine, using the iPhone app Virtuoso Piano Pro to provide a reference pitch.  It is only challenging if the bus is playing background music or someone has headphones with really loud music on.  My mental hearing sense is improving, but it’s not strong enough yet to stay mentally in C major if other environmental music is simultaneously in another key.
  5. The mind gets tired after these exercises!  It takes me 2-3 minutes to play mentally through one hand of the Bach invention.  After doing this 4-5 times I usually take a short break.
  6. The more tired I am, the more distracted I become, and the more mistakes I make.  This seems obvious, but tracking my mental music performance everyday, I can see it plainly.  It’s a reminder to treat my body well and not do too much.

Here are a few milestones I’ve noted so far:

  1. More often now I notice myself humming a tune, then playing the notes I’m humming on a piano and realizing I’m hearing the tune in the key it was recorded!
  2. I can hear much more mentally and practice mentally for longer durations than before.
  3. I can hear and enjoy the richness of deceptively simple pieces of music, like the Bach inventions, and enjoy in wonder!  Almost any type of music has been magnified in enjoyment by this “mental ear” practice I have been doing.  There is so much more to hear in what I already listen to!
  4. My ears are more sensitive, so I find myself more turned off by styles of music that are really loud or not really embracing the possible subtleties that the nuances of sound provide.

One comment

  1. Andar sawyers · · Reply

    Makes sense not wanting to hear loud or invasive tunes after training the hear to take on more components. You’re probably hearing more as a bilnd person might be able to….


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