Sunday, April 09, 2006

on absolute pitch

PT has asked me to comment on what it is like to have the distinction of perfect/absolute pitch. Here goes.

I can’t really say when I developed it, but I must have had it very early on. My grandma used to notice me singing in the car, perfectly in tune, on the way home from day care. (There’s a cute picture of me reaching up for piano keys when I was a toddler.) When I started playing guitar, my teacher and I both just *tuned*, without using the piano - she never told me I had an ability most musicians don’t have, and I didn’t think anything of it because I really didn’t make music with other kids until junior high choir. It was only the summer before 7th grade (IIRC) that someone told me I had “perfect pitch” - whatever that meant!

I do remember, too, being a kid and, noticing that music in church had been transposed from how it was written, obstinately singing the songs in the “right key”. I can only imagine now what that must have sounded like!

When you’re starting out as a musician, it’s really, really useful because all the grunt-and-sweat stuff your classmates have to do with ear training is like slicing butter with a hot knife for you. I would say I still have yet to meet a relative-pitch-only choral singer who’s quite as adept as myself or other perfect-pitch people at sight-singing. In music ministry it’s a very useful tool, of course, since I can do a lot more work without depending on the keyboard.

The big liability I’ve found with it is teaching - I approach music reading from a completely different angle than most people. So even relating to other trained professionals can be a bear - I either expect too little of them or expect too much in terms of aural skills. Nowadays I’ve got a better idea of what to expect from most trained musicians, but that has been a growing pain.

The other liability is, of course, transposing. The choir director says, “hey guys, by the way, we’re going to sing this Britten piece down a step tonight”. Everyone else shrugs because it’s all the same to them, but the perfect-pitch people go NUTS! (I picked Britten because he’s often just tonally adventuresome enough that I rely on absolute pitch to find notes etc.; Palestrina wouldn’t be such a big deal.)

And that transposer thingie on my electronic organ? NOO! If I play a C chord and hear Bb, my world has turned upside-down. Obviously this is a substantial liability in church music, since then we have to transpose “the old-fashioned way”.

Interestingly, when I get up in the morning or am tired, my “internal pitches” are flat; what I think is A is, in fact, Ab. (I can realize, though, what’s going on - I just have to think twice about pitches in the morning.)

Different instruments are easier/harder to identify keys. The piano is a cinch for me; brass is often harder. Sometimes it’s hard to tell one key from another; I get E and F confused a lot, and B, Bb, and A.

Giving pitches vocally, I have found, is a less than great idea. If you’re conducting, it compounds your nervousness (in concert, anyway). And it’s rarely *exactly* right anyway, which creates problems, since we learn music partly by muscle memory as well as aural memory. I’ve been in pretty musically high-brow situations where I gave pitches, and my timbre was judged to be hard to match. Probably true, but also I was nervous giving the pitches, too. (I’m a baritone with an iffy top end.)

Perfect pitch is really not “perfect”; I suppose if someone always and only listened to A440 tuning they could more accurately give pitches than I can, but as most of us deal with a wide variety of small variations in tuning (and listen to European orchestras, which tend to tune a bit higher than American orchestras), it’s hard to be “exact” - whatever that means anyway. It can even be harmful: if you’ve learned your intonation absolutely from a piano, then it’s all the harder to learn to hear pythagorian intervals.

And of course, away from vocal music, absolute pitch is very seldom helpful; an orchestral conducting teacher I once had told me flat-out that it’s useless in front of an orchestra. Makes sense.

I do wonder if it could be taught effectively. For example, just about everyone can distinguish one *octave* from another. So, if we can distinguish an octave, how about one half of the octave from the other? And so on, until we get to the details of pitch.


At Monday, April 10, 2006 1:00:00 AM, Anonymous ScholarChanter said...

Ear training can be achieved also through learning instruments that require a fairly good sense of pitch: Strings, French horn, etc. Unless you know what the pitches are supposed to sound like, you really can't learn to play them well. Horn players who are about to play generally know what pitch should come out, without hearing a reference. String players often know about where A440 is. But the same people can't necessary do other "perfect pitch" tasks, such as sight-singing or producing other pitches other than "standard" pitches

Sense of absolute/perfect pitch has other drawbacks in terms of vocal technique. If you know that, say a middle C, should feel a certain way, and then learn to sing the same pitch much easier with a different technique, you are more likely to revert to the old habit. You also can't be "tricked" into singing higher than you think you can. If the choir falls flat, and you have pitches learned in "absolutes" for some sections, that can cause some problems.

I believe some sense of absoulte pitch is latent in more people, but not everyone who has it learns to use it. I have met many pianists who have perfect pich. (in one sense, they are the people who don't really need it?)

Also, depending on circumstances, that part of the brain will shut down completely (graduate school seems to have destroyed my sense of pitch in the past year). The sense of pitch comes and goes - it is not nessarily helpful in sightreading all the time. On other days, it is very useful.

Speaking of electronic instruments, enough CPU power is available that many of them can generally tell what chord is being played. An algorithm could be developed so that the pitches will tune to a Pythagorean scale (without diverging from Equal-temperament too much).

Learning intonation from a piano has other problems. Because of non-linearities in strings with non-zero thickness, the harmonics on a piano string are slightly sharper than the pure harmonic series. A piano generally uses "stretch" tuning, so that the upper notes are in tune with the slightly sharp overtones of the lower notes. A piano technian told me that the two ends of a piano can be as much as a 1/2 step wider than if the fundamental pitches were tuned strictly to equal temperament. At the top and the bottom range of the piano, where the string thickness/length ratio is higher than the middle, this becomes especially problematic, and is also why you can't easily tell pitch on the low end of most pianos. Since most singers sing in the middle range of the piano, perhaps this is not really relevant for singers.

It may be more time-efficient to teach relative pitch to singers than absolute pitch.

Another issue is performing Early music in A=415Hz, as it seems to be a common performance practice nowadys. I have played instruments pitches in A415, and can deal with the pitch differences. This may be because I was trained on transposing instrument (french horn), and also had to transpose in my head a lot. I have not sung music in A415, so I can't comment on that experience. My early music director insisted on doing vocal music in A440.

At Monday, April 10, 2006 8:16:00 AM, Anonymous CastCantor said...

Fascinating discussion. I too have absolute pitch. I thought everyone did until I was about 12. I sing a lot of coloratura music and it really helps. The only time it failed me was when I was pregnant -- I went sharp for the first time ever, because yes, I relied on sound rather than feeling the resonance in my head. It resolved after delivery and I paid more attention to resonance after that.
Perfect pitch really helps keep the Allegri "Miserere" in tune, and I am more confident leading chant, too. And you can practice anywhere if you have perfect pitch -- don't need to be tied to a piano. And you can browse music in the music store with great ease -- like Salieri in the movie "Amadeus" -- you just turn the pages and hear the notes go by. The hardest part for me was singing a cappella pieces in choir and having to go a little (or a lot) "flat" along with the rest of the choir. I couldn't pull them up by myself or I would have sounded sharp.
As a voice teacher, I have sometimes found it difficult to talk to students about solfege and pitch, because I never really had reason to learn it. I do have a couple of really pitch-challenged students who are training with the Sabine MetroTune 9000 tuner, which allows them to see what pitch they're actually singing as they sing it. This has helped them learn by "feel". I think that's one of the ways you could train a singer into hearing pitch.
Wouldn't it be interesting to have a choir of nothing but perfect pitch singers? Would it make the learning process faster?

At Monday, April 10, 2006 11:24:00 AM, Blogger PrayingTwice said...

I must admit that I used to be very envious of my colleagues (including Cantor) who had perfect pitch. After hearing stories such as these the past few years though, I find that God has blessed me by NOT blessing me with absolute pitch.

Hey, choirs fall flat singing acappella, even great ones. I don't notice unless it's very obvious . . . I can't imagine feeling a sense of aural "pain" when this situation occurs. My church choir (VERY amateur, to say the least) did "Pange Lingua" acappella last year for Holy Thursday and by the end of the six verses, we dropped at least a whole step. Did I notice? Yes. Were my ears bleeding? No.


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