Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Issue of Perfect Pitch

One of the topics that Jourdain’s book touches upon briefly is perfect pitch. From what he says, he seems to be of the idea that perfect pitch is developed at an early age and cannot be developed in the adult life. Perfect pitch and ear training altogether has been an area of constant interest to me; in regards to rhythm I have “perfect rhythm”, now, my natural ability for pitch is without a doubt below average for a musician, probably even below average non musician. Every bit of ability that i have gain has been the result of endless hours, even to this day of daily practise. Jourdain is rather dismissive of the exercises that some people like me, implement for the development of perfect pitch. I have been using Lucas’ Burge method for developing perfect pitch. The web link mentioned above, show various testimonials of people who benefited from the perfect pitch course. I have been working on it for 10 years now, and still don’t have it. What it is true, is that my awareness for perfect pitch has indeed improved; from the various testimonials, it is clear that perfect pitch is a skill, which can be learnt and as any other skill is not perfect. This means that there are various grades of ability. Let’s compare perfect pitch with perfect “scale playing”. How many pianists can play the scales at quarter note 200? Probably very few, but many other can still play the scales at a slower tempo and still make use and sense of them. It gives me the impression that Jourdain is thinking along the line of “black and white” in regards to the matter of perfect pitch. I cannot say for myself if the ability can be fully learnt, but it is apparent that the brain has the ability to develop towards it. I wonder if any of you, colleagues, has had any experience in regards to this most obscure issues of Perfect Pitch...


Vasana said...

I have also always been interested in “perfect pitch.” Most of the people I know who have perfect pitch were born with it. Like you I have struggled to develop a better sense of pitch. I have found that as I gain experience as a musician my sense of pitch has gotten better simply because most of the day I am practicing and listening to pitch relations. As a clarinet player I can’t have perfect pitch, because, the clarinet is a transposing instrument. People with perfect pitch often have problems playing transposing instruments. I have a friend who is clarinet player as well who has “clarinet pitch.” If any note is played on the clarinet he knows what note it is. I think I have developed something similar, because, I am usually able to identify notes on the clarinet by hearing them. However, if someone were to play the same notes on a piano or flute I wouldn’t be able to recognize the notes. I have not always been able to do this it has developed in the last 3 years as I have been playing more. I think that what our brains are recognizing is the variance in tone color from one note to the next, not the pitch alone. If I was recognizing pitch alone then I would be able to identify notes on a piano regardless of the fact that the clarinet is a transposing instrument. I think it is possible to develop a better sense of pitch by training our brains, however I think it would take a long time to get perfect pitch and it isn’t always beneficial. Pitch is relative. If a chamber group is playing sharp it is better for the players to match each other rather than have one member with perfect pitch playing the “correct” pitch which is flat in comparison to the rest of the group. I wish I had a better sense of pitch, but, I know that it continues to improve the more I play. I’m glad I don’t have perfect pitch, because, then I couldn’t play the clarinet.


joe schacher said...

It seems to me that a person with perfect pitch's SENSE of pitch would depend on their early musical development. They are not born with the ability to tell C from C#, they are born with the ability to categorize pitch. I wonder if a young person with perfect pitch listened to plenty of clarinet music and subsequently learned to play clarinet as their first instrument would find that the clarinet, trumpet, tenor sax and other Bb instruments would be the ones 'in tune'.

Conversely, if a person with perfect pitch learns piano as their first instrument, then their 'perfect pitch' would actually be tuned like a piano (i.e. equal temperament). I wonder if those people have a problem listening to anything other than music in equal temperament?

Take the folk singer who tunes her voice to the drum skin (and its over tones) she beats as an example in the other extreme. Perhaps she has perfect pitch, but in a totally different pitch system.

My thought is that having perfect pitch is both a curse and a blessing. At times your perfect pitch would other times it would be incompatible. Apparently the Boston Symphony tunes to A = 444. I imagine they don't have many players with perfect pitch playing with them.


Leonid said...

Interestingly, as a clarinet player I have quite similar experience. While I do not have a perfect pitch, I can identify any note played on the clarinet. I am also able to recognize what type of clarinet is being played (e.g. A or Bb). There is no doubt, that this is a result of a long lasting process of practicing, teaching and performing. However, I do not think that a person with perfect pitch cannot play a transposing instrument. I have a student with perfect pitch who plays the saxophone. She has just started this year and still gets easily confused when it comes to the differences between a "concert" pitch and the written note she actually plays. While she is doing exceptionally well, and progressing faster than anybody else, I am not convinced that this progress is a result of her remarkable ability. I do not know whether perfect pitch is a skill and can be learnt as Augusto maintains, however it seems that indeed “perfect” pitch can be not that perfect. The girl is able to recognize any note I play on a piano, but occasionally she makes mistakes with sharps/flats. It appears that her ability is still developing! Another topic, which would be interesting to discuss in connection with perfect pitch, is the ability to improvise. While it seems that perfect pitch can be a real asset it is not always the case. I personally know many professional musicians with perfect pitch who cannot and do not improvise, and others without perfect pitch (and some with rather modest abilities) who improvise quite well. Similarly, while perfect pitch may be of assistance for a student when correcting intonational problems, the vast majority of professional musicians, soloists, ensemblists and orchestra players do not have perfect pitch. In general, it seems to me that perfect pitch is just a (pretty cool) physical feature (like eye colour or height and so on), which has nothing to do with musical learning and development. From my experience, when people with perfect pitch hear a note they just know what note is this. Since there is no conscious process involved, perfect pitch has nothing to do with the ability of a person to express themselves musically.

Renee Kruisselbrink said...

This is a very interesting topic. I was taught that there are essentially two categories: perfect pitch (or absolute pitch), and relative pitch. Perfect pitch tends to be something with which we are born; one of my undergrad classmates could tell the exact pitch of a bow hitting a music stand, or a car horn. To them, each pitch has a specific sound that cannot possibly refer to any other pitch.

Far more common among musicians, perhaps, is relative pitch, perfect pitch that is not quite perfect. Relative pitch is often developed – piano players can tell pitches on piano easily; clarinet players on clarinet. A violinist with relative pitch, for instance, would have more trouble distinguishing high vocal sounds.

Perfect pitch can be an asset, or a hindrance. Those with it utilize its benefits, while at the same time deal with the difficulties it presents. Joe’s comment about the Boston symphony seems correct, as an example of hindrance. I have perfect pitch, and know firsthand that it can sometimes be extremely difficult to transpose when playing or singing. Often though, it is just a matter of thinking about it differently. For instance, when transposing an atonal vocal line at sight, instead of thinking of individual pitches, I would think of the intervals between pitches.

One other interesting issue are the individuals who would have perfect pitch but never receive musical training. Or maybe, more accurately, the question is: can people have perfect pitch and not be musicians?