12/14/10 - perfect pitch

In today's excerpt - a small number of individuals have perfect pitch, which is the ability to sing from memory the standard musical notes at that note's exact pitch. The musical notes themselves once varied in pitch from country to country, but were standardized in 1939. Prior to then, an individual with perfect pitch in one country would have sung the notes differently from an individual with perfect pitch from another country:

"The standard notes [A, B, C and so on] are no sweeter or more musical than any other group of notes. They are only correct because someone had to decide how long flutes and other wind instruments should be. (The length of such instruments determines the pitch of the notes they produce.) In the past, things were very confused—flutes made in different countries were all slightly different lengths—which meant that a German flute player couldn't play along with an English one unless he bought an English flute. After a lot of argy-bargy about which length was the best, it was decided that a bunch of experts would form a committee and decide once and for all on a group of notes that everybody would use from then on. After a lot of expert discussion ... they decided on the notes we use today at a meeting in London in 1939. So now, all over the world, flutes and all the other Western instruments such as violins and clarinets, guitars, pianos and xylophones have a set of standard notes.  Nowadays, if someone says 'I have perfect pitch' they mean that the pitches of these standard notes are fixed in their long-term memory. ...

"[In the past,] professional musicians were (and still are) often trained from a very early age, and some of them would have developed 'perfect' pitch, which agreed with the pitch chosen by a local piano tuner or organ builder. As soon as they began to travel they would discover other highly trained professionals with different 'perfect' pitch. It's a bit like everyone declaring that their favorite shade of pink is the perfect pink. All these 'perfect' pitches were equally valid. To have perfect pitch all you need is a set of pitches etched into your long-term memory. You don't even need to know what the notes are called-you might have stored all the notes on your mom's piano without ever being told that this one is B flat and that one is D, etc.

"Nowadays, people with perfect pitch have usually memorized the standard Western pitches that were decided on in 1939 because that's how all pianos, clarinets and other Western instruments are tuned. This means that, if you have it, your perfect pitch is the same as everyone else's. Most people with perfect pitch will also know the names of the notes involved because they generally acquired their perfect pitch during some sort of musical training at an early age. ...

"The note we know as 'A' would have been called a 'slightly out of tune B flat' by Mozart (we know this because we have the tuning fork Mozart used). So when we listen to Mozart's music nowadays, we are hearing it all about a semitone higher than he would have intended—a fact which is guaranteed to annoy some musical pedants. Some of his most difficult, high-reaching songs would actually be much easier to sing if we lowered them in pitch by a semitone, which is closer to how Mozart intended them to sound. On the other hand, this would involve writing out all the music again in a lower key, which would irritate an entirely different set of pedants. ...

"If people have perfect pitch, it merely means that they memorized all the notes on a particular instrument before they were around six years old. These people generally have high levels of musical skill, but this has nothing to do with their perfect pitch ability (which is rather useless). They usually have excellent musical skills simply because they started their musical training before they were six years old. Most musical skill comes as a result of training rather than inspiration: the earlier you begin, the better you will be."


John Powell


How Music Works: The Science and Psychology of Beautiful Sounds, from Beethoven to the Beatles and Beyond


Little, Brown


Copyright 2010 by John Powell


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