Meandering through various sites for violinists and string teachers in general, I sometimes run into the following exclamation by young teachers: “I’m so excited – I have a new student and she has perfect pitch!!!” How do I know they are young teachers? Because I am an older teacher, have had several students with perfect pitch, and don’t see anything to get excited about.
I believe these teachers must think that perfect pitch, also called absolute pitch (which is the term I will use from here on), is a sign of musical talent. It isn’t. Here I quote the famed neurologist (and amateur musician) Dr. Oliver Sacks* in his book Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, in chapter 9:
“Absolute pitch is of special interest…..; because it is an isolated ability with little inherent connection to musicality or anything else; and because it shows how genes and experience can interact in its production……..Absolute pitch is not necessarily of much importance even to musicians – Mozart had it, but Wagner and Schumann lacked it.”
He says that although absolute pitch is more common in musicians than in the general population (1 out of 10,000 people), many gifted musicians do not develop it. Sacks mentions a study by Diana Deutsch and her colleagues of first-year music students at the Eastman School of Music that showed, of students who started music study between the ages of 4 and 5, that only 14% had absolute pitch. Starting at the ages of 6 or 7 the percentage of students with absolute pitch went down to 6% and it bottomed out at 0% for those who started at ages eight or nine. This means that either the students at the Eastman School the year of that study were spectacularly untalented, or that absolute pitch is not necessary for or even synonymous with musical ability.
Still, I wish I could figure out why these teachers get so excited about teaching a child with absolute pitch. There even seems to be a consensus of opinion that absolute pitch can often cause difficulties for those who have it. First of all, you have to consider what Hertz your student’s ear is tuned to – 440Hz? How many orchestras tune to 440Hz these days? Actually, orchestras are all over the place. If you don’t believe it, I refer you to the following amusing and informative forum on the problems of orchestral tuning – make sure to read the comments:**
So if your students have absolute pitch they may have a real problem. If their ear is tuned to 440Hz, what happens when they play with an orchestra or a piano which is tuned to 442 or even 445Hz – or they decide to play in a baroque orchestra which tunes to 415? Once, when orchestras tuned to 435Hz, 440 would have been unthinkably difficult for anyone with absolute pitch. In fact, one of my teachers who had been a soloist before World War I told me that when the international tuning standard was raised to 440Hz in 1939, some soloists had to quit concertizing because their absolutely pitched ear couldn’t accommodate the change! Even my own imperfectly pitched ear can hear the difference even between 439 and 440Hz, but as my pitch is relative, not absolute, I have no problem with any such minor tuning differences. So, in my view, perfect relative pitch which just about anyone can achieve IF TRAINED PROPERLY, can in some circumstances make life a lot easier for violin students – and their teachers.
From what I can tell, the only thing good about absolute pitch, as far as teachers are concerned, is that as long as the student is playing at her own Hertz level, we won’t have to work hard on intonation – or will we?
Years ago I had a student who had started lessons with me at the age of four, but I did not discover her absolute pitch until she was about 12. How can that be, you ask? Easy. Your students with absolute pitch will play in tune under three conditions: Continue reading