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:
- They have the correct left hand position.
- They are really listening to themselves so they hear the out of tune note.
- They care enough or think it’s important enough to correct themselves and to try to understand why they played that note out of tune in the first place.
Unless these three conditions are met, it is unlikely that any student, with or without absolute pitch will play in tune. As many experienced teachers can confirm, one of the hardest things to teach students is to listen to themselves – to actually hear what they are doing while they are doing it. It is one thing for students to identify any note, key or chord played on the piano by the teacher, and quite another to apply their absolute ear to their own playing. Convincing students that it is important to play in tune can also be trying. The student I mentioned above was not among my more talented ones; she continued studying the violin but did not succeed in making a career in music. On the other hand, I have had some very talented, even gifted students who have gone on to excellent musical careers without having absolute pitch. And they were not more difficult to teach to listen to themselves and to learn to understand and correct their intonation mistakes than were my gifted students who did have absolute pitch.
Therefore, my young teacher friends, you are going to have to work hard anyway. Absolute pitch is not an indication of musical talent; it just means you MAY not have to work as much on intonation with the students who have it. However, you may have to work even harder if they have to transpose music, have problems with recital pianos being tuned differently or have to sharpen leading tones. Of course, I’m sure people with absolute pitch are very happy to have it and would be sorry to lose this ability, but in my experience their absolute pitch doesn’t make them easier to teach. But to encourage you in case you get new students who can’t sing in tune, do not assume this means they don’t have a good ear. It may only mean that they can’t control their voices – an ability which, while helpful, isn’t needed to play the violin.
So no jumping up and down and clapping your hands with joy when you get the new student with absolute pitch! Your problems won’t be fewer than with your other students, they may just be a little different. But actually, for the most part, they’ll be exactly the same.
Post Author: Eloise Hellyer
*With thanks to Daniel Hooper for calling my attention to Dr. Sack’s book and thus stopped me from flailing all over the internet looking for statistics.
**With thanks to Violinist.com