What’s So Perfect about Perfect Pitch??

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:**

http://www.violinist.com/discussion/response.cfm?ID=11273

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:

  1. They have the correct left hand position.
  2. They are really listening to themselves so they hear the out of tune note.
  3. 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

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24 October 2015

3 thoughts on “What’s So Perfect about Perfect Pitch??

  1. Brenda Shawley

    My 11-year-old son developed perfect pitch when he was five. He plays 4 instruments by ear and is fearless in his improvisations because he always knows what the notes are before he plays them. Having perfect pitch is an incredible advantage!! He can sing any harmony on the fly he wants, because he can name the notes of the melody and know exactly how to hit the chord note above it or below it on the first try. He can play any song he hears on the first try because he doesn’t have to fumble around for that first note. He teaches his younger sister harmonies and keeps her in tune with his incredibly solid intonation. I have not seen a single disadvantage of his perfect pitch, unless of course you think hearing a professional musician out of tune bothering him is a disadvantage. At a recent music camp, he helped the harmony singing teacher find all the parts. The confidence it brings is invaluable. I feel like the rest of us fumble in the dark in an arena where his perception is crystal clear. I see a lot of comments that perfect pitch is a hassle, but in raising a kid with perfect pitch, I have seen no hassle, only enormous benefits. Even having to truly understand that none of his family members can name a note they hear, which at first was baffling to him, has brought an early lesson of understanding another’s experience and respecting it at an early age.

    Reply
    1. Eloise Hellyer Post author

      Perfect pitch can be a real problem for professional musicians for the reasons I mentioned in the article and in the link provided. One musician failed an audition because he couldn’t accommodate the pitch change when he had to play accompanied by a piano tuned differently from his absolute ear (which I suspect was a deliberate part of the audition). Musicians nowadays have to be able to play at various hertz levels. In any case, perfect pitch can be a wonderful thing to have and I’m sure all who have it would be sorry to lose it. I imagine that your son, who sounds very talented in addition to his absolute ear, is not yet a professional musician. Should he become one, he may well discover its disadvantages as well as its advantages. The point of my article was that teachers shouldn’t get excited about a student with perfect pitch and think it is a sign of talent. It isn’t on its own. Also, the fact that a student has perfect pitch doesn’t mean he or she will even play in tune. I certainly didn’t mean to imply that perfect pitch is a complete disadvantage, just that it can be trying to those who have it in certain circumstances which your son is perhaps too young to have encountered. And it is possible to have a great career in music without it. I wish your son luck and success in his music studies. Thank you for your comment.

      Reply
  2. Brenda Shawley

    That’s terrible that someone had to audition to a piano not tuned properly! Probably better that the musician did not get that opportunity! Especially if it was done on purpose. I also wanted to mention that transposing is actually a lot easier for my son with perfect pitch because he can sing the tune in any key he wants. When he was on stage with bandmates who changed the key last minute, he was the only one able to sing it! I also know a fiddle teacher who grew up with perfect pitch at 440 who now loves to play at 432 and 444. He was able to adjust his ear. One disadvantage my son has experienced, though, is jealousy from other kid musicians and their parents. The consequences of that are pretty brutal to a child. I agree with you that there are many other things like practice, muscle memory, and freedom that are key to becoming a really great musician.

    Reply

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