Perfect Pitch? Good for What? rev4

Worried by "perfect pitch envy"?

There's no need to strive for perfect pitch. For certain practical musicians it might even be a handicap. For those new to music reading, especially singers, it might impede more important learnings.

Let's take a close look, for it is widely misunderstood. In particular, beginning sight-singers need to have their fears allayed with clear understanding.

Notes in context

Let's distinguish styles in which people experience musical pitch. To conquer by dividing, look at the question of naming. What is being remembered?—notes? or tunes? First we look at tune-context observations.

For an in-musical-context observation we may look at the a cappella ensemble. Experienced ensembles do not sag, nor drift upwards, in pitch in the course of a single piece. Less-trained ensembles often let their consensus pitch drift lower in just a phrase or two, easily as much as a semitone or more. Possibly a few singers try briefly to resist the change but then go along with the drift for the sake of the larger good, the performance, because the non-singing hearers are less annoyed by the drift than by discord among the voices.

This, pass or fail, is performance tonal consistency: PTC.

Now we listen as a musicologist asks a volunteer on the street to sing some widely familiar tune. Very many non-musicians have done so in nearly the same key of a recent widely-heard performance. This is not what is typically called perfect pitch. Let's call it long term tune memory in key.

LTK, long term tune memory in key, then, is an in-a-melody pitch experience we can distinguish.

Notes out of context

Now imagine, instead of naming a tune we ask the interviewee on the street to sing "middle C". Here, a very different sort of pitch memory is at issue. There is no musical context for "middle C".

By "perfect pitch" people probably are talking about individual notes out of musical context. Here we're at a Continental Divide between notes as integral parts of musical flow and notes as individual specimens in labeled jars on a shelf.

For a demo of these two very different kinds of tonal experience, this Continental Divide, you might take a side trip here, By Name, By Fit.

Experiences with out-of-context notes

Now we turn to experiences with such out-of-context notes.

Let's call these perfect pitch, hyper-perfect pitch, practical absolute pitch, and easily distractible--PP, HPP, PRAP, and EZDis for short.

When Bobby McFerrin reaches over to the piano keyboard to play a chord which has just been sounded on a guitar by an interviewer, without previous melodic context, and his fingers play the same chord, I call that "practical absolute pitch"--PRAP.

We see that Maestro McFerrin also has the ability, on the stage with no instrumental backup, to begin to sing in a key that can be taken up seamlessly by a nearby fingered instrument, tuned to the modern near-standard reference pitch (440, 444, 448 or even higher) that has not recently rung in the sound space. We might call that either "perfect pitch"—PP by note name. Or else it might be long-term tune key memory rather than note pitch memory. I can only guess how he thinks. He teaches mostly by example rather than precept.

What's in a standard?

Let's note that the so-called standard, 440Hz, is being pushed higher. This has been happening over the last forty-some years as concertizing pianists instruct their tuners to give their instrument punch-through brilliance over an orchestra.

The effort chases a phantom, however. Orchestra musicians have caught on to this ploy, and they tune upwards accordingly, despite the formality of having an oboist sound a "standard" 440Hz during tune-up. Oboists know this full well; they have learned to smile at it.

This upward drift is no recent phenomenon. In Europe it began over half a millennium ago, according to a study of old European pipe organs reported in Musical Quarterly (before 1962). That study found that centuries-old instruments are tuned as much as five semitones ("frets") lower than modern, the earlier the lower, approximately. That's nearly half an octave, kids! These keyboard instruments didn't sag with age like some of us do.

Do you get the idea that "perfect" isn't perfect in the sense of "immutable" or "based on a universal constant"?

When someone tells you that you need to acquire perfect pitch to be a perfect musician, don't tell them they're plain ignorant. Just tell them Einstein says "there is no equable flow of time". Frequency, you know, is two quantities: a count of cycles and a unit of time. Only the first is a cosmic constant, understood alike by people of all culture-hosting planets.

Can't you do something about it?

Now, for those who are irritated by hearing a single note or chord sounded a fractional fret off (by somewhere near a quarter tone, or half a fret—"in the cracks"), the best I can offer is to suggest you figure out whether you have PP, or HPP, or PTC.

If your irritation comes only as the group's pitch sags or drifts upwards after a few phrases, your style of experiencing pitch may be PTC—performance tonal consistency. In that case, you might agree to continually adjust your own pitch to the ensemble, wrenching as that is, and hope someday their performance tonal consistency may improve. This is a livable condition if you decide to live with it.

If on the other hand you are also uncomfortable with the pitch given just before singing, you may be suffering HPP. Then it's up to you whether to seek a more congenial ensemble to join. Your present collaborators may be too EZDis for you.

Another way HPP happens when it is tied to the look of written music on the page. You are perhaps learning to read both treble and bass clefs in the absolute, "lettername" strategy, while other singers read any clef with a relative, "solfege" strategy instead, based on intervals and reference notes in an internally stable but movable pattern.

Consider the possibility of training yourself to override your HPP to join your PTC and EZDis colleagues in any arbitrary, off-standard pitch. Just decide that making music with others is more important than perfection.

Displaced but not distorted

A clef  ("clue" or "key") assigns seven of the twelve absolute names to particular lines and spaces of the five-line staff. The naming system prescribes a two-fret distance between neighboring letters (G and A are circular neighbors) except at two places: EF, and BC, where the interval is but one fret.

Because that naming pattern fits only one set of "diatonic-seven" modes as-is, and because practical music requires moving the pattern up or down from time to time (to different keys), one or more notes will be systematically altered so as to translate the pattern higher or lower. No matter how many such key shifts are applied, the "diatonic-seven" pattern remains, displaced only, not distorted.

The schema and rules for modifying letternames with flats or sharps is known under several terms: first-degree modulation; the Circle of Fifths; the Clock of Dominants. If you're willing to work at something useful involving the .._BC_D_EF_.. letternames, learn the Clock and its rules. Memorizing the key signatures enables you to readily identify local landmarks for developing and applying intervallic pattern navigation skills.

Copyleft 2014 David Zethmayr