Three weeks or so ago I saw this perfect pitch blurb on yahoo. Such notices or advertisements appear periodically, and not only is the issue presented as if you-the-reader can easily acquire this knack (many consider it to be something you’re born with, period), it’s also assumed that you-the-reader want it. I remember one of my piano students, when I was doing my masters, angrily accusing me of expecting her to have perfect pitch (she was unhappy that I was letting her have it for not practicing). To her credit, she did get about ninety seconds of confusion before my annoyance really took over: I expect you to what? Why would I do that?
I do not have perfect pitch. I have very good relative pitch on the piano, probably timbrally based, because I’ve spent so many hours at the thing. Perfect pitch has always struck me as a disadvantage, because it’s harder to transpose at sight. People with perfect pitch have virtually a physical connection between G and this frequency, this specific number of cycles, and so—if, say, you’re singing a piece of early music originally written for men but there are women in your group, you may have to go up or down a second, third, or even perfect fourth. Yes, it’s initially disorienting for everyone, but you learn to hear notes in intervallic relation to one another, as opposed to “this is where God put G-sharp, and when I see a G-sharp this is the noise I make, period.” Wind players often have the almost crippling association of individual pitches with, more than anything else, finger position—a G is when my fingers do this, a C when they do that—which can put them at a real disadvantage in other kinds of music making.
A further question is what this physical attribute? condition? would have meant to musicians in previous centuries, when pitch wasn’t standardized. Temperament historians know from surviving Renaissance and Baroque organ pipes, recorder consorts and so on that pitch centers varied from place to place; the standard A in Köln might be a half-step, step or even more above or below that of, Leipzig. Local instrument makers standardized among themselves, of course, but what would this mean for a musician with this kind of physical pitch memory, what we now call perfect pitch? What happens when he goes to a town where the standard tuning is a quarter-tone or three quarters of a tone off? Does everything sound miserably out of tune? Does it become debilitatingly difficult to make music? Does music itself become an agonizing experience?
OK; so maybe you’re born with it. To me, though, it doesn’t seem to be a fundamentally musical quality, since it would have been a hindrance in the days before standardized pitch. I wonder what the evolutionary point of it is, or if it is simply one of the many neurological variants of sensitivity to frequency. I’m glad I don’t have it, and I marvel that people would think they want it, and would thus be such marks for “Learn Perfect Pitch!” ads. “Learn Narrowness and Absolutism! Become Straitened and Helpless in the Wide World of Music Making! Twelve Easy Lessons!”
The subject of what you will, unfortunately, believe rears up again in the Sept. 17, 2007 New Yorker, which has a thorough and informative article by Mark Singer on the Joyce Hatto hoax, which I blogged about months ago. This story is such a stomachache. We have, first, a pianist whose life-tragedy was insufficient critical recognition (yeah, sure, carrière and all that, but is that why you spend all those hours at the piano?!). Enter her husband, an utterly charming and ingratiating fraud, a pathological liar really. In the article, watch how he tailors his anecdotes to his listener, with heartstring-tugging vignettes involving Americans or Jewish holocaust survivors or whatever—diabolically disarming, clever stealth attacks upon reasonable skepticism. Then, of course, you’ve got the critics and chattering masses of recording aficionados: squabbling with each other, falling all over themselves at this wonderful woman, ignoring obvious danger signals (untraceable collaborating musicians and unknown orchestras), then—when the truth begins to bubble out—turning vengefully to discredit everything they formerly adored. Everyone behaves like a stereotype of one kind or another. It’s just a miserable story, all fatal flaws and almost no nobility, other than this, you know, pianist.
Pity the human being. Given a choice between naïve credulity and actual thought he’ll go for the first every time, and the resentment of those few who refuse to follow grows ever more palpable, and dangerous. “Politics,” “religion,” “morality,” anyone? Not to mention “musical taste.”