This You Believe?

Jonathan Bellman

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.”

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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7 Responses to This You Believe?

  1. Mark says:

    I blogged about perfect pitch once; but the more I think about it the less it makes sense. Is it true that for string players, a C# is not the same as a Db?

  2. Jonathan says:

    It gets worse. The best explanation I know is Ross Duffin’s *How Equal Temperament Ruined Harmony*. Sometimes C-sharp is higher than D-flat, and sometimes lower, depending on whether you’re talking about inflecting a melody—leading tone pulling up to the prime, etc.—or maintaining purer vertical intervals.

  3. Phil Ford says:

    Actually, there is no one kind of perfect pitch. Some people have such acute sense of pitch it’s almost a disability: one friend of mine from my undergrad (a violinist) couldn’t bear to play with a piano, because the equal-tone tuning sounded unbearably harsh to her, and she hardly played in public because she would insist on rehearsing endlessly with whatever ensemble she *did* play with, trying to nail every intonation. And since intonation is situational, this took basically forever. I have perfect pitch, but it’s not like that. It works fine for classical music played at A=440 tuning, but it shuts down a lot when I hear musicians who aren’t quite so bound to equal temperament — like jazz players, for instance. If I hear a piano piece on the radio I’ll think, oh, D-flat, but when I hear the MC5 or something I don’t track the keys.
    But I’ve never experienced my pitch-awareness as either a blessing or a curse; it’s just a thing, like being able to whistle or pick up all your children’s toys with your toes (which I can also do). When I was listening to the Ring last fall I would sometimes find myself thinking “E major, C sharp minor, A flat minor, B major (etc.),” but I got tired of it and found it distracting, so I sort of unplugged that particular brain module. All of which is to say, I don’t exactly have “perfect pitch”; I have “pretty good pitch.” I think there’s a lot of variation in how we experience pitch, is what I’m saying.

  4. Eric says:

    I am a professional working jazz bassist (I gig about 8 to 10 nights a month). As such, I am very cognizant about playing perfectly in tune and with a perfect sense of time (So is everyone I play with in the Minneapolis scene). Thus, I wonder what you mean by jazz players not being bound to perfect pitch. My experience is that we jazz players are as bound to equal temperament as any classical player: that is, if my intonation is not spot-on with the piano or the guitar, it sounds like crap. To further bore the readers: During my daily practice routine I spend an hour just playing modes and scales in all twelve keys (along with the proverbial Aebersold recordings) just to keep my intonation in tip-top shape.

  5. Phil Ford says:

    If anything, jazz musicians have a sharper sense of intonation than anyone. I didn’t mean to imply that jazz performances are out-of-tune; rather, it’s that the kind of expressive pitch-bending that jazz musicians use against a normative backdrop of equal-tone temperament makes it harder for my internal key-area-detector to work. It’s like the chaff they use to confuse the direction systems for guided missiles or something. I have no idea why this is: I suspect that my pitch sensitivity is, as Jonathan puts it, timbrally-based.

  6. Eric says:

    I didn’t take it as a slam (I read this blog enough to know that the folks who chime in here are well-informed; I was just curious). As for the pitch-bending: I once had a conversation with Paul Lansky regarding the blues; he made a very compelling argument for the blues being a microtonal musical language. This probably goes without saying, but many less-informed ‘teachers’ talk about a blues scale being pentatonic (it’s at the very least hexatonic: the flat-5 is ADDED to the scale), and never talk much about the bends being essential to the musical vocabulary.

  7. Jonathan says:

    Lansky’s view makes intuitive sense to me, but I’m no ethnomusicologist. I wonder if there’s something in one of Peter van der Merwe’s two books (particularly the more recent one) about the legitimate microtonality of African potential source-musics?

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