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The perfect pitch

Jan 23, 2003 - by Franck ERNOULD
Many musicians consider perfect pitch as an invaluable gift. What is its origin ? Is it acquirable ? Can we say that what?s increased in efficiency is lost in musical pleasure ? Answers elements... Isn?t it unsettling to be confronted with a sort of walking frequency-meter which instantly names the key, or even the chord that you?ve just played on your instrument ? Isn?t it annoying to be said "you?re a quarter of a tone too low", and to see this peremptory verdict confirmed by your electronic tuner ? In the same way, isn?t it humiliating, while sweating blood over a four pitches dictation, to observe some gifted pupils of the music class retranscribing it in one go ? But first of all, what on earth is this nearly- mythical perfect pitch, which some people even refute the existence?
How does it work ?
    First, let?s remind shortly the generally admitted principle of pitches perception. In our inner ear is a picking up organ called cochlea. Spiral-shaped, it is covered with lashed cells, each one answering to a particular frequencies zone (according to Helmholtz?s theory). Frequencies ? and then melody- interpretation, mainly takes place in the right part of the brain, while its left part is rather concerned with language. Postulating that the musician endowed with perfect pitch instantly associates a key name (F, G, D...) to the pitch he is perceiving, one might be tempted to think that this gift would come from an hability to make the two parts of the brain communicate. This hypothesis is invalidated by the fact that some researchers have demonstrated that " absolutists "? temporal planum ?part of the cortex- was much more developped on the left side than on the right side. Is this asymmetry innate or acquired ? No one knows. Yet, some people say that if you give to your baby a small bell in " A ", he will with no doubt get this enviable gift. Dear readers and short-time parents, we invite you to try the experiment , and let?s arrange to meet within a few years... Finally, an american researcher asserted, in 1991, that he had discovered families with absolute ear : this would then mean that it would be transmitted as a dominant feature from a generation to another. The corresponding gene would be present in one person over 1500, but perfect pitch would turn up only for a few of them.
    Perfect pitch would then be a gift, like blue eyes ? Not so simple ! Some other studies, statistical now, show that 95% of perfect pitched musicians started music before 7 years old . At this age, neuronic and cortical development is still in progress: we might then believe that perfect pitch can be picked up. But only untill a certain age : facts show that taking up music after 11 deprives of absolute pitch, and adults acquiring it afterwards are extremely rare. It has also been quoted that this " gift " was more frequent among blind musicians , whose hearing is much sharper anyway, with or without absolute pitch ear. Finally, ear degeneration, following brain diseases, may have tragic consequences on pitches perception. For example, Gabriel Fauré, by the end of his life, was hearing everything extremely out of tune, which is a real torture for a composer. Some absolute ears see their reference inexorably lowering as they get older, which leads them to perceive everything too high...
Absolute piano and absolute pitch
    Musical dictations are, as we have seen, a choice dish to "absolutists". Where a normal ear needs to be constantly recalled the base A, the absolute ear does cheerfully manage without it. Moreover, most people endowed with it are able to sing a well-tuned A at any time. Easy to check : the dialling tone is a perfect A440.
    Some recognise the spectral variations instead of the pitch. For example, the spectrum of a pure string sound varies depending on the string tension. Thus, it is not rare that violin players, among others, tune their instrument without any external help. Similarly, other music players are specialists in their instrument : they instantly name the keys played on the piano for example, but remain silent as they are played by a trumpet. Their " absolute ear " is in fact a very high-level timbre analyser.
    The number of notes recognised at one time (chords) is also very variable. Some "phenomenons" can analyse note by note atonal clusters composed of up to 10 notes without missing a single one! And more than this, "exceptions" even split up noises into series of pitches, complaining as a door is creaking, because it is not consonant !
Advantage or handicap ?
    Doesn?t this analysis, indeed involuntary, but very precise and permanent, damage musical pleasure? In other words, do you still like listening to music if you cannot refrain from hearing it as a series of perfectly identifiable notes ? Several answers can be given to this. First, perfect pitch, very analytical, allows to follow the most complex polyphonies in real time. Phil Collins loves to tune his drums barrels : subtlety which will go unnoticed for people who don?t recognize pitches. In both cases, perfect pitch, far from damaging musical pleasure, will contribute to it... For a sound engineer, as regards critical listening ? accuracy, problems of tuning among instruments-, it is also an incontestable plus.
    But you will say, what about the one who?s listening to music in an entertaining way ? If he is really " taken " by the music, he will automatically deactivate his ear, will no more concentrate on a series of pitches, but on the general lines of the melody. If he starts to put the notes on what he?s hearing, that means that he?s bored... A bit like at the cinema : if the spectator starts to watch out for the wrong link shots in the background, that means that the film missed his goal, which was first to interest him!
    On the other hand, a painfull mental gymnastics necessarily imposes itself to an instrumentalist endowed with perfect pitch, willing to learn how to play a transpositing instrument. The notes he?s hearing do not correspond to those that are written (a B flat clarinet gives out this pitch when you play a C written on the score). In the same way, an organist will curse his perfect ear when he will have to sight-transpose the accompaniment he has to play, where a musician with a " normal " hear will purely and simply move back the keyboard and will play the usual notes, without being disturbed at all by the fact that the C key makes an A ... A tape-player going too quickly will also torture our listener, unable to stand a well-known work, heard a quarter of a tone too low ! Absolute ears fanatical about ancient instruments are pretty disturbed by 415 Hz diapasons... Besides, one wonders how instrumentists afflicted with perfect pitch were coping with it at the time of Bach, say, when diapason could vary of one tone from a region to another.
    Michel Magne, Nat King Cole, Jacqueline Thibault and André Prévin (conductor) are (were) endowed with it, as the writer of this article is. Mozart was too, who could, aged of 3, play again by heart a whole sonata heard just once. However, let?s relativize this debate : most gifted composers were not endowed with absolute pitch. This would tend to prove, even though it enjoys a definite prestige amongst musicians, that it does not necessarily make artists ...

    1998 - Franck ERNOULD -

    Translated from french by Simple Cel.
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