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My gift – or curse – of perfect pitch

January 11, 2015 by norman lebrecht

18 comments.


David Stevens shares with many others the ability to identify any note by ear, and the inability to ensure anything that sounds off-pitch. Perect pitch is the subject of current research. We asked David to describe it from the inside.

 

david stevens1

It is the 1950s. I am seven years old and have just started to have private piano lessons with a local piano teacher. Whether my parents somehow saw evidence of musicality in me or whether piano lessons for their offspring was what many middle-class parents aspired to, I cannot now say.

Quite early on I became aware that I could somehow identify an individual note on the piano by its pitch. Not knowing what to make of this I once invited my mother to come and sit at the keyboard while I left the room, shut the door and went into the hall. “Just play me any note you like,” I shouted through to her “and I’ll come in and show you which one you touched.” To her astonishment and surprise I was able to go straight to the note she had played and play it too. We repeated the experiment a few more times, with different notes, just to establish that I wasn’t somehow pulling the wool over her eyes. She must have regarded it as some kind of musical sorcery, although we never actually discussed it at length. Of course neither of us knew what to make of this curious aptitude. I know now that it was evidence of the possession of a kind of perfect pitch. Although I went on to do music A-level and to read music at university I don’t recall the topic of perfect pitch ever being discussed.

I have sung in amateur choirs from my student days but it was not until I took part in a performance of the Bach B Minor Mass in 1983 that I came to question the desirability of having a degree of perfect pitch. The so-called early music revival was in full swing at that time and as soon the rehearsal started I realized that this performance of Bach’s masterpiece was, to my ears, in Bb minor. I was going to have to mentally transpose every note down by a semitone. In such complex, often chromatic and swiftly-moving music, the concentration involved in transposing was overbearing. I hadn’t (and still haven’t) developed the ability to transpose whole phrases into a new key – each note was having to be processed separately.

Since then I have tried to avoid performing in concerts where I know that the music will be played at so-called baroque pitch. I have taken part in workshops of Renaissance music where the music has been at a lower pitch but I have somehow been able to cope with the simpler textures, a more limited intervallic range and more straightforward rhythms. Today,

I find that “my” perfect pitch – never truly perfect, anyway – has deteriorated somewhat.

I sometimes test myself by singing the opening note of a piece, whose key I know, and which is about to be played on the radio. I am often close to the opening note, but not always close enough – usually I’m slightly lower.

However, my perfect pitch is still sufficiently intact accurately to identify the keys of most pieces of “classical” music which I hear, even of works I have never heard before, and the knack can be useful when trying to identify excerpts of music played in the weekday morning Brain Teaser slot on Radio 3’s Essential Classics, especially the one in which the music is played backwards. On the whole I am pleased to have such a faculty, but there are occasions when it is a curse rather than a blessing.

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Comments (18)

  1. David Ward says:

    Being a wee bit elderly (due to be 74 in Feb) I sometimes doze off with Radio 3 on. A couple of times I’ve woken in a nightmarish panic because a familiar piece appears to be in quite the wrong key. In Mozart’s day, I think pitch was local and very variable, but for decades my A was fixed at 440 – then came these period instrument people! Anyway, nowadays my sense of pitch occasionally goes altogether for a few confusing minutes, but I don’t think that’s because of the range of period pitches one hears from time to time.

  2. Sasha says:

    When I was a music student I sometimes had the misfortune to sing in the music academy chorus next to a guy who had perfect pitch. During long a cappella pieces the pitch often came down, but this guy kept singing a quarter- or even a semitone higher than others “because he was right”. Very obnoxious! 🙂 Needless to say I don’t regret not having perfect pitch. A good relative pitch and good solfeggio skills are enough for any professional musician.

    1. Malcolm James says:

      Having perfect pitch, I have experienced this. I can transpose down a semitone easily enough, but I can’t do anything in between. The only solution was to stick to the ‘right’ pitch untill such time as I thought it appropriate to shift down the semitone. I couldn’t drift down with the rest of them.

  3. Robert Eshbach says:

    Sir Charles Hallé, on his “perfect pitch” — from his autobiography: “This faculty has proved to have one drawback—viz. That the pitch of that period [his youth], a good half-tone lower than the present one, has remained so impressed on my brain, that when I now hear a piece of music for the first time, it seems to me in a higher key than it really is written in; I hear it in C when it is in B, and have to translate it, so to say. My friend Joachim shares this peculiarity with me, and it is now and then very perplexing.”

  4. NYMike says:

    I, too, found the music world much simpler before A=415 came round. As a kid, I could name every note produced by someone mashing their forearms down on the keyboard. As a professional violinist I could hear the slightest out-of-tune chord in orchestras in which I played or listened to. If Berlin or Boston were on the radio, I could tell because they tuned to A-444.

    Now however, I’m often off by a semitone thanks to the proliferation of “early music” tunings prevalent these days.

  5. bratschegirl says:

    I had a stand partner for many years who had absolute pitch at A440. The orchestra in which he and I played rarely tuned lower than 441 or even 442, and usually strayed higher in the course of the piece. He found this both distracting and distressing, and at least in those circumstances more of a liability than an asset.

    I, on the other hand, have not the slightest trace of absolute pitch. I do think I have a good sense of relative pitch, as in whether intervals either vertical or horizontal are in tune (in the Western diatonic sense blah blah), but without my fiddle or a tuning fork in hand I would have absolutely no sense of what an isolated note I heard would be called. I once turned on the car radio and immediately identified what I was hearing as the final chord of the 1st movement of the Franck D minor Symphony, but it was the orchestration and voicing and the overall color impression that I reacted to; I had no thought whatsoever that it was a D chord.

  6. sdReader says:

    “I was going to have to mentally transpose every note down by a semitone.”

    You mean up, surely. Or did you seek to shift the whole Mass to the wrong place? What torture.

    1. KB says:

      No. If he sees B-C-D but hears Bb-Cb-Db then he has to transpose what he’s seeing down a semitone, otherwise he’ll be a semitone sharp.

      1. sdReader says:

        Yes of course.

  7. Baron says:

    Perfect pitch is a great boon to a music critic, especially when reviewing singers (who may have transposed a given aria or song, and you know it). It’s helpful in choral singing, to start off an a cappella piece without the aid of a pitchpipe, but after that … it’s not so helpful in a cappella, unless you’re “off the score” and can sing the piece from memory, which frees your mind from looking at a G-natural and singing a G-flat with the rest of the sinking chorus. (The better the chorus, the less you have this problem, though. Excellent choruses don’t sink much.) As for the early-music dilemma, it helps to just reimagine that Vivaldi concerto as being in A-flat minor (an exotic concept, but it works most of the time). And it’s great for identifying encores in an instrumental recital: knowing the key of the mystery piece narrows your choices down enormously.

    1. Michael Smith says:

      Funnily enough, pitch in Vivaldi’s Venice is now thought to be around A=445.

  8. stanley cohen says:

    One of the distinct advantages of not possessing perfect pitch is definitely avoiding all of those bugbears listed above but even at 75 I am able to give the correct starting note for most pieces that I have sung. What the neural mechanism is or is called I know not – but it’s quite useful.

  9. David Ward says:

    To add to what I said above and perhaps to confuse the discussion a trifle, although I long had A 440 as my absolute memory reference, over the decades I’ve increasingly thought equal temperament a tyranny. When practical, knowing that this or that note in this or that context is best adjusted a little up or down for reasons of harmony, resonance or projection can become as instinctive for a musician with ‘perfect’ pitch as for one without: one can adjust. For me, the confusion comes when tired or paying less than full attention. I’m usually much more relaxed and flexible when fully alert.

  10. cabbagejuice says:

    Our pianos at home and most probably at school were most of the time out of tune, usually a semitone lower. I don’t have perfect pitch but after playing on those pianos for so long and at a more impressionable age, I am often confused about pitch. But once I get it into my head what the tonality is, relative pitch comes to the rescue. So I program myself to hear whatever it is in the new key.

  11. Alexandra Ivanoff says:

    I once sang in a professional church choir in NYC wherein every singer had perfect pitch, including the conductor. I was spoiled forever.

  12. Jane Niesen says:

    Other frustrations with perfect pitch:
    1. Reading music of any instrument not in C. (trumpet, viola, horn, etc.)
    2. Performing an a Capella work with a choral group and listening to the entire group sag.
    3. The above, plus the inevitable disastrous orchestral entrance
    3. Tends to be slightly less reliable with age.
    4. People tend to resent you as they do not feel your pain.

  13. Dominic Jewel says:

    A word in defence of the marvellous instinct that is perfect pitch.

    I’ve personally found perfect pitch to be – almost unreservedly – of huge benefit. It made dictation, aural tests, etc whilst studying extremely easy, makes good intonation much easier, and is enormously helpful in sight-reading and especially sight-singing. When playing improvised music like jazz, folk, etc, it means selection of keys, scales etc is entirely automatic, and it surely assists in playing by ear, particularly in an ensemble.

    The only issue is (as David identifies) the inability to hear anything other than the correct note when reading music – like him I simply could not process all that transposition. However I could manage transposing by anything up to one semitone, which I found made early music tuning possible (though uncomfortable) so in practice the number of occasions it caused a real problem was very limited.

    I would certainly say that in a chorus, having several individuals with perfect pitch, who can help to shore up any risk of sagging, is a considerable advantage. Keep on singing the right notes David, I say!

  14. SPA says:

    Cursed as well! My “perfect” pitch was learned to be 415 Hz. This sounds like A to me. So “bring it” with all the baroque-pitched songs. Ironically, I played a lot of Bach (piano) growing up.
    I was born in 1972… was 415 Hz a thing of the 80s???

    So 440 Hz sounds like B to me, a full note up.
    When I used to play violin in orchestras, I noticed the A always sounded sharp, but it was sounded more a half note-ish, so it was never an issue.
    I can score 100% on all the perfect pitch tests by answering a full note lower.

    Recently, I played the violin after a 10+ year layoff.
    All the instruments have their As tuned higher, so I had to adapt to their tuning. Tortuous. If it’s singing, no problem, it’s simplistic. But if it’s an instrument (violin), it’s painful. With the more difficult song, I will need to transpose the music.
    The others can play so it’s a half note difference.
    I’m not sure how I would feel playing on a 440 Hz-tuned piano.

    I’m wondering if I can train myself to hear A to be 440 Hz, but I think it’d be too painful.


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