Point of View
We asked renowned Australian
jazz & classical composer/pianist,
to answer the following question...
Does perfect pitch really exist?
by Mark Isaacs
Perfect pitch really does exist but it is ultimately a curiosity -
and a great party trick. As far as musical development goes, excellent
relative pitch (let’s say “perfect relative pitch”) offers all that
perfect pitch does as a useful item in the toolbox of musicianship. I
wouldn’t put any real store at all on whether a musician has perfect
pitch or not.
Perfect pitch seems to be a gift. I have never met a musician who claims
to have acquired it by stealth in its fullest form, though I know people
who have learnt one or two notes by rote. I’m not sure if great relative
pitch is also something that appears as a gift, but it can certainly be
acquired, and really should be. Perhaps the best thing about the gift of
perfect pitch is that it spares you having to acquire really good
relative pitch. Like any gift, it’s just one of a possible package of
inbuilt musical aptitudes. My daughter is gifted with a rock-steady
rhythmic feel that manifested precociously early and without any effort
on her part at all. Despite my pitch gift, I lacked that one being
bestowed on me freely; I’ve had to work hard on my time and continue to
Because it generally appears so early (as it did in my case) it would
seem that one is born with it. However, until one learns the names of
the notes there is no way of demonstrating the gift. After I’d had a few
piano lessons at the age of five, one night my mother was singing me a
lullaby as she regularly did. When she finished the song, I told her the
names of the last few notes she had sung. My father checked at the piano
on a whim, and was astonished that I was right. He spent the next hour
testing me and found he couldn’t fool me.
As a party-trick I’ve had fun with the acute form in which I have it,
which enables me to generally identify all the notes in the weirdest
chord that someone can come up with on the piano. I like to play back
the exact ring-tone from the stage when someone thoughtlessly leaves
their mobile phone on at a gig. All this gives the kind satisfaction
gained by someone who does terrific card tricks, or tells jokes
excellently. The small pleasures of life.
It’s occasionally been useful in practical ways too. I bought an
electric shaver and immediately regretted I didn’t buy the next model
up, which had a meter that told you how much charge was left. I realised
this feature would have been useful when packing for a short tour, in
order to decide whether I’d need to take the charger or not. But I soon
learned I didn’t need the meter, as the motor hum dropped in pitch as
the charge wore out so I just learned the pitches and could tell from
those how much charge was left.
Apart from my own laziness at the prospect of having to practice two
instruments, perfect pitch was the reason I gave up the clarinet after a
short spell in my early teens. At the very first lesson, I was shown the
fingering for C, blew it and immediately apologised for the B flat that
came out. I could never reconcile playing music that was written on the
page in a different key than it was sounding. I guess I could have
learned the kind of inbuilt transposition that I later did as an
orchestrator, where I’d hear the French Horn part at pitch and transpose
it up a fifth on the fly as I wrote it down. I could accept that chore
as a writer but not as a player! In choirs I was in trouble if the piece
was transposed, as my sight singing involved seeing a note and singing
it. Good sight-singers without perfect pitch, who simply sang the
intervals, were not bothered by transposition of course. So it can
certainly be a liability.
As a very young musician doing a variety of gigs, I once agreed to play
standards at a private party. The owner had the piano tuned, but as is
often the case with very old upright pianos, bringing it right up to
pitch would be too much strain on the frame. So the piano was in tune
within itself, but a semitone down. A “piano in B”, as it were! After a
few minutes attempting to play I had to abandon the gig. Playing by ear,
I’d respond to what I heard and end up in a sonic hall of mirrors. To
put it in the simplest case scenario of dominant and tonic, say my
fingers would go to G7. I’d hear F#7 so my fingers would then in
response go to the resolution of B major. But that would sound as B flat
major! So, intending play G7 to C I’d end up with F#7 to B flat. This
was compounded with more complex harmonic relationships. I just could
not play that piano in any remotely coherent way and was almost
physically nauseous trying.
It should be added that perfect pitch is not really “perfect”. Most
people I know who have it round things up or down subconsciously to the
nearest semitone. So microtonal gradations may or may not be registered.
With turntables that ran at erratic speeds, I found that if the pitch
was dead centre between two semitones, I could round it either way, and
pretty much at will so that for example I could hear a piece in E major
and then suddenly hear it in F. It would be like those optical tricks
where a drawing can be seen two different ways, and you can flip which
one you see wilfully.
Now that I am nearly 50 I am finding that my “perfect” pitch is
drifting. I can sometimes be a full semitone out with a pitch that is
actually accurate. This is widely reported as a common experience for
the perfect pitch brigade with advancing age, but it’s very unsettling.
Never mind - I may have to relinquish the smart-ass party tricks, but my
time feel is heaps better!
© 2007 Mark Isaacs
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