Polemicscat's Weblog

Examining settled and unsettling questions.

About Having Perfect Pitch

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Just as most people recognize the colors red and blue, a person with perfect pitch looks at a page of sheet music and immediately knows the pitches of the notes written there. I’ve been fortunate enough to know a few people with that ability. When I was in college, I was a member of a church choir whose director, Carol, had perfect pitch. We learned that about her one evening when she confessed that she was having trouble reading the sheet music of a hymn we were starting to rehearse. We were going to sing the song in a different key from the key in which it was printed. It was not more than a semitone or a tone different, and that didn’t bother the rest of us at all.

Later, I got to know Bill who was a music professor at a little college in TennesseeĀ  at the time. He is a composer and spends most of his waking hours writing music—wherever he happens to be. A piano is unnecessary; he hears all the notes in his head. In recent years he has visited us several times at our home. Late one night, during one of his visits, we heard him downstairs moving around and discovered him sitting at the kitchen table, writing out some music that had come to him as he lay in bed.

The next day we took him and his wife on a drive to the top of Mount Mitchell. It was fall and the leaves were at their peak of color. All of us except Bill remarked about the particularly beautiful colors on one tree or another as we rode along the parkway. Bill, quite naturally, was busy scribbling musical notes on a piece of manuscript paper on his lap. He never looked up. But, to be sociable, he echoed our exclamations about the beautiful leaves on this or that maple tree without ever taking his eyes off the paper in front of him.

Perfect pitch is a wonderful talent, but it is not as unusual as one might suppose. In any choir of fifty or so singers there is likely to be one or two with the ability to hum an A (or whatever pitch is required) for the director when the group is about to sing a work a capella.

I understand that certain Oriental languages require a speaker to voice pitches precisely in speaking. I am told that in societies where these languages are spoken, more people have what we would call perfect pitch. Perhaps the demand for pitch consciousness in speaking in these cultures produces a keener ear and, ultimately, a genetic ability in members of that society to differentiate pitches.

Most people can become more proficient at determining pitches just by working at it. Usually musical training gives a singer what is referred to as “relative pitch.” In that case, the singer is able to produce other notes in the scale of a key once the tonic note is sounded.

Other innate abilities go into the making of a genius like Wolfgang Mozart. Admiring fans around the world remembered him with special tributes in January of 2006, the 250th anniversary of his birth. Wolfgang was fortunate in that his father, Leopold, was a musician himself who recognized the extraordinary musical ability of his son. Leopold played the violin and composed music and was able to give the young boy a good grounding in music theory. Wolfgang was a child prodigy and began touring Europe by the age of six with his sister Nannerl, 11, who was also a precocious keyboard player. They were in London when Wolfgang wrote his first symphony. He was 8 and had already written several dozen keyboard works and had published in Paris and London sonatas for keyboard and violin.

Mozart undoubtedly had perfect pitch, but he also had an astonishing ability to remember a complex musical passage and to write it down perfectly. The Italian composer Gregorio Allegri had composed, for the Roman Catholic Church, a Miserere in nine voice parts. The piece was so revered by Church authorities that they did not allow any written copies to go out of the church. Mozart heard the Miserere once in a service he attended and was able to go out and write it down from memory. This ability to retain mentally a complex piece of music is revealed in Mozart’s composing as well. It is said that he conceptualized a work entirely before he began to write it down. Consequently, he didn’t have to make revisions or corrections as he wrote.

As a rule, I am not in favor of cloning human beings, but I think I would make an exception in Mozart’s case.

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Written by polemicscat

August 11, 2008 at 8:28 pm

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