Monday, June 27, 2005

More on absolute pitch

After writing my previous entry I still didn't feel like working so I decided to look into perfect pitch some more.

The first thing I found led me to a study at UCSF. I hit on the link for the system sound test and was dismayed by how quickly the pitches are played. I felt like I could catch some but the speed was making me nervous. I also didn't like the sound of those pure tones.

I know that a part of me really wants to feel like I have this because in a weird way it would sort of justify my extreme devotion to music. It's sad that I still feel that I need to justify it. I guess a part of me hasn't completely given up on the whole "destiny" thing, feeling that I was born to do something. This is a silly line of thought because I'm going to do this even though I can't get into the NY Phil.

My next hit was on wikipedia. This sentence stuck out: A person with absolute pitch will be able to, at minimum, know when a piece isn't played in its original key.

DING! I scored a point. It annoys my husband to no end that I am constantly correcting him in regards to what key he's playing something in. He always says "but it's the same thing". And I say "no, it's not!".

Wikipedia has redeemed me:

Persons who have absolute pitch, but who do not have strong musical training, will seem annoyed or unnerved when a piece is transposed to a different key . . .

They may feel that such a piece does not have the intrinsic beauty of music, and in some cases will be physically uncomfortable . . .

I knew I wasn't just being annoying, anal, or crazy. It just bothers me to hear it in the wrong key; you should see me scrunch my face disapprovingly. It definitely loses some of its beauty.

This part was also interesting because it reminds me of what I just wrote about with my struggles with melodic dictation. I need to further develop my relative pitch.

They may have a harder time developing relative pitch than others, and for many musical tasks like transposition, lack of training in relative skills can trip up a musician with absolute pitch, who will attempt to use their absolute knowledge for what is clearly a relative task.

I guess I may possibly have what they describe as "passive absolute pitch". I can identify certain notes, the ones whose sound I've cared to learn. Right now the one I know the most is "a" since oboists are expected to provide that tuning note. In addition to the c and f# which I knew before I can usually get f, g, and d. I didn't really try to cultivate this after I saw how it set me off course with ear training. I can sing c, f# or a on command as well, albeit slightly out of tune some days. As I mentioned I can definitely tell when things are in the original key and I can sometimes identify what key things are in. Again, this is mostly uncultivated. I can recognize the keys we use a lot at church: C, G, and D major and f#, b, a, d, and c minor. E major or minor I sometimes get though they both have a "weird" feeling to me. Nearby keys that I am less familiar with like e-flat or b-flat trip me up. Also it's easier for me to recognize keys with popular music than with orchestral. With orchestral I cheat and use a reference piece. For example, since I love the 3rd movement of Brahms' third symphony it is my reference for c minor. If I hear another piece in c minor I will remember that it's the key of the Brahms piece.

I can always play a piece or song in my mind in the correct key. Right now I can listen to the opening of Mozart's 40th, Ravel's Bolero, or Beethoven's 5th in my mind in their original glory. And I can usually sing it back to you in that key. I'm not a great singer though so sometimes I'll sing it flat.

I remember one time in composition class there was a violinist who had perfect pitch and was a virtuoso and the whole nine yards. The professor wanted to test her ability and bounced a ball on top of the table and asked her what pitch she heard. I silently mouthed F because it was the one pitch I was really familiar with at that time and the ball's sound brought it to mind. The girl didn't see me but the professor did so when she said "That was an F" he gave me a weird look. Haha. That was fun!

Another interesting story happened when I was 7. I remember learning "Silent Night" from my second grade teacher. I found the melody very beautiful and one night I was in the living room by myself staring at the tree. I decided to serenate it by singing "Silent Night" to it. I started singing and realized that something wasn't right. I started again and again felt weird about it. I remember like yesterday the conversation going on in my mind. I realized that I could start singing it on a different note each time and I wondered how people knew what the correct note was. I figured that maybe I needed to play the guitar like my teacher did. At that point I knew nothing about music notation but it's really interesting that I was having this sort of sophisticated dialogue in my mind. Eventually I settled on something and the tree did get its serenade.

Do you think it's worth me trying to develop this? Or should I just spend my time on more fruitful activities? Maybe I can train my ear while making reeds. Now there's a thought. To be honest all I really want at this point is to get better at playing melodies by ear and to play in tune. But I admit, having a good ear is very satisfying. It can't hurt to work on it some more. :-D


dulciana said...

Okay, you asked! Others might disagree with me, but I think that "perfect pitch" is only useful as a parlor trick – it’s a liability, not an asset. First, if you ever find yourself playing with me at the harpsichordist, there's a good chance that the harpsichord will be tuned to a lower frequency. Did you know that it was only in 1955 that A above mid. C was standardized at 440 Hz? There's a good article at wikipedia on pitch history. Much of the music of the baroque period and earlier (and even some from later) would certainly have been originally performed at different pitch levels than where we hear it today. So, when you say, “I can recognize an A,” I could reply, “Whose idea of an A?” Another reason - as an organist/choirmaster, I have occasionally had the choir sing an a capella piece at another pitch level than the one where it was written in order to better accommodate my particular group of singers. If you're a singer in my choir looking at your note and expecting to hear a different pitch, it will confuse you. I'd far rather work with someone who has a good sense of relative pitch and can sight-sing and tune well. It's just far more useful.

patty said...

Hi Hilda,

Absolute pitch is something I don't have, and have often wondered about a lot. I wrote, in fact, to Scott of Music Perceptions (do you visit his site?) about this.

I wonder, for instance ... if someone has absolute (perfect, right?) pitch now, is he or she hearing A-440? Or just an general "close to that" A? If an A-440, why? Because in early music it was an A-415. I think in Mozart's time it was sharper than an A-440 (I'll have to check the link Duciana provided). San Francisco Symphony says they play and A-441, and in Europe the A is very sharp ... I've been told 444 or higher.

One of my friends (a flutist) states, "I have perfect pitch" and implies that, due to that, she is always right and the rest of us wrong when we aren't in tune with her. (Or at least she used to. This year she looked over at me and apologized for being sharp! Hmmm.) But if everyone is playing in tune with each other and she is off I'd say she was wrong. But it's a hassle for her, I know.

Me? I can pick out what notes an oboe is playing when I hear it, because each note has such a distinct timbre. But other instruments? Nope. At least I don't think so.

Btw, when I was first playing English horn it was always a shock to finger one note and hear another (it's in they key of F).

Some of my Asian students have perfect pitch. I've been told that it's more likely for them because they speak a pitch-based language. One went absolutely nuts if his reed was really bad and out of tune. I met an amateur violinist who really went crazy, too, if the orchestra she played in was way off.

So I think it can be an asset, but also a hindrance.

And I ramble ... but today is my day to ramble since I have NO WORK!! Yay!

Hilda said...

Haha I'm rambling today too because I don't feel like working. I wish I could get paid to sit around and think about music or play all day.

Deep down I think that perfect pitch is more of a "parlor trick" like Dulciana said since it has limited practical applicability. (And I too will check out that link.) However, I still find it a bit fascinating for some reason (and I'm glad you've wondered about it too, Patty). Maybe it's because I thought about the concept for a long time during my pre-music-education years. Also I've always been interested in certain related psychological questions regarding music. For instance, the idea of having a favorite key has always intrigued me. I think that if you have one you must have some sort of heightened sense of pitch (or color) recognition. What exactly is it in your brain that makes you like a certain note or key more than others? I always wonder what a fMRI of those responses would look like.

I don't see myself trying to learn more pitches, though I admit I sat around and listened to "e" for a while about an hour ago. I need to get better at being able to feel at home in any tonic and hearing the relation of that key's pitches to the tonic, sight-singing and reading, and intonation.

Do the kids who study for 6 hours plus a day include the time they spend doing things that are not necessarily on the instrument?

At what point in someone's music career do they start putting in a lot of hours of practice? I imagine that when they first start they are not so into it. Maybe it's once the child goes into junior high or high school. I have a hard time imagine anyone under age 10 being focused enough to practice for hours a day.

How long (how many months or years of training), typically, does it take until the student is practicing 3+ hours a day consistently?

I feel like I want to do it but I don't actually do it. Most times it's because I don't want to "spend" my only reed. This problem will go away once I can make them consistently and will have more than 1 good one at any time. Other times I feel a little lazy. Am I doomed?!

I want to work up to three hours by September: one in the morning before work or school and two more in the evening. Three one hour sessions with a break in each one. Will this be enough for me to be able to play in a local orchestra some time in the next decade? This doesn't include ear training, reed making, or rehearsals (I'm assuming I wouldn't be able to do formal pracice on my own rehearsal night).

I realize I won't be making music my career but I would still like to get as close as I can to the trajectory of the average music student who goes on to a decent career. I feel like I need to aim high in order to get where I want to since real life will take care of adjusting my goal down.

patty said...

I practiced most when I was in high school and college. I now practice when necessary. Let's face it ... much of the time I spend a good amount of time in rehearsal and concerts, and those "count" for practice imo! I used to spend MUCH more time on reeds than on practice, but I'm the world's worst reed maker!

I think one practices the most on the way to "becoming" ... and once having arrived practices mostly for maintenance. There are times I land on a particularly difficult passage (Song of the Nightingale was one) and then I spend a LOT of time on only a few measures or so.

Anyway, when I was beginning I liked to practice because the oboe was such a new discovery (at the age of 11). Then it got boring, and my mom had to force me to practice. In high school I practiced because it was just fun to hang out in the band room or the practice rooms there, and in college I had landed a symphony gig so I practiced both for that and for my (not very good) college instructor.

BUT ... when I had children practice really took a nosedive for a while. Fortunately oboe and English horn are primarily expressive instruments (which comes naturally to me) and not as technically difficult, so I managed to make it all work even while not practicing much.

Getting into practicing is much like going to exercise for me ... I really fight doing it, but I'm glad I did once I get started! I'll do a whole lot of things to avoid it, though; I wind up cleaning the house or straightening up my oboe desk or anything just to put it off. Funny how that works. I think a large part of it is fear. Even now, after 30 years, I worry that I'll have lost it and won't be able to play!

One REALLY funny thing is when I have a major solo. Then I don't play at all on the day of the performances. I fear I'll wear out my reed. Or find out it's already rotten. So I don't play in order to avoid those fears. Then, getting closer to the concert time, I worry that I've blown it by NOT practicing. It's a lose-lose situation. But after all these years I'm used to my ridiculous crazy little habits! :-)

Anyway Hilda, don't fret. You do what you can do and that's that. You'll do just fine! You have come SO far compared to the "norm" ... I sure wish we could visit "live and in person" and we could yak and play!

Hmmm. This is yet another ramble that I think I'll just send off without proofing. Ignore any typos and silly statements! :-)

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