It’s also called absolute pitch, but really, I’m not buying it. And furthermore, what does it have to do with actual musicianship?
Does it make you a better musician or is it just a parlour trick? So, perfect pitch: What’s so perfect about it? And furthermore, what do Hitler’s Nazis have to do with any of this?
What is perfect pitch? About 1 in 10,000 people possess absolute pitch, or perfect pitch. People with this ability can produce any letter named note on demand without a reference note.
So if you ask someone with perfect pitch to sing you a Bb, you’ll get a Bb. A perfectly pitched Bb at that. You can play any note or chord and they can tell you every single note. Wouldn’t that be awesome?
So many musicians including myself have at one time or another, dreamt of having perfect pitch. It would solve all our problems and we’d be able to play anything and life would be grand. Then you’re told that you either have it or you don’t. So you get on with being the best musician you can by developing the tools you do have.
How do we survive without perfect pitch? Relative pitch and pattern recognition: For the rest of us there’s relative pitch. This is the ability to name a note after a reference has been given and is a skill that can be learned with some ear training.
Relative pitch combined with pattern recognition is how the rest of us get on without perfect pitch. Pattern recognition in music is equally if not more important than being able to instantly name each note.
Problems with having Perfect Pitch
According to people with perfect pitch, there are some problems that come with it. People who have perfect pitch report problems like: not being able to enjoy ensemble performances, vocal or instrumental because people are singing or playing out of tune. Some claim that it gets so bad they have to leave performances.
Performances that everyone else seems to be enjoying because we can’t hear how badly out of tune everything is. They also sometimes obsess over the pitches of everyday sounds like horns, bird songs and the hum of the light bulb.
It’s also torturous for them to have to explain to people about the difficulties of living with absolute or perfect pitch. They also resent having to give repeated demonstrations.
Oh well, it’s doesn’t sound like a whole lot of fun. And... It doesn’t actually make you a better musician. If that were true then musicians with perfect pitch would be the best, but it takes more than perfect pitch to master an instrument.
Why am I skeptical? What am I skeptical of? Okay, I get that people with absolute pitch are able to identify notes by name and that’s all good. But people with perfect pitch can be tricked. A 2013 study by The University of Chicago shows that you can slowly detune a song (preferably a long classical piece) as it’s being listened to and someone with PP wouldn’t notice. And afterward, their tonal center will have changed. If they heard the same song right after in the original key, they would say it was too high. It would be sharp to them.
Is there such a thing as an “absolute” or “perfect” pitch?
What is absolute pitch anyway? I mean, what is absolute about a pitch? A pitch is a measurement of sound frequency measured in Hz. Human hearing ranges from around 20Hz on the low end up to 20KHz, The most important sounds we hear every day are in the 250 to 6,000 Hz range.
The “official” notes and frequencies we hear in music are not absolute in and of themselves.
On a standard 88 key piano the bottom note A is measured at 27.5Hz and the top note C is 4186.01 Hz. And the most famous note of them all, Middle C is 261.626hz. The real fun begins with the A above middle C. A 440. This is the standard tuning frequency used today.
In May 1939, just before WW2 broke out, there was a meeting of the International Standards Organisation at Broadcast House in London, home of the BBC. A 440 was to be established in Europe as the standard tuning frequency.
This is where the Nazis come in. Hitler's minister of propaganda Joseph Goebbels supposedly had experiments done that showed that by raising and fixing standard tuning at 440 hz you could disrupt the vibrations in the human body, causing anxiety, stress and leave people open and receptive to mind control. Looks like it worked!
Except that there’s absolutely no evidence to back that up whatsoever. This Nazi conspiracy has been promoted since 1988 by Lyndon LaRouche and the Schiller Institute.
In 1939, the International Standards Organisation did meet at the request of broadcast engineers, particularly the acoustic division of Radio Berlin which was directed by Heinrich Goebbels. Not Joseph Goebbels. Though they did agree to make A 440 the standard tuning frequency for western music, war broke out and everyone was suddenly too busy to bother with ratifying the resolution so that was pretty much that.
But The American Federation of Musicians had been using 440 since 1917. There were more meetings in the fifties and then finally in 1975 we ended up with ISO 16:1975 which says, “ Hey everybody, tune to A 440 Hz.” So the vast majority of music we’ve enjoyed on the radio, our favourite albums, bands and artists songs are tuned using A440. Most, not all. There have always been holdouts.
What was it before A 440? Verdi’s A Before the 20th century there were many attempts at standard tuning, far too many to go into detail, but the one that still remains in regular use and may be a contender for replacing A440 is A432.
It’s also the same tuning that Lyndon LaRouche likes. It’s called Verdi’s A after 19th century Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi, but was originally called Scientific tuning. Based on the Schumann Resonance, the Earth Beats at 8 Hz.
That’s too low for us to hear, but starting from the heartbeat of the Earth at 8 Hz and doubling frequency every octave, Middle C equals 256 Hz and A equals 432 Hz. So tuning instruments to 432 Hz would follow a natural order and help people to literally be in harmony with nature and the Earth.
Summary: The notes we call A, B, or F# are not intrinsically absolute or perfect. They were not handed down by some musical deity not are they the only ones available.
It’s a rule made by people, and we know how good people are at making things perfect. A 440 was our choice. Whether or not its correct one, I don’t know. So does having perfect pitch make you a better musician? I think it could help.
But It’s not a necessity. And most of all, IT’S NOT SOMETHING TO SPEND TIME AND ENERGY ON TRYING TO ACQUIRE.
If you don’t have the ability now, you probably never will so we just have to do the work necessary to develop relative pitch. That’s what the other 9,999 of us do.