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Perfect pitch cannot be acquired ~ either you have it or you don’t. A discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of perfect (“absolute”) vs. relative pitch would be pointless, so I’m not going to go there. Instead, this post will help clarify some of the ways in which the two types of pitch are different.
I don’t have perfect pitch, but feel fortunate to have very good relative pitch.
Someone with perfect pitch can:
- instantly sing any pitch name when asked
- always sing the “Hallelujah Chorus” in the original key, D Major
- hear any music they know in the appropriate key
- “hear” a score by looking at it, in the printed key
- begin singing a song note-for-note with accompaniment without anyone giving the pitch in advance
In a class coached by Martin Katz, I partnered with a singer who had perfect pitch. We were about to begin “Ach, ich fühl’s” from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte when Martin whispered, “Give her the pitch!”
I chose to defy authority and ignore his directions. We began the aria, the singer was right on, and Martin said, “Oh.”
An organist I know also has perfect pitch. During a wedding in which I collaborated with a singer, he proved it! The last song before the processional was in the key of A-flat Major, transposed down from the original key.
The organist did not know what our program was, and I was as yet unaware that he had perfect pitch. In addition, even if had known the song cycle we performed selections from, he didn’t know we were using a transposition.
Immediately following the final song’s piano postlude, I heard John playing the organ nearly imperceptibly. He began in “our” key, in “our” dotted rhythm, modulating with a big crescendo to D Major, the key of the processional.
I was not only impressed ~ I knew I’d never be able to do that.
Yet another story!
At the wedding reception, John told me that prior to being hired for his full-time position, he was part-time with an additional job in a synogogue. The Rogers electronic organ had a transposition function. During one service, he decided to check it out!
He programmed the transposition he wanted and started playing. When he heard the sound come out in a different key, his hands moved over!
That may be the flip side. Perfect pitch makes transposing nearly impossible.
Relative pitch allows people to:
- sight-sing easily by using interval relationships
- transpose more easily than someone with perfect pitch
- learn music quickly
- “hear” a score just by looking at it, but the key may be incorrect
- come close to singing A-440 (just now, I sang a “G” instead)
- comfortably listen to music not exactly “at pitch”
When I was in college, a chorus I was singing in lost pitch during a concert. The conductor looked at me to ask for a pitch for the next piece! He must have though I had perfect pitch.
I gave him a pitch and hoped it was close. (Having a discussion with the concert in progress didn’t seem like such a great idea.)
A few years later, everyone in Tanglewood‘s vocal program was required to attend sight-reading classes. All of us were excellent sight-readers, so we loathed going to class. It felt like a waste of good practice time.
So we took turns showing up, a few at a time. After four or five days of this, we began getting notes in our mailboxes from Seiji Ozawa! We had to go to class or be dismissed from the program.
To be fair, this was a class in sight-singing contemporary music. The method used was fixed “do,” with numbers. (“Do” was always “C,” so “C” was 1, “D” was 2, etc.)
Learning relative pitch
A person’s pitch can be improved through the use of solfedge and other methods. (But again, perfect pitch cannot be learned.) I have also found that when someone takes piano lessons, s/he can acquire a visual context that provides a consistent reference point.
- Lend Me Your Ears! (Because mine can’t tell a G# from a G) by musician and blogger Elaine Fine
- The Mysteries of Perfect Pitch by William Lee Adams, Psychology Today