Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Perfect Pitch

I took (and failed) the test that was part of the study described in this article about perfect pitch being genetic. The tones that were generated were computer tones that were devoid of any kind of "color." Simple pitch recognition, or the ability to register the number of oscillations per second that a given pitch goes through, is what that study measured.

Like most musicians, I have relative pitch. I can also identify pitches when they are played on any of the instruments I have spent a lot of physical time with: violin, viola, flute, and recorder in particular, because I respond to those instruments by physical sensation, but that's not perfect pitch. Perfect pitch is absolute pitch. The kind of pitch that I have tried to develop. The kind of pitch that my brothers were born with.

The above article suggests that the ability to perceive pitch "goes sharp" when we get older. I don't think that a change in mental ability is the cause. I know of three older people who have complained that they hear pitches half a step sharp (one is my father--who only has the problem when listening to recordings, one is my friend's father, Louis Teicher, and one is Svatislov Richter). I imagine that there must be something physiological about the hearing mechanism that causes pitches to be heard sharper that comes with age. Only someone with perfect pitch would notice, though.

Any thoughts?

8 comments:

patty said...

I was surprised the article didn't bring up the fact that people who speak pitched languages are likely to have perfect pitch. And I still wonder about the honesty of an online test. (But maybe I misread the article?)

(OH ... and Elaine, are you trying to post at my site? I was wondering because it says you had a lost password but I've not seen any posting and why else would someone be logging in?)

I wonder, too, why the A is going up these days. (And why I like to play a bit sharper ... it makes my ear happy, but I know a few colleagues who go absolutely nuts if we are at all high.)

Elaine Fine said...

Yes, Patty. That was me. Wordpress doesn't seem to like my attempts at a password, I hoped that this post could serve as a comment to your post--and it did!

I think that the test was honest. But, contrary to what I used to think when I was a child, I think that there is a whole lot more to musicianship than having perfect pitch. I have known people with perfect pitch who don't have any kind of ear for instrumental color. I have known people with perfect pitch who didn't have a decent sense of rhythm. I also know people with perfect pitch who can't play in tune because they don't really listen.

Regarding pitched languages, I think that learning to speak pitched languages develops relative pitch to a really high degree. There is a good deal of muscle memory involved in pitched languages, just like the muscle memory that trained singers have when they seem to be able to pick a pitch out of the air. I can't see any evolutionary (survival of the fittest) reason why people with perfect pitch would survive over people with highly-developed relative pitch, but that doesn't mean that there isn't one.

I think instrumental color is the reason wind players like to play sharp. There are simply more vibrations moving around in an A that has 445 cycles per second as opposed to one that has 440. String players don't like it because their instruments are adjusted (by the placement of the soundpost) in a way that sounds best with the open A string in a specific place--440 or 442. If that focal point shifts it is really difficult to adjust. All the intervals seem to move around just enough to make everything on a string instrument sound "off."

patty said...

Thanks for explaining so much, Elaine. VERY helpful! :-)

I sure wonder what's up with Wordpress; you aren't the only one who has had difficulty with the password issue.

Jean Petree said...

As you may know, I've spent years not playing the flute. Even so, as I've gotten older, occasionally I've taken the beast out. I start to play some long tones, some scales ... arrrrrgggghhhh! I am putting down my fingers and THE WRONG NOTE IS COMING OUT!!!! It is truly weird. I put the d*** thing back in its case. Enough already!

Elaine Fine said...

How great to hear from you Jean! I hope that your years of not playing the flute have been as productive and rewarding as mine have.

Lisatwade said...

I noticed this myself a year or two ago. I told myself that either our piano tuner had tuned our piano wrong all the years while I was a kid, or the tuner we have now has tuned my piano wrong. An E sounds like an F to me now, and an F sounds like an F# to me now. It really bothers me and I just took this test and failed it http://perfectpitch.ucsf.edu/survey/page1.php

Lisatwade said...

I noticed the same thing about a year ago. An E sounds like an F to me now, and an F sounds like an F#. I told myself either our piano tuner we had when I was a child had tuned our piano wrong, or the tuner we have now is wrong. It's very frustrating

Elaine Fine said...

As we age sometimes our hearing changes. The only people who notice it are people with perfect pitch or very close to perfect pitch. My father, who is 82, noticed this problem a few years ago. Perhaps you might consult an audiologist, or check your hearing against a pitch generator.