Classical 91.5

How losing perfect pitch is (I hope) making me a better musician

Jan 18, 2018

Me and my sister (right) around the time I discovered I had absolute pitch. Love those striped pants!
Credit Marsha Rivers

A memory:

I'm walking out of the school cafeteria - fifth or sixth grade - sunlight streams through the windows, the air heavy is with the smell of goulash and green beans from that day's lunch. My dad (who was the junior high band director) and the elementary music school teacher, Mr. Grammatico, stop me in the hall. My dad is holding an empty glass coke bottle.

“What’s this note?” my dad asks me.  He blows across the top of the coke bottle and produced a low hoot.

“A-flat,” I say automatically.

“See!” he says, turning to Mr. Grammatico triumphantly, “I told you. She has perfect pitch.”

The scene is crystallized in my mind because I suddenly felt unique.  One in ten thousand.   Discovering that I possessed a rare auditory gift made me proud, confident, and ultimately, I’ve discovered, a bit lazy.

“Perfect pitch” is sometimes called “absolute pitch,” and we could get into the weeds here and talk about different kinds of tunings from musical eras and styles.  My sense of pitch was specifically indexed to my mother’s 1940’s era Story and Clark upright piano. In other words, the note "middle C" on my mother's piano lived in me as an interior compass and allowed me identify all the other notes on the scale.

(Do you have perfect pitch?  Take this simple test.)    

Basically, I could hear any pitch or chord – a train whistle, a church bell, a vacuum cleaner – and name the pitch without external reference.  It’s hard to explain what it felt like. For me, each individual note had a unique texture like an invisible color or feeling, much like you’d sense the difference between velvet and silk or blue and yellow.  Some musicians possess another rare ability called synesthesia, a neurological phenonenon in which a person feels multiple responses to stimuli. One sensation (like sound) triggers another (like vision). Composers like Michael Torke experience grapheme-color synesthesia, that is, they hear individual notes and chords AND see corresponding colors. While I imagined a series of colors of each note on the C major scale, I don’t think I was ever a full-blown synesthetic.

This gift of absolute pitch made a lot of things in life fun and easy. The world around me hummed with notes I could name.  My parents were constantly entertained.  While other kids struggled to sight read and harmonize, I looked at a note on a page and produce it without thought, like a human pitch pipe.  The phenomenon is not strictly human, though; there’s evidence that wolves, bats, and gerbils use this ability to score dates.   (Click here to be part of an on-going study.) 

Musicians work hard to learn the architecture of music and the relationships between the notes.  I had no need. Or so I believed.  I became impatient with slower learners and inflexible, too, unable to transpose to other keys since I couldn’t see a middle C printed on a page and not hear a middle C in my head.   I was, I thought, always perfect. 

Then everything changed.

Around the time I got my first pair of reading glasses, my sense of absolute pitch started to waver. I got “C’s and “B’s” mixed up, and to be honest, this was a surprisingly alarming development.  A whole dimension of my existence seemed to fade away.   It’s a First World problem, to be sure, but it felt like a personal loss.

Christopher Seaman conducting the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra
Credit RPO

I consulted with Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra conductor laureate Christopher Seaman, who has a brilliant sense of absolute pitch.  He commiserated with me, and said he’d seen it before in aging musicians.  He’d known conductors who’d lost their sense of pitch and struggled in vain to hang on it.   For while I did the same, going to the piano first thing in the morning to play middle C and reorient myself to the modern scale.  But nothing restored my inner compass.

As a singer, it's become imperative that I learn a lot more about music theory and the relations between notes.  I have to listen -- really listen -- to burn intervals into my brain and to hear the singers around me.  Internalizing new pieces requires more time at the piano, playing notes, and listening to intervals over and over again.  Repetition creates the muscle memory that helps me remain on track when I perform.  When I had absolute pitch, I never bothered to listen to recordings, but now I find it helps a lot.  

The chamber choir First Inversion performing with conductor and founder Lee Wright

I'm also learning to accept the reality that I need other people.  It's been humbling to accept that, as a musician, I'm not always perfect.

Currently, I'm teaching myself to sing two beautiful Parisian masses by French organist composers who took great delight in writing close, off-kilter harmonies.  I’ve already highlighted my choral part, sat down at the piano to play tricky intervals, and listened to recordings, singing along and concentrating on fitting in my mezzo soprano line in between the high sopranos and altos.  (See information about the next concert from Lee Wright’s chamber choir First Inversion here.)

The masses and motets we're singing are delight to learn, and I'm almost glad that losing my sense of absolute pitch is enabling me to grow in other ways.

The music, unlike me, is absolutely perfect. 

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