Imperfect Pitch

I have perfect pitch. I’ve always been able to distinguish pitches from each other, as if they were different colors. I was 10 when I first realized I had it. I remember being tested by my sisters – they would press a key on the piano to see if I could name it, which I always could, to their delight.

Lots of my musical friends have perfect pitch, but plenty don’t. It seems to have something to do with how old you were when you started playing. Many of my violinist peers, who, like me, began learning to play before they could read or write, have the ability to pull notes out of the air. But most of my friends who started years later –wind and brass players, mostly – can’t pick an F# out of a lineup.

Though when I was younger, having this ability felt special (“whoa! She has perfect pitch! Quick, what’s this note?”), I haven’t found any real advantages to it, aside from having a leg up in my Ear Training classes. If anything, it’s been a hindrance. For example, last semester I studied baroque violin. In my first lesson, my teacher handed over his violin and bow for me to try, as I hadn’t gotten my own instrument yet. He asked me to play a movement of unaccompanied Bach, and I picked the Sarabande from the D minor Partita, which I knew well. But the experience of putting my fingers in familiar places and hearing unfamiliar sounds was so jarring that I was hardly able to get through the movement. “That’s funny,” remarked my teacher, as I finished – “you must have perfect pitch. You completely adjusted!” Without realizing it, I had changed the fingerings and patterns that were deeply imprinted in my muscle memory to “accommodate” the Baroque tuning, in order to play the notes as I heard them usually.

People ask me if it’s annoying to hear a piece in a transposed key. It’s a funny experience, but it doesn’t bug me. It’s just different, like seeing something familiar from a new angle, or looking at a famous painting re-interpreted with a different color palette.

monalisa.However, my perfect pitch may not be perfect after all. According to this study, people who claim to have perfect pitch are subject to having their “inner pitches” modified. When pitches are gradually adjusted to be sharper or flatter during the course of a piece, people with perfect pitch won’t notice, and afterwards, they will identify the new, altered pitches as being correct, and the in tune pitches to be sharp or flat.

I always thought my ability to distinguish different pitches was untouchable, but I didn’t account for variations within a pitch. The A above middle C, which is used as the standard tuning pitch, has a frequency of 440 Hz. Sometimes 441 Hz is accepted. Stereotypically, violinists like to tune sharp, making the sound brighter.

I walked into a lesson recently, and took my violin out of the case to tune. When I was satisfied, I flipped open my sheet music. But my teacher requested that I check my strings again. I did, and again thought they were fine. My teacher pulled out his phone, opened an app, and had me compare my strings to a tuner. To my horror, the A in my ear was almost 445 Hz – unacceptably high. When I used the app to find the 440, it sounded disgustingly flat to me. I found it very hard to play with my strings tuned correctly. I felt silly for letting my inner A creep up so high, and have since been checking with a tuner every day.

A couple of weeks later, I was scheduled to play in studio class, where all my teacher’s students come together to play for each other and give comments and critiques. I was playing with piano, and took an A from my accompanist, but was unable to match the pitch. For minutes I struggled with my peg, oscillating between G# and Bb, and all the tiny increments in between, but couldn’t get my string to ring with the sound of the piano. “Here, let me try,” said my teacher, taking my fiddle. I laughed along with the class – when was the last time any of our teachers tuned our violin?

It didn’t help that my strings were false and needed to be changed, but many string players struggle with tuning to an instrument that’s not also stringed – a piano, for example. Matching pitch despite the different timbres is difficult. I grinned as my teacher tuned my violin, feeling silly, but as he handed it back, he said, “There are no musicians I respect who don’t take tuning the instrument to be a very significant matter.” From now on, I won’t believe my inner pitch to be anything close to perfect.

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