Wednesday, August 29, 2007

I've known I had perfect pitch since I was in high school. My voice teacher said to me once in a lesson, "Do you have perfect pitch?" to which I responded, "I don't know," to which she replied, "I think you have perfect pitch." When I got to college I discovered that perfect pitch meant I would ace "Aural Skills" class. But it also meant that I would have to learn to stretch my ears in new ways, since Junior year aural skills and theory ear training examples were all transposed (just to spite people like me) -- and that was all atonal stuff. In college I also learned that perfect pitch meant composers would want me to sing their music, which gave me an exciting new mission in life. Having perfect pitch has certainly been helpful in getting certain gigs - like the Steve Reich CD, no doubt, but because so few singers have perfect pitch, it actually hasn't been all that useful in many ways. Good musicianship is generally appreciated in the world of choral singing and the singing of new music, but I've had to learn that in the case of most solo singing (especially in the opera realm), the theatrical aspects are often more important than the music.

So, yesterday I was listening to NPR and heard about a study being done at UC - San Francisco on people with absolute pitch. It was interesting enough to lead me to their website where I tested my pitch accuracy. It was hard!! There are 80 tones in all on the test. The first half of them are electronic, just like the ones you'd hear on a hearing test at really high and low frequencies - "Boop"... "Beep"... The second half are keyboard/piano sounds, which for me were much easier to identify. The hardest part for me was in coordinating my hand with my brain to click on the proper keyboard key to identify each note in the 3 seconds given. It all progresses rather quickly.

So apparently, according to the website, people score either in the high end or the low end. There aren't many scores in between. The test only scores 36 out of 40 tones for each section. I got 33.00 right of the "pure" tones and 34.75 (?) right of the "piano" tones. Do I get a prize? No? Didn't think so...

I find this interesting because one of the first things that made me doubt whether I could say definitively that I have perfect pitch was the word "perfect". People would tell me that perfect pitch is only when you can identify the difference between A440 and A437. The times when I am least accurate about pitch are surely when I feel nervous -- on the spot to prove myself -- or when I'm tired or can't see well -- or when there is something really misleading and dissonant going on in another instrument -- or when I'm singing a duet with a bassoon (true story...). And, of course, the times when I'm most accurate are when I'm not really thinking too hard -- when I'm in the "flow". Just like everything else in life, I suppose.

I think what was most interesting about the NPR story was that they said people with perfect pitch have a memory for pitch in the same way others have a memory for colors -- so you hear a C and know it's a C and not an F, just like if you looked at the color yellow, you'd know it was yellow and not red. And one of the people they interviewed was talking about how he had to make an effort to learn about the relationships between notes, because he never thought of them really in connection to one another -- since he knew when he saw a C it was a C and the next note was an F, he never thought about the fact that it was a fourth between the notes. That was definitely my experience, too.

If you're interested in the study, here is a link to their website.

1 comment:

Suze said...

you know, for a long time i thought people with perfect pitch had a real advantage over the rest of us without it, but i've since learned that's not always the case. in transposition, for example. or when you're doing early music with A415 and everyone with perfect pitch is going mad because the pitches on the page aren't the ones you're actually singing and playing.

i know that it surely comes in handy with contemporary music, though!