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Perfect Pitch

Like generations of musicians before me, I have always wanted to have perfect pitch. Wouldn't it be just wonderful to be able to tune a band precisely without having to use a piano or some other instrument as a reference point?

Like generations of musicians before me, I have always wanted to have perfect pitch. Wouldn't it be just wonderful to be able to tune a band precisely without having to use a piano or some other instrument as a reference point?

Years ago, I thought I actually saw this happening. A conductor friend was standing in front of his band at the beginning of the rehearsal, giving instructions to various players as they attempted to tune to concert B-flat.

"You are too flat!" he said, pointing to one trumpet player. "You are just slightly sharp," he told a flute player, and so on. Closer inspection, however, revealed the truth. Obscured by his wide girth, was a small electronic tuner!

Perfect pitch, of course, is theĀ is the ability to identify by name or re-create (by singing) a given note without the benefit of an external reference. It is an innate ability that - despite the claims of some educators - cannot be taught.

That said, there is some evidence to suggest that people who are exposed to music at a very early age sometimes learn to associate particular sound frequencies with particular pitches - much like we associate different electromagnetic radiation frequencies in light as constituting different colours.

This idea is supported by research reported in a 2009 article in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America. It noted that the proportion of people who have perfect pitch is higher in populations that speak tonal languages such as Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese. Those concerned must, however, be fluent native speakers. Sadly, my ability to speak conversational Cantonese - diligently studied during a 10-year sojourn in Kuala Lumpur long ago - hasn't helped.

Many people who have perfect pitch are not even musicians. It is often not until they show some interest in music and are asked to identify key changes in aural tests that they realise that they don't have to concentrate. They just know the key of the final chord. Another point to note is that tonal recognition relates to the pitches that you grew up with. If the piano in your house was a semitone flat, for example, then your perfect pitch would always require some adjustment.

Perfect pitch is not necessary for success in the musical world. A number of great musicians, among them Wagner, Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky, did not have it. Many blind musicians, however, do.

But perhaps the strangest thing about perfect pitch is that musicians like me who don't have it wish they did, while those who do have this amazing ability often wish that they didn't!

A piano or string player with perfect pitch, for example, would have great difficulty learning to play a transposing instrument. Playing a written C on a trumpet and hearing a "wrong" concert B-flat instead can be very disconcerting. Knowing the pitch of a car horn heard in the street, or realising that your kettle sings an off-key E-flat when it boils is not particularly useful either.

Then there is the observation of composers such as Richard Todney Bennett that perfect pitch loses its accuracy in middle age. "You start hearing what you think is a half a tone higher than it is," he told a magasine interviewer in 1994. "If I hear a pop song in F sharp minor, for instance, I know I must adjust". For him the whole thing was a nuisance. "I find myself checking the pitch of muzak tunes in lifts".

Well, maybe the rest of us really are better off without perfect pitch. What do you think?

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