Composers' Forum

Music Composers Unite!

I saw that Julie Harris mentioned in a blog post that her composition students "mostly have perfect pitch". 

How much advantage does perfect pitch bring to a composer? It's obvious it'll make it easier to quickly jot down a musical idea, or to read one.

But music is based on the relative values of notes, not absolute values. Especially after the scale became "well tempered" we can transpose a piece from one key to another without changing the piece's character. To most people it will sound essentially the same after transposition.

There are days when I have close to perfect pitch, and days when I don't. I prefer when I don't have that awareness of pitch because I find it distracting. I prefer to be focused on the relative value of notes.

But then again I just started composing recently. I would like to know the opinion of more experienced composers if they feel inclined to comment. 

Views: 1494

Reply to This

Replies to This Discussion

I'm finding out that I'm very bad at this (forum participation) because I started this discussion but don't know how to carry along with it. Thanks to everyone else here, I feel I can leave it in their hands and I can just read their interesting inputs! But now I feel like saying what I think and am a bit afraid of getting in trouble. I hope not.

I'm thinking to myself that, heck, most people (>99%) can hear music inside their head. Even if you are not able to identify a pitch (don't have PP) and cannot identify an interval (don't have RP), and don't know what the word "pitch" means, you can still play Mozart's twinkle twinkle little star, or Imagine Dragons radioactive inside your head. Awareness of pitches is one thing, awareness of a melody is a completely different thing, almost an instinct. 

(A friend of mine said "we learn to think of major keys as happy and minor keys as sad". I asked her "who taught you so that you learned that?" There was no answer. Nobody taught us this.)

Conversely, a person with PP who is aware of the pitch of airplanes and bird wings' whistles is not (right at that same moment) focused on melodies and music (in the sense that a classical composer like Mozart, Beethoven, etc, would use the term "music"). 

That's why I said that in those days when my pitch awareness is greatest I just feel distracted and I am less apt to compose anything.

I prefer those days when my "pitchiness" is way down, though I always seem to know what the Bb (B flat) sounds like, for some reason. My old friend Bb, why art thou so engraved in me?

Dear Ray, The key concept you may be neglecting is the concept of "more or less". I will try to sound cultured by using the term "range" instead.

The "more or less" is how we have the color orange (and the other colors too, orange is just an example). What is the frequency of orange? There's a range of light wave frequencies and they're all orange. On the low end of that range we might have disagreements with some people seeing orange others seeing red (no double meaning intended). On the high end it's "almost yellow" but it's orange. To some people it's already yellow. But there's a range of frequencies throughout which most people will say it's orange.

Pitch, as our brains perceive it, is not necessarily tied to a specific (physical) frequency.  As Manfred says, it could be a range of frequencies that's grouped under the umbrella of a single "pitch". Physiologically speaking, it could be the case that multiple frequencies trigger the same neurological response corresponding to a particular "perceptual pitch". What we perceive doesn't always have a simple 1-to-1 correspondence with what's physically happening.

Of course, I wouldn't be surprised if some people perceive frequency directly -- perhaps that's how perfect pitch comes about -- but as for myself, being relatively pitched, I can't perceive frequency at all in the sense of identifying a specific frequency value.  Instead, I can only tell the difference between two frequencies (an "interval").  I do have a general, ambiguous sense of high pitches vs. low pitches, so there's some identification of pitch, I suppose, but it's quite vague and amorphous so that I can never truly identify specific frequencies.

Manfred, I really like your example.  I will use that one from now on!   I design a lot of computer graphics and totally appreciate having many shades of orange (and other colors) in one "orange" item, as well as exactly matching the hex code to get one precise shade of orange.  Thinking of pitch like this is very helpful.  Tuning instruments to match is like getting the right hex code for an exact shade of a color.  It doesn't mean that a slightly different frequency isn't also "A".

Manfred Goop said:

Dear Ray, The key concept you may be neglecting is the concept of "more or less". I will try to sound cultured by using the term "range" instead.

The "more or less" is how we have the color orange (and the other colors too, orange is just an example). What is the frequency of orange? There's a range of light wave frequencies and they're all orange. On the low end of that range we might have disagreements with some people seeing orange others seeing red (no double meaning intended). On the high end it's "almost yellow" but it's orange. To some people it's already yellow. But there's a range of frequencies throughout which most people will say it's orange.

Short answer: It's useful if you do have it, and if you have it, you will end up relying on it to some degree at least (just because it's there and will affect how you hear things).  But it's not necessary.  

Long answer: As I said, it is useful.  For me, it means I can tell what key things are in, and it means that my mental map of where pitches are is accurate.  All the notes sound distinct and different, and it means I have a foolproof way of checking that my intervals are accurate.  

How useful is it?  That's really hard to say, since I can't remember it not being there, and thus I don't have an objective standard to compare having it to.  However, as Manfred said at the beginning, it could potentially "make it easier to jot down an idea or to read one."  I've been writing for a long time, and at this point jotting melodic ideas down from my imagination is relatively straightforward for me.  However, this is probably as much down to practice as it is to perfect pitch– hard to say, really.  I suppose it's also useful for juggling around harmonic ideas in my head and trying to figure out what I'm doing.  

The tuning issues that were brought up previously in the discussion are another interesting point– I'd say that most people I know with perfect pitch (including myself) learn to associate A with whatever it is they were exposed to in early childhood– for me that's around 440, and so something like 443 would sound quite sharp.  The first time I heard classical tuning was a rather painful experience.  However, learning to deal with tunings that deviate from what one is used to is also something that can be developed with practice (and now I'm fine with classical tuning.)  This brings me to an additional point, which is microtonality and alternate tuning systems.  Same deal goes for these: if you repeatedly expose yourself to them, you learn to deal with them and perhaps even enjoy them.  Now I write quarter-tonal and microtonal music and enjoy other music that explores various kinds of different tunings.  

The colour analogy that some of you have brought up is especially helpful– pitch sounds are like colours, and something that's a quarter tone in between two notes has aspects of the two notes surrounding it– it's a blend between the two.  This is one reason why it can be difficult for people just starting to appreciate this kind of music, as your brain can't decide which of it it is and wants to flip-flop between labels.  At its most fundamental level, perfect pitch is as simple as being able to perceive these categories and assign labels to them, and it doesn't matter if they're do, re, mi, or C, D, E, as long as they're consistent.  

Addendum: I was trying to edit this question and it didn't let me post the edit for some reason.  

Couple more things: There are issues that you can run into if you have perfect pitch and don't develop a sense of relative pitch, and these can involve transpositional difficulties, as well as only perceiving individual notes and not having a strong sense of harmonic relationship and intervals.  These things are important to learn for anyone with a more serious interest in music.  

Also, I'll say once more that perfect pitch is certainly not necessary, and I know plenty of great composers and instrumentalists who don't have it.  

I have a friend who when he tunes his guitar, he tunes the A string to a perfect "A", then tunes the guitar from there. He trained himself to be able to do that, but aside from that one note, simply has good relative pitch. I had not heard that it was possible to train yourself to have perfect pitch; I'm still working on my relative pitch.

In my junior high school there was a girl who had perfect pitch. She also had a number of mental and physical problems, not enough to keep her out of school, but they made her life more than a bit difficult. She could not abide any music that was not in perfect tune. Listening to the school choir would literally send her into a screaming fit. I'm not saying that that's normal, and as I said, she had a lot of issues, but I'd think that if it could be that irritating, it would end up being a detriment to learning, and being around music and musicians. 

Ray K Bigglesworth said:

Okay, here is my next question. Does yellowy orange work with maroony red?
Does someone having ‘perfect pitch’ detect poor tuning which of course is a relative thingy?
When someone with ‘perfect pitch’ listen to highland bagpipes for the first time do they immediately appreciate the pitch is not particularly related to concert pitch? Maybe the colour coding would be sort of tartan.



Rick Waugh said:

In my junior high school there was a girl who had perfect pitch. She also had a number of mental and physical problems, not enough to keep her out of school, but they made her life more than a bit difficult. She could not abide any music that was not in perfect tune. Listening to the school choir would literally send her into a screaming fit. I'm not saying that that's normal, and as I said, she had a lot of issues, but I'd think that if it could be that irritating, it would end up being a detriment to learning, and being around music and musicians. 

It can be quite irritating, but usually it doesn't get this bad.  Most folks with PP (or least that I've seen) learn to deal with it in various ways, with varying degrees of success.  Personally I found learning to cope with microtonal tunings very helpful for learning to deal with situations like this, and that is a win-win situation: I'm not as bothered by the intonation as I used to be (or at least if it is very bothersome, I can still manage it), but I can hear the subtleties better than I used to be able to before learning to deal with these systems.  

The irritation in these situations is caused by a mismatch between what you hear and what you feel you should be hearing: PPers perceive notes in categories, and if they don't match what they think the categories should be, then you have a mismatch.  For instance, if you think you should be hearing a C, but what you are actually hearing is quite a bit sharp of that, then there's a mismatch between what your C category is and what the actual sound you are hearing is.  This is also why transposition can be a problem.  Both of these issues can cause difficulties if the PPer in question doesn't learn to work around them, and there are many possible strategies for coping with these problems.  

Hello Emily. I read your post in detail and everything you wrote was very interesting. Your perspective as a string player is particularly valuable, I think.

I took a look at the first wikipedia article you listed, and found it quite lacking. The claim that "...there are no reported cases of an adult obtaining absolute pitch ability through musical training" is silly. It's not like there is an 1-800-xxx-xxxx number to call to report that you obtained absolute pitch as an adult. Where would cases be reported to?

Also, almost anybody can tell you whether a note is "high pitched", "low pitched", or "middle range". That's a form of absolute pitch, just very coarse (three frequency ranges). In that sense, we all have perfect pitch. It's just that some have it more refined (can identify individual notes of the 12 notes that make up an octave). If someone can identify the right octave most of the time, then their absolute pitch is already quite reasonable. Remember that the scale we use, which divides the octave in 12 equal parts, is a recent human invention. So there would be no reason for a baby to be born already knowing a recent human invention. This alone tells you that it is learned, not inborn. I think this also explains why you, despite having perfect pitch, felt confused when listening to micro-tonal music. You learned 12 pitches, but you didn't learn 120. Since you can't distinguish each of 120 micro-tones, does that mean you don't have perfect pitch after all?  

Here is a collection of articles (sorry, you have to go past some advertising to get to the articles): 
https://www.musical-u.com/learn/topic/ear-training/perfect-pitch/

I read only a few so far. This one by Christopher Sutton is one I found interesting: https://www.musical-u.com/learn/perfect-pitch-is-not-magic/  

The research described on this link (about improving cochlear implants) might also be interesting to you.

Anyhow, what you said was very convincing to me that knowing the 12 notes is of big advantage to a composer. Nevertheless, I think the act of creating the type of music that interests me most (very distinctively melodic music) is more of a spontaneous channeling of something that flows within you and that you're able to access with your conscious mind, and that developing that ability might have nothing whatsoever to do with ear training. This is simply my impression or belief.

H. S. Teoh wrote (several posts ago) "On even more extreme occasions, I couldn't even hum a pitch that matched what I heard in my head, because no pitch was exactly equivalent to the "relativized" version of the music that was playing in my head!"

This happens to me fairly frequently. I've thought about it a lot but don't know how to put my thoughts into words very well. I'll try but I might not make much sense... It led me to think that music (made up of a time sequence of sounds) impresses us because it serves as an analogy to brain processes or emotional processes in our subconscious. We instinctively map a time sequence of these internal processes onto a time sequence of specific sounds, and vice-versa. There's a mapping or identification between 2 different worlds, based on analogies between the two.

Could music be something like a toy model we play with because it models something within the human psyche. 

Sometimes I have music playing in my head and I realize that no pitches are "exactly equivalent to the 'relativized' version of the music that was playing in my head" (the words H. S. used). Interestingly, though, most of the time, such pitches do exist that are exactly equivalent. But once in a while no such pitches exist. It's those relatively rare instances that are revealing to me and make me think about the toy model...

Sorry if this makes no sense to you reader. Fortunately, there are other things we can all go and do now...

It seems to me that having a sense of degrees of consonance is a more relevant ability than perfect pitch for composing.

This is absolutely correct in my view. But take it further and include dissonance.

The more one can cultivate a sensitivity to the expressive potential of intervals, the more confident one can become in extended tonality and atonality.

mikehewer.com

Reply to Discussion

RSS

Sign up info

Read before you sign up to find out what the requirements are!

Store

© 2020   Created by Gav Brown.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service