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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. 

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So, you assume A below middle C is 440 Hz but what if your in Germany and it’s 443 Hz?

Ian Ring said:

By my early teens I already had impeccable relative pitch, but I really wanted to have PP to know what all the fuss was about. So I experimented on myself; I had a little electronic metronome that also played a tuning tone (this was in the 1980s, so it was a technological marvel at the time), and it had a headphone jack. I would listen to that awful square wave A 440 tone every chance I got, for WEEKS and WEEKS. People likely thought I was listening to music, but actually I was listening to a constant bzzzzz of a tuner. 

My hypothesis was that I would saturate my senses thoroughly with that frequency, and eventually I would be able to recognize an "A" without thinking, just like I can recognize the colour red or the taste of salt. And once that pitch was totally internalized, it could be my reference for the others, and they would follow and also become second nature.

Before each session I would attempt to hum an "A" before turning on the tuner. Often I'd get it right, or close; or else I'd berate myself for nor being able to recall the pitch. I don't even know how long I did this routine, it was a long time.


Ultimately it didn't work. Futile.

Ray, all of these terms are just consensus anyway.  We've arbitrarily used "A" "B" "C" or "ut" "re" "mi" or "do" "re" "mi" to give what we call "note names" to sounds.  We've also set 440 or 443 or 445 or some Hz settings for A above middle C, and we will collectively continue to tweak those settings as we see fit. The folks who have perfect pitch are going to name notes according to what they've learned, to what is standard in their environment.  Various conductors have chosen different tunings for their orchestras, to be "brighter" or "more natural" or whatever overall tuning characteristic they've chosen.  Pitches and frequencies are dynamic and changing according to our mutual agreement, not set in stone.

Perfect pitch and sensitivity of hearing involves more than just being able to name a note according to a frequency.  One of my ten year old students can hear every individual "note" of a hummingbird's wings.  When a plane flies overhead, he'll name the various notes being played as it comes nearer and then recedes in the distance.  He hears things the rest of us don't hear at all, and he dreams entire pieces.  His notation skills are not strong enough yet to write down what he hears, so I often am his "scribe".  He sings what he hears and I write it down.  We're like Salieri and Mozart in the last scenes of "Amadeus", except I'm not jealous of him and he's not on his death bed.   I'm lucky enough to be surrounded by young Mozarts, and it's a thrill to learn from them and grow with them.  It's hard to know who's really the "teacher" in my studio.  Perhaps music itself is the one teaching all of us.

 

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?

I cannot understand the concept of pitch not being tied to frequency. I’m good with relative pitch and in fact find it a curse sometimes when listening an instrument (voice included) being ‘pitchy’ when performed. Even by only a few cents.

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.

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.

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.

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