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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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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.  

This is an older topic, though I think it is a very good one that may benefit from further discussion. I have always been told hat perfect pitch is not so much something one is born with as it is something that can be taught and developed. I have not always had perfect pitch, though I have perfected my pitch through ear training and practice. Being a string player, first violin and then viola, I have been taught to tune by ear each string of my instrument. I think I gained this skill not only from years of tuning every day, but also from playing lots of repertoire, learning music by ear, and memorizing works. Also, the practice of sight singing can greatly assist with mastering relative pitch. Even in cases without a piano or tuner to reference, I can gain a relatively perfect A at 440 hertz, and tune the other strings by 5ths. This is a skill expected of string players, though I feel the skill of perfect pitch can be of benefit to composers. 

When working on new projects during long car rides (I do not drive) and when sitting through rehearsal breaks, it is very helpful to hum pitches or sing them in my head and know exactly or at least approximately what it is, to assist in notating the ideas on paper when no instrument is available to reference. I also find it helpful when studying or analyzing scores, as you can identify the pitch and get a feel for the piece outside of the relative imagery, before you take time to listen to it. I enjoy reading through scores before having heard a work because it gives me a chance to first come up with my own interpretations of the score and its meaning, and then to compare that with the many performances of the piece, especially the ones that have been recorded many times, such as Mahler and Beethoven's symphonies.

I think that perfect and relative pitch are very useful together both for musicians and composers, though I do not feel it is necessary for composers as it is for string musicians, who rely on their finger placement and ear to play notes in tune. I actually discovered one of my new piano students who just started last fall has nearly perfect pitch. For whatever reason, when she plays a new piece or one she has practiced, she hums the notes she is playing. She had a piano teacher for a little while long before coming to me for lessons, though I am not sure if this was taught to her or if she just does it on her own. I have not discouraged it because I feel it may be beneficial to her in developing perfect pitch, especially since she is now interested in composing. I think perfect pitch is something that cannot be forced. I do not have enough experience to know if some people are incapable of developing the skill, though so far my opinion is if you play an instrument from the violin family and you practice diligently with focus on intonation, you should be able to gain perfect pitch. 

When I first discovered microtonal music, I was mind-blown. It did not entirely make sense to me, and it sounded wrong, though the more I listened to it, the more okay I became with it. There is a fine line between in-tune and out-of-tune, so as long as the context is well established, I do not have a problem with it. When I first bought a real, baby grande piano, I had my mom bring the tuner back more frequently than she thought was necessary because my ears were more sensitive to the minute changes in pitch. It made me very upset to play Beethoven's Piano Sonata No.1 Op.2 with one note of the main theme out-of-tune by the slightest bit. 

Something very interesting I read lately on this topic were actually the Wikipedia page for Perfect and Relative Pitch:

 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Absolute_pitch

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Relative_pitch

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.

On the topic of pitch, there was a study that found that the melody and pitches of the cries of babies as young as 3 days old mimic the intonation patterns of their native language. At the very least, this suggests that humans are keenly aware of both pitch and melody very early. It could be further speculated that since the "musical" properties of communication are preverbal and innate in everyone who can hear, then such a simple music might actually be everyone's first language. The validation of such a speculation, however, would first require proving that language without words could be considered both communication and music.

Anyway, here is a link to the article:

https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=120131516

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

But isn't music more about the sequence (and rhythm) in which the notes or intervals occur, rather that about those notes and intervals in isolation? Not that they can't have an effect on us in isolation. But still, isn't music mostly a flow, or a journey, a succession, or whatever you want to call it. It's one thing after another! I always feel puzzled to see a focus on the notes, the intervals and our ears. It's about the workings of something that's living, that has a flow. A kind of sequence of thoughts, reflections, or feelings, but not really any of those exactly. 

Mike Hewer said:

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

Yes Manfred., music is also about what you say, most definitely.

But intervallic tension and repose is also essential for flow, especially when creating non standard harmony and an appreciation of the degrees of consonance and dissonance is very important. It is also essential for emotional, expressive flow too. To be clear and to avoid confusion, I always talk about concert (classical) music in a discussion like this. Great music in this genre is not composed in a silk dressing gown contemplating the sky, it is a marriage of feeling, inspiration and hard work predicated on technique to present the idea in its best light and to extract the maximum potential from the initial spur. In other words dress it up and present it appropriately and in its best light.

It is obviously different in other genres, but in serious concert music, control of all elements is a big part of composing. I once read that a well known composer (sorry, can't remember his name) said of anothers' beautiful, moving piece (damn, can't even remember the piece!!)  - "the mind the composed that music must have had the coldest heart". What this means is that  the emotional onslaught of the music is partly down to the skill and control in its creation and keeping a (ironically) detached and clear focus. One sometimes has to lay groundwork in order to open the door for inspiration and if you are lucky, she'll waltz right in and stay a while.

Mike, I'm not sure how we went from a point of agreement (that music is primarily about "flow") to the suggestion that I think composing is done in a silk dressing gown contemplating the sky. In fact I don't mind sharing with you the fact that I'm in my cotton pajamas and may have glanced at the ceiling at most twice all evening. With that out of the way, I certainly did imagine just like you said, that great musical compositions require feeling, inspiration and hard work. Of course they do.

No worries Manfred, I didn't mean anything personal by that, I was just using an analogy, so sorry it wasn't clear - I had a picture of Wagner in mind in his scented room. Ironically, the formidable techniques he displayed in his operas go against the image of the Romantics and composers in general that non musicians seem to have.

Yes, there were many questionable aspects of the information shown, though it did provide some framework for what is identified as perfect pitch. I think the claim of only 1 to 5 people out of 10,000 having perfect pitch is false, especially if we consider those with partial perfect pitch. I do not think I have done all the things they claim people with perfect pitch can do, and I would say if you can do even one of the things they say comes from having perfect pitch, you can say you have it. I was once told (about five years ago) that I had almost perfect pitch, though this was only based after how I would tune my strings without reference, and it perhaps not being absolutely perfect in pitch. Perhaps my pitch is more relative, as I can him a perfect A in my head and find any other note in 8ths, 7ths (harder without first finding 8th), 6ths, 5ths, 4ths, 3rds, and 2nds from that point. Most teachers I have worked with identify perfect pitch as being able to him an A at 440ish, and being able to hear your intonation on a string instrument. I think in order for us to consider whether or not it is benificial to composers, and who has it or does not have it, we must first establish what it is that defines perfect pitch.

I understand it may not be necessary for composing, so long as you have an instrument or something capable of emitting pitches to serve as a point of reference when notating parts on paper. I guess if you only compose at the computer it does not matter at all, though I still use paper first, so having inner reference or an instrument is very helpful. They also have piano apps now, which could be very helpful for composing without a real instrument.

Manfred Goop said:

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.



Emily F. Singleton said:

I think the claim of only 1 to 5 people out of 10,000 having perfect pitch is false, especially if we consider those with partial perfect pitch. I do not think I have done all the things they claim people with perfect pitch can do, and I would say if you can do even one of the things they say comes from having perfect pitch, you can say you have it.

From what I understand, it's a spectrum.  I know people who can identify notes, but can't hum or sing a note on command.  I know some people whose perfect pitch is restricted to a certain range (and that can be connected to the instrument they play: for instance, I know a cellist who has trouble identifying high notes, and a violinist who has trouble with anything below the lowest note of a violin).  I know some people who can only identify one or two notes at a time, and others who can tell you all the notes within a complicated chord.  So there is some variance within the bounds, I suppose.  

Emily F. Singleton said:

I was once told (about five years ago) that I had almost perfect pitch, though this was only based after how I would tune my strings without reference, and it perhaps not being absolutely perfect in pitch. Perhaps my pitch is more relative, as I can him a perfect A in my head and find any other note in 8ths, 7ths (harder without first finding 8th), 6ths, 5ths, 4ths, 3rds, and 2nds from that point. Most teachers I have worked with identify perfect pitch as being able to him an A at 440ish, and being able to hear your intonation on a string instrument. I think in order for us to consider whether or not it is benificial to composers, and who has it or does not have it, we must first establish what it is that defines perfect pitch.

I've heard this referred to as "heightened tonal memory," which can function as perfect pitch, but uses a slightly different process.  With perfect pitch, all the notes sound different and are immediately distinguishable as such.  You've described something in between perfect and relative, where a single note is memorised and everything is calculated from there.  They're different processes, but the end results are similar, I suppose.  

Emily F. Singleton said:

I understand it may not be necessary for composing, so long as you have an instrument or something capable of emitting pitches to serve as a point of reference when notating parts on paper. I guess if you only compose at the computer it does not matter at all, though I still use paper first, so having inner reference or an instrument is very helpful. They also have piano apps now, which could be very helpful for composing without a real instrument.

It's certainly not necessary– many great composers have managed just fine without it.  I suppose that having it or not will affect your process to some point, since if you have it, you end up relying on it to at least some degree, and if you don't, you manage just fine otherwise.  It's handy for having a reference, but there are other ways of getting a reference.  For me, it's been useful in ease of transcription, but that's definitely also a relative pitch issue, and transcription and dictation are definitely skills that can be improved with relative pitch training no matter what your level is.  Honestly, I wouldn't worry too much either way, and would focus on continuing to compose good music (that's the important thing in the end, isn't it?)...

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