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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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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.



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?)...

Mike, no prob, and thanks for the input.  Thanks, Lara, for the informative post.

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