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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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Hello Manfred-

I can't remember when I said that most of my composition students have perfect pitch - can you remind me the context of that statement? 

It is true, but not that important.  An inordinate number of my students have perfect pitch - normally about 1/2 to 2/3 of my studio.  Many of them are also wildly talented, and incredibly imaginative as well.  None of these characteristics guarantee that they are good composers.  Sometimes the best composers are those that begin with modest abilities, but keep at it year after year, paying close attention to what works and what doesn't and why.  I don't think perfect pitch is a game changer, but it does have a lot of advantages for those who have it.  They can pinpoint wrong notes faster than anyone else.  They can help performers get perfectly tuned.  They are great at music dictation!  They read all clefs with ease and sail through transposing instrument challenges.  But perfect pitch doesn't really matter in the long run, in my opinion.

If there were any quality that I've noticed in my teaching that sets the great apart from the merely good, it is probably continuous, informed listening.  Listening to their own pieces, for sure, with an objective ear, but also listening to as much good music as they possibly can.  The ones without perfect pitch are just as good at developing their "composers ears" - listening to a piece to hear what makes it great and being able to define those elements.  They don't copy anyone else's style, but they come away with a composers toolkit that will work in a variety of genres.

I don't agree, though, that pieces transposed sound essentially the same.  Very few performers would agree with you.  There are keys that simply don't work for certain instruments and definitely don't sound the same.  For example, the key of C-flat is the most resonant, beautiful key for harp, and by the way, is not the same as the key of B natural on a harp, or on a lot of instruments.  Knowing the best keys for individual instruments matters.  That's not a function of perfect pitch, though.  It's a function of having listened listened listened, and talked with performers, and essentially having paid close attention to each note heard, how it's fingered, how much breath or bow does it take, how a chord or melodic fragment is fingered on piano, etc.

Even audiences have different reactions to different keys.  Over the years, we have tried various experiments to see if tonal center really matters, and every test we do comes away with the same results.  People hear different keys differently.  These are non musicians, certainly not having perfect pitch, and not even understanding keys or tonal centers.  Yet they react differently emotionally to different keys.  Everyone is different, so no key came out a clear "winner", but it is fun to notice these things.  Getting feedback from real live human beings is a great tool for composers!

In summation, a composer doesn't need perfect pitch.  I don't have it, and lots of times I'm very grateful for that.  Once I was the composer in residence at a middle school, working with 7th and 8th grade orchestras.  If I had had perfect pitch, they would have had to cart me away.  ;-)

Hello, Julie, and thank you so much for your response!

I can't remember when I said that most of my composition students have perfect pitch - can you remind me the context of that statement?

You said it a couple of days ago here: http://composersforum.ning.com/profiles/blogs/remembering-the-night...  

It is true, but not that important.  An inordinate number of my students have perfect pitch - normally about 1/2 to 2/3 of my studio. 

That really is an "inordinate number"! If the estimates I found online are true, there are between 1 and 5 people with perfect pitch per 10,000 people, that would mean that a person with perfect pitch would be more than 1,000 times more likely to enter your class than one without perfect pitch.

What do you attribute this to? It is quite an extraordinary number.

Many of them are also wildly talented, and incredibly imaginative as well.  None of these characteristics guarantee that they are good composers.  Sometimes the best composers are those that begin with modest abilities, but keep at it year after year, paying close attention to what works and what doesn't and why.  I don't think perfect pitch is a game changer, but it does have a lot of advantages for those who have it.  They can pinpoint wrong notes faster than anyone else.  They can help performers get perfectly tuned.  They are great at music dictation!  They read all clefs with ease and sail through transposing instrument challenges.  But perfect pitch doesn't really matter in the long run, in my opinion.

This makes the puzzle even more puzzling to me, as how to explain that perfect pitch makes it 1,000 times more likely to arrive at your class.

If there were any quality that I've noticed in my teaching that sets the great apart from the merely good, it is probably continuous, informed listening.  Listening to their own pieces, for sure, with an objective ear, but also listening to as much good music as they possibly can.  The ones without perfect pitch are just as good at developing their "composers ears" - listening to a piece to hear what makes it great and being able to define those elements.  They don't copy anyone else's style, but they come away with a composers toolkit that will work in a variety of genres.

This is good to know. Listening to music is something I've always done constantly. I hope I'm listening in the right way.

I don't agree, though, that pieces transposed sound essentially the same.  Very few performers would agree with you.  There are keys that simply don't work for certain instruments and definitely don't sound the same.  For example, the key of C-flat is the most resonant, beautiful key for harp, and by the way, is not the same as the key of B natural on a harp, or on a lot of instruments.  Knowing the best keys for individual instruments matters.  That's not a function of perfect pitch, though.  It's a function of having listened listened listened, and talked with performers, and essentially having paid close attention to each note heard, how it's fingered, how much breath or bow does it take, how a chord or melodic fragment is fingered on piano, etc.

I'm grateful to know about this. Actually I had second thoughts after I wrote that pieces transposed sound essentially the same. To my mind's ear they do. The only difference is that in some ranges they will become less vocal in quality. But I did realize after I wrote that, that certain instruments can sound a lot more attractive in some keys compared to others.

Even audiences have different reactions to different keys.  Over the years, we have tried various experiments to see if tonal center really matters, and every test we do comes away with the same results.  People hear different keys differently.  These are non musicians, certainly not having perfect pitch, and not even understanding keys or tonal centers.  Yet they react differently emotionally to different keys.  Everyone is different, so no key came out a clear "winner", but it is fun to notice these things.  Getting feedback from real live human beings is a great tool for composers!

That's very interesting. 

In summation, a composer doesn't need perfect pitch.  I don't have it, and lots of times I'm very grateful for that.  Once I was the composer in residence at a middle school, working with 7th and 8th grade orchestras.  If I had had perfect pitch, they would have had to cart me away.  ;-)

But, to notice notes out of key you only need relative pitch, not perfect pitch. 

Incidentally, I have a composer friend (who creates really excellent melodies) who doesn't even recognize intervals. He has to think for several seconds even to decide which is the highest of two notes (if I play them on the piano and he's not looking). He has the worst ear ever, yet comes up with incredibly catchy and complex melodies. He can't even sing his own melodies in tune! :) Human capabilities are very mysterious.

I myself have wondered at this mysterious bunch of incredible musicians who keep turning up, as have all the people who attend our concerts.  There may be several factors.  I live in a university town, surrounded by two other university towns, so we have three major universities within just a few miles.  There is a very strong home schooling community here, so that children with musical talent are often taken out of public school so they can concentrate on their music studies.  Many of the perfect pitch kids started Suzuki violin when they were 3 or 4.  It seems like the listening they do in the early Suzuki years really tunes their ears.  The parents take them all to classical concerts before they can walk.  Also, my students come from all over the state, and not just locally, so there's a larger pool of musicians.  Most of them have perfected one or more instruments before they come here, and many of them practice 5 or 6 hours per day.  It's amazing what they do, really.  I had a six year old who couldn't write his name yet, but wrote a symphonic piece which was played by members of the NC Symphony and conducted it.  It's really a puzzle to all of us.  I just give thanks and go for it!!

Or, it may just be the water.

The story of your composer friend is really interesting!  I love stories like that. 

Oh by the way, if all the instruments in a particular group are out of tune, relative pitch may not tell you that!!  If they are in tune with each other, it may take a tuning fork or a special six year old (!) to get them up to par!! 

Ok.  Now, back to work.  You sound like a very knowledgeable, thinking person.  Good luck with your composing!

Julie, I feel a bit bad about taking time from you. I won't continue doing it.

But your response tells me things I didn't know. I didn't know that specific types of early music education could be shown (if someone decides to study that) to produce much higher rates of perfect pitch. Though I really am not surprised.

Manfred, please don't ever feel bad about asking questions or initiating discussions!  There are so many knowledgeable and helpful people on this forum, that if one person is too busy to respond, some one else will be glad to answer.  All your questions and comments are welcome.

Manfred (and Julie)

I think having PP is clearly an advantage for composition, but only if it is trained. I do not have PP  but do have a keen relative pitch and am able to create in my head to a good extent, although I do need to physically hear too, especially if I get very chromatic as I can lose my orientation sometimes. Your point about the relativity of notes is pertinent in this regard, although I agree with Julie regarding transposition, which involves the discipline of orchestration - another good reason to develop inner hearing.

In my formative years in London, I was the only student without PP in the advanced aural training classes and I put this down to my theoretical knowledge as much as my ears, so I can confidently say that not having PP is no obstacle to composing. Developing an inner ear with PP or RP, unencumbered by anything physical like a piano say, is probably the most freeing way to compose across the whole audio spectrum, but it is not the only way because we also have computer playback. I am old school and am often sat in front of 38 stave ms (either blank or full of rubber marks:-), but I wonder how many composers these days utilise playback as a substitute for inner hearing, quite a lot I'd guess.

One thing I will mention is that a good ear is useful for professional work. When I was at recording sessions I found I was able to pinpoint mistakes in the parts quite easily and save studio time. This also has to do with knowing what your music sounds like as you write and in my work, having an idea of what instruments sound like in combination and writing accordingly to guarantee the desired result. It is also useful to be able to hear tuning errors in performance and correct them ( musos can also hear pitch problems, but it does no harm to let them know that you heard it sometimes...:-)

 Composers are lucky these days in that playback can provide instant feedback on their work and I too am grateful for it. But I wonder if people who rely solely on DAW working practice for serious concert works are missing out on a more profound and introspective level of creativity that a good inner ear permits....just a thought, not a condemnation.

Mike.

mikehewer.com

I have no idea what perfect pitch is. Relative pitch I can understand but perfect pitch is something to be used inside ones head.
If perfect pitch is learned surely it must rely on a specific frequency being a specific pitch but that’s not been the case throughout the history of music. Even today some orchestras use different frequencies as a guide to the relative tuning of all instruments.
Perhaps my opinion is one of the performer rather than that of the composer.

I don't have PP, but I know many people who do. The causation is fuddled. For one thing, PP can only be developed in childhood, with the right kind of ear training while the brain is still in a state of high plasticity. The science of this is actually quite recent. (for a good summary, check out the book "Sweet Anticipation" by David Huron which has a generous section dedicated to this)
So, those with an intense musical training early in childhood are more capable of developing PP. Those same kids are also far more likely to have exceptional musical skills as life progresses. So does PP lead to greater musical chops? It's kind of a chicken and egg problem isn't it.


I actually tried to develop PP in my early teens. I worked really hard at it, but it was no use. 

I don't have perfect pitch, and I truly envy those who do!

But I have found that my "relative pitch" has been immensely helpful in transposing on-the-fly.  Since what I "hear" in my head does not have a fixed pitch, I don't think in terms of absolute pitches, but in scale degrees, which can be applied to any scale.  This can be immensely helpful in piano accompaniments -- I'm a standby pianist for my church group, and sometimes I have to jump in when people have already begun singing in the "wrong" key, or sometimes what's written on the page is too high/low for their voices (we don't have professional singers), so it can be useful to transpose up/down a semitone or whole tone.  Trying to do this while sight-reading is extremely difficult! But since I habitually think in terms of scale degrees, and I also play by ear, the task is considerably simplified.

As for composition itself, thinking in relative pitch has its own advantages and disadvantages.  One advantage is that a motif that occurs to me can be readily transposed to any other key that might be needed for the moment.  So I find it much easier to play around with motivic development, as such, and can let the music modulate "freely" and go where it will, without throwing me off my sense of pitch.

A disadvantage, though, is that when writing orchestral pieces, I tend to overlook limitations of instrument range, or more often, run into issues with the optimal register for an instrument, because what might work really well on the oboe part in G major, for example, might reach into less ideal parts of the oboe range when transposed to C.  And what was in range for the cello part in C dips out-of-range when transposed to Bb, and require octave leaps or reallocation of instruments to take advantage of their ideal registers.

P.S. Some funny anecdotes: I have a friend who does has PP, and I remember when we were kids he would have these "PP practice sessions" where he would play a note on the piano and concentrate really hard to try to "learn" its pitch.  He also used to astound us by having one of us sit at the piano and play some random note, and he'd say exactly which one it was.

Later on, he would come up to me after a guitar session and tell me, your guitar was tuned a semitone too low, and I would be flabbergasted -- the guitar was the only instrument there, and I didn't even know it wasn't tuned to standard pitch.  Or on yet another occasion, he would come up to me after I played something on the piano and say, "you should have played that in Bb instead" (how did he know I played in A instead of Bb?!).  Or, "why did you play that in F# major instead of G?". :P

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.

Yeah, I remember trying to "acquire" PP by following what my friend did -- play a reference pitch repeatedly and trying to "memorize" it.  It didn't work for me.  It lasted as long as I consciously kept that pitch in mind, but upon coming back after a diversion, my brain would inevitably have "forgotten" the exact frequency of that pitch, and would have recentered itself on a different tonal center, usually one that's different from the reference pitch.

It's a strange feeling, but sometimes, even entire pieces would play in my head in relative pitch, such that when I then turn out the recording of that piece, I would experience a jarring readjustment of pitch center.  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!

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