The Unconservatory  

(The Myth of "Perfect Pitch"..... and How to Get "It," by Kirk Whipple)

X. About reference tones
Here are a few common reference tones that have memorable qualities:

    1. The tuning note from the oboist at the beginning of the concert is an A above middle C.
    2. Concert bands tend to check their tuning with the B-flat above middle C.
    3. Most flautists are enamored with their lowest tone, middle C, unless they have a special B pedal which is one half step lower.
    4. The last few times I waited for fresh fries at Jack-in-the-Box the attendant was notified with an alarm that repeated in ascending order the tones of a C major triad, C - E - G, starting from middle C.
    5. The current dial tones (note: plural) of most American phones are tuned to a major third, the F and A above middle C. Please note that this major third (in just intonation) will not have the same tuning as that of the equal temperament of your piano or keyboard.

Can you add to this list of widely recognized reference tones?

Here are a few reference sources to avoid:

    1. Again, any recorded sound! This means from your car stereo, the radio, TV programs, the elevator music, and the list goes on. Exceptions to this rule would include recorded sound that is produced under scientifically verifiable conditions, i.e. tuning a recording (at the precise moment of listening) to an oscilloscope.
    2. The ice cream truck. At the time of this writing I am living in Miami and there is an overabundance of mobile frozen dessert vendors. Aside from my personal crusade against noise pollution there is a lesson to be learned. If you live in a community where vendors blasting ditties from their trucks have not yet been banned, listen to them as they drive around the block. You will notice that the key of the melody changes - often erratically. This is due to an acoustic Doppler effect . The pitches will rise as the ice cream truck approaches and fall as it is going away from you.
    3. The tones produced when you dial on your touch-tone phone are tuned quite oddly. You will not find the "telephone scale" to be very useful when compared to the tunings of other musical instruments.
    4. Your piano can be your worst enemy in this endeavor if you do not have it tuned — and check the tuning — regularly. Usually two tunings a year (after changes of season) are sufficient for most music students, teachers and performers. However, during periods when you are using the piano as a reference device for your tonal memory you should check the tuning on your piano at least monthly. If your piano is receiving heavy use once a month may still not be enough. For these reasons, a consultation with your piano technician would be advisable before you begin this project.

Any additional suggestions of avoidable reference sources are appreciated.

Next installment:

Other installments:
The Myth of "Perfect Pitch" - 1

The Myth of "Perfect Pitch" - 2

The Myth of "Perfect Pitch" - 3

The Myth of "Perfect Pitch" - 4

The Myth of "Perfect Pitch" - 5

The Myth of "Perfect Pitch" - 6

The Myth of "Perfect Pitch" - 7

The Myth of "Perfect Pitch" - 8

The Myth of "Perfect Pitch" - 9

The Myth of "Perfect Pitch" - 10

The Myth of "Perfect Pitch" - 11

The Myth of "Perfect Pitch" - 12

The Myth of "Perfect Pitch" - 13

The Myth of "Perfect Pitch" - 14

Table of Contents

Links for further exploration of this topic


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Updated: September 18, 2004 (KB)

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