The Unconservatory  

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

XI. The benefits of a refined tonal memory
At the symphony, at home, school or in the workplace it is a good idea to become more aware of your acoustic world — even intimately. Something changes when you become acquainted on a first name basis with the kaleidoscope of frequencies that surround you. Again, I am advising that the development of a tonal memory should take a back seat to more standard — and useful — musical studies. At the very least, however, I hope to have given those interested (and perhaps previously intimidated) a little ammunition to proceed. Here then are a handful of diverse applications for the tonally inclined.

One of my favorite tricks to play on friends in high school was to be able to tell them the precise speed we were driving when we were in my car without looking at the speedometer. They invariably thought it had to do with visual cues. This would have been a viable possibility, but instead I had memorized several differences in pitch that the engine made at various speeds. When the car was travelling at a speed between two of my fixed reference pitches it was an easy matter to interpolate the difference. While this may seem like a lot of effort to most people, I found it entertaining and a motivation to win bets on pizza money.

Since the tuning and tempo of recordings are extremely important to our perception of music, your increasingly developed tonal memory can alert you to certain problems. Let’s say your recording of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony sounds a little fast. Ask yourself if it also sounds sharp. Then check a note or two from the recording in a passage familiar to you against a pitch reference device. Ask your music teacher if you are not sure about how to do this. If you still own one, you may find that your record turntable is a little fast. Or, you may have discovered that the CD you are listening to was improperly mastered. Or, perhaps the conductor bumped up both the tuning and tempo (improbable). At the very least you will gain a new appreciation for the world of recorded music and proof that there is nothing to compare to a live concert!

Professional musicians with a heightened sense of tonal memory can most benefit from this skill. As a pianist I do not worry much about the basic tuning of my instrument — aside from calling a piano technician before the concert and carrying a tuning hammer to tweak a unison or two! Woodwind and string ensembles enjoy having a member who can say "here’s the tuning note" without having to find a piano. As I mentioned in the beginning, choirs and other vocal ensembles also greatly celebrate "The Pitchfinder" when performing a cappélla concerts, again especially those away from a piano or organ.

As a composer and arranger I enjoy working outside the confines of a studio. It is a real joy to know that I can look at my original score, see what is there, hear what is not and correctly write down what I need with only the aid of my internal musical instruments. There are also opportunities in the recording studio to check certain aspects of one’s recorded work against a well-developed internal tuning.

The following is a more detailed account by Marilyn Morales of the development of her tonal memory and how she has applied it.

My first musical memory was that of trying to play pieces on the piano. I began piano studies like most people do, with a piano teacher. She assigned me the usual easy pieces, and I learned them. My tonal memory grew by leaps and bounds when I graduated to learning more difficult works — even though I did not know what I was doing.

I learned to memorize music by listening to my older sister’s practice and performances at the piano. I reached a point in my musical training (as many young children do!) where I found it difficult to progress by reading music from the page. Instead, I asked my sister, Alina, to play my pieces, which she had already learned. She was all too happy to oblige me. In this manner I quickly and effortlessly absorbed my lesson assignments. Trouble began when I also absorbed Alina’s lesson assignments! In addition to learning my pieces, I went to the piano and played everything I heard Alina practice — including her mistakes!

It did not take my teacher long to realize what I was doing. Since, naturally, she wanted my note reading skills to improve, my lesson assignments included an admonition to Alina: "Do not play Marilyn’s pieces for her!" While this was good advice from my teacher in terms of my overall musical development, my hungry ear would not quit! I still listened to Alina and "stole" her pieces. We had some terrific fights about this when we were kids!

While I did not realize it at the time, I was intensely labeling and retaining pitch names. I did not think much about this subject until high school. Again, as was mentioned in the first article of this series, I did not believe that tonal memory was such a special ability. In fact, because of my first piano teacher’s early warning to me and my family against "learning pieces by ear," I downplayed my tonal memory. I felt it would be a problem if people found out about it.

After college when I began my teaching career I became interested in learning more about how students might be able to learn music by ear and develop productive reading skills. I have found from practical experience that learning "by ear" and "from the page" are two necessary and complimentary practices. When I perform music from memory I rely equally upon my auditory and visual memory; my fingers play what my ears hear as well as what I am remembering from the page.

With my lifetime experience of learning and teaching music by ear (and, of course, from the page) I find it easy to identify vocal and instrumental pitches. I hear a given pitch or combination of pitches and the notes come to me mentally in the form of an internal staff: I literally visualize the notes in my mind.

While I have found my tonal memory to be ultimately helpful, it is only one of many areas of specialized musical studies I have developed. Three examples come immediately to mind.

    1. When I am in a music store looking through scores for myself or a student I enjoy being able to read a piece of unfamiliar music and get an idea of what it sounds like without having to take it to the piano.
    2. I also enjoy my ability to hear a piece of music at a concert or on the radio or TV and then being able to figure it out at the piano without the aid of sheet music.
    3. My tonal memory is a great aid in the memorization of pieces. As a concert artist this is especially useful!

An important concept to gain from this offering is that, with musical studies such as harmony and theory as well as vocal or instrumental practice, a well developed tonal memory can be a great asset.

Next installment:
The (not so) down side of enlightenment

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

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Please join our Harmonic Experience Forum for discussions related to Harmonic Experience: Tonal Harmony from Its Natural Origins to Its Modern Expression, by W.A. Mathieu (Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions International, 1997)

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Updated: September 18, 2004 (KB)

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