The Unconservatory  

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

XII. The drawbacks of a refined tonal memory

Having elaborated upon the challenges and having sung the praises of developing tonal memory, be warned! There are problems with knowing how things "should be tuned." While knowledge is power, enlightenment usually exacts a price from the faithful. (Incidentally, all things considered, I still prefer paying for the truth!)

A special set of problems exists in music for voices, strings or any other combinations of these and other instruments with variable tunings. The tuning of such ensembles can change dramatically during the course of a piece — even if all members are singing or playing in tune.

I had an especially memorable experience when I was in high school. Music Director Stan Fields was rehearsing the concert choir for a performance. The group was having a particularly difficult time staying in tune in one section of an a cappélla selection. Mr. Fields found that separately each section was solid, but when the sections were combined the basses were sharp in comparison to the rest of the choir. As it turned out I was the culprit! During a modulation of key the choir was staying in tune with each other but arriving in the new key a little flat to the starting pitches. I, however, was making an adjustment to stay in tune with my internal library of pitches; Even though we were unaccompanied I wanted to stay in tune with the piano! Mr. Fields and I later discussed the problem. His advice was correct of course: "Follow the group!" While singing "out of tune" bothered me at first, I finally acquiesced and eventually enjoyed noticing the exact moment of detuning by the choir. (Years later this proved to be an epiphany in my musical studies.)

So, the next time you attend a live choir performance don’t expect the starting and ending chords to be the same — even if these two chords are exactly the same in your study score. It is interesting to note here that a vocal (or to a lesser degree, string) ensemble may perform completely in tune with each other throughout the piece and, due to the harmonic demands of the composition, end up slightly (or greatly) out of tune with the starting pitches. This is a very deep subject that is exhaustively covered for the faithful in Harmonic Experience.

Due to factors such as communications (or lack thereof) between early instrument manufacturers and the evolution of acoustic standards, concert pitch has changed over the decades and centuries. Bach’s French Suite #5 in G Major may have actually been written in what we call F Sharp Major. If he were among us today he might have to make quite an adjustment in listening to his own music.

Musicians who perform today on antique instruments may tune them differently than modern instruments, often flat to modern concert pitch. The temperament may also be different than the equal temperament to which we are accustomed. This can affect our labeling perceptions. A pricey experiment that will allow you to check this out for yourself would be to ask a piano technician to tune two or more pianos in the same room to different temperaments (i.e. equal temperament and just intonation). Ask someone to perform the same piece on the different instruments. What do you think? Some electronic keyboards allow you to retune the temperament. If you have access to one try this experiment on the keyboard. You might get the same insight at a much lower cost.

Beware of what you ask for; you may get it! While an advanced tonal memory may prove to be a useful tool for the serious musician or fascinated listener, these brief accounts are only a few of the myriad confusions that can occur in this odd area of acoustic exploration.

Next installment:
Some parting advice

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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