The Unconservatory  

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

IX. Pitfalls and problems of this study.
From personal experience I can offer that, as with other physical senses, my tonal memory varies. I have long periods where I do not miss a note, especially when I am composing. I also have times where I miss by as much as a half step. As in Ken Blacklock’s account in the previous article, I find myself drawn off guard by recordings that are sharp or flat. I may recognize the timbre of a given instrument or remember the key of the piece of music I am listening to and miss the fact that the recording may be a little fast or slow. Also, I find that my sense of pitch can be affected by my health. For example, a stuffy head from a cold or allergy can wreak havoc not just on one’s sense of pitch, but the overall sense of hearing as well. I also find a direct correlation between my energy level and my ability to nail pitches: when I’m beat so’s my pitch!

Nobody said that this would be the easiest thing to learn. Or, just maybe it is for you. This might be a good time to re-label the word "talent" as it applies to tonal memory and, in its place substitute the pedagogically correct term "aptitude." As you can hopefully see at this point, a certain discipline is required if you are to improve your tonal memory. If you have a good aptitude for this acoustic skill you can improve upon it with practice. By being vigilant you can also avoid a few traps that are intrinsic to this study.

First of all, never trust an analog recording for the referencing of precise pitches! There are so many variables in the construction of cassette tape players and in the production of musical recordings that you can never be sure about the actual tuning of the recording. The exception remains the professional recording studio where mechanically produced reference tones must be precise to an inhumanly accurate degree.

Your favorite cassette recording of the Mozart "Sonata in D Major for Two Pianos" may actually be playing at "D sharp Major" on the dub you made to listen to during your morning commute. Then, your factory installed cassette player may be one half step sharp (very common, by the way!), so the performance is now in "E Major." One of your carpool buddies may have grabbed the tape to (illegally) copy while you weren’t looking and, instead of your slightly sharp copy, slipped up and given you the copy he made at home on a slow-running dub unit (that produces sharp copies!). Now you have an impossibly fast performance of Mozart’s "Sonata in D Triple Sharp (or ‘F’) Major for Two Imaginary Pianos."

This scenario or a variation of it, however fantastic, is not uncommon. So, while you should enjoy recorded music in the car, don’t bet your tonal memory on it. Obviously, the practical extension of this line of advice is to not use a tape recorder in this study.

Another trap to avoid in your formative tone labeling period is unsolicited expert opinions. Musicians can be liars! Just because a trumpet player tells you he knows he is playing an A-440 doesn’t mean that you have to believe him. Whip out your A-440 pitch pipe and listen! If you still don’t believe your ears and what he tells you, get an impartial expert corroborating witness such as your music teacher or piano tuner.

There are many examples of bad influences in this kind of study. Since tonal memory is so widely discussed and thoroughly misunderstood, a student will receive a plethora of conflicting, distracting and otherwise inaccurate input on the subject. My best advice at this point, above all, is "Stick to your path and trust no one source completely except yourself — and that which you consistently and accurately hear to be the truth. Your patience and persistent practice will win out!"

Next installment:
A head start on your catalogue of reference pitches: tones to use / tones to avoid

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: July 25, 2004 (KB)

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