The Unconservatory  

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


Note: Entries followed by "(H.E.)" were lifted from Harmonic Experience Copyright 1997 by W. A. Mathieu. All Rights Reserved.

A-440: the A above middle C, tuned to 440 cycles per second. This frequency is a standard reference pitch to which technicians tune pianos and other modern musical instruments.

a cappella: (from Italian: in the church or chapel style) unaccompanied vocal music.

acoustic complexity: in addition to the fundamental tone produced by a given sound source, the variety of overtones produced. To understand this more fully compare the quality of the beep produced by a microwave oven to the sound of a fork tapping a wine glass. Notice that the microwave beep sounds simple or shallow when compared to the rich "p-i-i-i-i-n-n-n-g" of a beautiful crystal. The reason for this is that the goblet will produce more overtones than the electronic beep. While it may be easier and quicker to identify the pitches from electronic instruments, most people prefer listening to the richer sound of acoustically complex instruments.

acoustician: one who studies the science of sound and its applications.

analog tape recording: A recording made with analog (not digital) technology. Analog tape recordings are made by encoding acoustic information magnetically on recording tape. This method can produce variations in tuning depending upon the speed of the tape passing over the recording or playback heads. Comparatively, digital recordings (tape and otherwise) store information in a binary format, where the tuning is not affected by tape speed.

cycles per second: a standard term for the measurement of frequencies, i.e. the A above middle C vibrates at a frequency of 440 cycles per second.

equal temperament (H.E.): a system of tuning wherein the octave is divided into intervals of exactly equal size; twelve-tone equal temperament is the standard system of the Western world.

flat: in reference to another pitch, being lower in frequency than that given pitch.

flautist: one who plays the flute.

frequency (H.E.): the number of cycles per second an object vibrates to produce a tone.

half step: the distance on the piano between any two consecutive keys, i.e. B to C, C to C#, Db to D, etc. In equal temperament the interval of the half step is constant; in just intonation and other temperaments half steps can vary widely.

harmony (H.E.): refers primarily, in Harmonic Experience, to events that can be quantified by ratio, as opposed to events that can be measured by interval.

interval (H.E.): a quantifier of the melodic distance between two tones, usually without specification as to their harmonic interaction, as distinct from ratio (q.v.).

just intonation (H.E.): in some texts, the five-limit system of tuning; in Harmonic Experience, any system of tuning using low primes.

key (H.E.): the tonic; in general use, the word often includes a designation of mode: the key of C Minor. Harmonic Experience attempts to retain the distinction between key and mode (q.v.) whenever possible.

keyboard instruments: examples include celeste, harpsichord, organ, piano, synthesizer.

mastered: refers in this article to the production of a "master" recording from which other copies of a recording are made.

melody (H.E.): refers in Harmonic Experience to the up-and-down aspect of music, that which is quantifiable by intervalic measurement; as distinct from harmony (q.v.)

modulation: a change of key within a composition.

octave: an interval in which the higher of two tones vibrates at exactly double the frequency of the lower. On the piano and other instruments, the closest interval between any two consecutive notes with the same letter name, i.e. "C to C" and "Gb to Gb."

open string: on stringed instruments any bowed or plucked string that is not fingered.

oscilloscope: a device that measures the frequency of audible tones.

overtone: any tone that is produced above a fundamental tone. Since instruments (and vocalists) produce sound in a variety of ways the overtones of each can be, i.e. between two saxophones, very similar or, i.e. between a piano and oboe, quite different.

perfect fifth: an interval in which the higher of two tones vibrates at exactly one and a half the frequency of the lower, or 3:2. On the piano and other instruments the interval between, i.e., middle C and the next G above it. Note that fifths on the piano are tuned slightly flat in order to conform to equal temperament and, so, are not "perfect."

pitch (H.E.): the specific frequency of a tone; its precise tuning.

pitch reference device: any device with a stable tuning that can be used as a reliable source in determining one or more pitches, i.e. a tuning fork, pitch pipe, microwave oven beep or telephone dial tone.

register: a range of pitches. Women with high voices, i.e, are said to sing in the soprano register. Jazz artists frequently accompany (or "comp") in the middle register of the piano.

relative pitch: a method of determining consecutive pitches after a first one is given involving the use of memorized intervals.

resonate: in this study, to produce a reproducible physical reaction to acoustic stimuli.

scale (H.E.): the incrementally ascending or descending arrangement of the notes of a mode, or any set of tones. Scalar is the adjective.

sharp: in reference to another pitch, being higher in frequency than that given pitch.

standard pitch: any frequency that is a common reference tone among musicians and musical technicians. A-440 is the standard pitch to which many pianos and other instruments are tuned today.

stringed instruments: examples include bass, cello, guitar, harp, lute, mandolin, viola, violin.

temperament (H.E.): a method of tuning that defines a closed system of a finite set of tones (such as twelve), some or all of which are tuned in a prescribed deviation from their pure ratios (in contradiction to just intonation, q.v.). In equal temperament (q.v.) all tones except the octave are tuned impure.

tempo: The Italian word for time. In music this refers to the average speed of a section or complete work, usually measured in beats per minute.

tessitura: the range of pitches in a piece of music. A piece with many high notes is said to have a high tessitura.

timbre: the quality of a tone or sound.

tonal memory: a catalogue of memorized pitches that can be sung (and/or identified when produced by external sound sources) without aid of a reference device. The act of remembering note names and/or frequencies of pitches.

tone (H.E.): any sustained, sensible frequency, but not necessarily octave-specific. For instance, "the tone C#" means any C#, or a certain C#, depending on context. "The note (q.v.) C#" refers (as much as possible) to one that is notated; see also pitch.

transpose: to change the key of a piece of music.

tuning: another word for temperament.

tuning fork: a small two-pronged steel instrument which, when struck, produces a fixed tone.

tweak: (musician-ese) to subtly change.

unison: two or more vocalists and/or instrumentalists singing and/or playing a tone of the same frequency. Unisons may vary widely at birthday parties and sporting events.

wind instruments: examples include bassoon, clarinet, flute, french horn, oboe, ocarina, penny whistle, recorder, saxophone, trombone, trumpet, tuba.

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)

Return to Articles

Return to Home

Disclaimer, Copyright Statement and Editorial Policies

For inquiries email:

Updated: September 18, 2004 (KB)

Copyright 2004 The Unconservatory, All Rights Reserved.