Monday, October 7, 2013

Perfect Pitch

For some reason I was thinking about perfect pitch this morning--probably because I just did a recording with a violinist who has perfect pitch. I was musing about what perfect pitch really is. It is usually deemed to be a kind of fixed, long-term musical memory. This seems to fit with my friend the violinist. She went through torment a few years ago when she was hired to play in some performances of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos. The ensemble was using the early music standard pitch of A = 415 instead of A = 440, which meant that to my friend, every A sounded like a G#! Agony!

I can certainly understand why early music musicians would like to standardize pitch as they are often playing in different early music ensembles and otherwise it would be chaos. But listeners should realize that this is quite anachronistic. In the 18th century every town and every ensemble had their own "A". There was no national or international standard. But now there are two, one for "modern" and one for "early" music. I have another friend, a singer, who has perfect pitch for both and can switch back and forth.

So I was musing on perfect pitch and whether it is memory of pitch or memory of the label: "A" or "C"? And as I mused, I picked up my guitar and just on the spur of the moment I thought in my mind two notes, D up to B, a major sixth. Then I sang them and immediately checked on the guitar. I was dead on! But I don't for a moment think I have perfect pitch, because if you go to the piano and strike a note, I probably can't identify it. So I'm not sure what is going on.

If I were Ludwig Wittgenstein, I could probably say a lot more about this idea of remembering exact pitches and, even more interesting, remembering what labels we attach to them...

Let me see, what music would go with this post? How about the Ravel Piano Concerto for the left hand that was commissioned by Ludwig's brother, Paul Wittgenstein, who lost his right arm in the First World War?


Shantanu said...

What a nice post. This also reminds me of equal temperament. I wonder if there are historically informed performances taking place where the music is played not on equally tempered instruments, but on ones tuned to the specific key? I think equal temperament came about during the Baroque so maybe it would be older music that would be played this way. Perhaps it's not possible to play Classical and Romantic music without equal temperament, because there is such wild modulation, etc. Am I right?

Bryan Townsend said...

Oh yes! Harpsichordists in particular use what they call "historical temperaments". A typical one is known as "Werckmeister III" that is often used by harpsichordists playing Bach. It is widely believed that Bach's music was NOT intended to be played on an equal-tempered instrument, but merely a "well-tempered" one. There are some that also assert that absolutely equal-tempered tuning did not completely take over until the early 20th century:

I believe that nearly all of the harpsichordists working today are using some variety of historical tuning.

The question of how equally tempered were historical performances of, say, Haydn or Beethoven is a pretty interesting one! The answer might be in this book, which I have not read: Owen Jorgensen, Tuning: Containing the Perfection of Eighteenth-Century Temperament, the Lost Art of Nineteenth-Century Temperament, and the Science of Equal Temperament, Michigan State University Press, 1991.