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Is Perfect Pitch Necessary?

Frankly speaking: No! Most of the many musicians I have met during my time in the music game, have survived very successfully without it. They are all respected professionals in many styles of music.

But if you’re aspiring to become a member of the Chicago Symphony orchestra, well you either already have it or you should definitively start looking for lessons to perfect your pitch.

“Perfect pitch” isn’t the same as perfecting your pitch. And I doubt very much that every musician in the Chicago Symphony has “perfect pitch”.

I’ve puzzled over perfect pitch for a long time. Some who have it suggest that it’s 440 and it is, indeed “perfect”. So what if they play in San Francisco Symphony, an orchestra that claims 441 as their A. Or Europe, where the A goes even higher? And do the players in orchestras that play a higher A develop a “new perfect” when it comes to pitch?

Now learning to play in tune, and learning to match your pitch to the group you are in is very important. And — here’s a thought! — listening to yourself when you practice is a good thing. Really. I sometimes turn my tuner on nice and loud to an A-440 and have a student play his or her A. They play until they listen and adjust to match the A. I’ll put on other notes as well, and get them to match those. Tuners are great for checking intonation by looking, but when we are sitting in an orchestra we have to match pitches by listening, not looking, so I do try to work with them on this whole listening thing. They will tell you, in fact, that I frequently ask them, “What did you hear?” after they play a scale or piece they are working on … and yes, I sometimes get the response, “I forgot to listen!” So often we are busy thinking about fingerings and rhythm and, doggone it, our ears turn off. Surprising, but true.

Oh well. I think saying one must have perfect pitch to be a great player is crazy. I guess some people don’t. So if you want to pay someone who will grant you “Perfect Pitchdom” you go right ahead.

I read it here.

6 Comments

  1. I’m grateful every day that I don’t have ‘perfect pitch’.

    In any ensemble that isn’t tied to a pitch-rigid keyboard instrument, the pitch is always drifting, and unless a well-tempered keyboard instrument forces that tuning on the ensemble, the strings prefer just tempering. Different pitches…

    The fact is, there is no ‘correct’ pitch other than being in tune with the ensemble.

  2. There is a misconception among some people who have perfect pitch that this ability somehow means they don’t need ear training. I’m always baffled by this (as an ear training teacher).

    We didn’t really zero in on an internationally accepted “A” until 1939. So with that in perspective, the whole notion of perfect pitch seems kind of silly to me.

  3. Thanks, Bob & Michael.

    And YES. 🙂

  4. I always felt there was a great value to practicing with a tuner (I mean one that shows some visual indication). Sometimes, SEEING you’re a cent sharp or flat can help you to hear it. Now, I don’t think it’s necessarily a good goal to play every note according to the equal-tempered scale — just that it’s a valuable skill, being able to hear fine distinctions of pitch and play accordingly.

  5. Perfect pitch is probably something nice to have in dictation class… maybe not something nice to have as an audience member. If I had perfect pitch, it would probably drive me nuts to watch my teacher play baroque cello since everything is tuned a half-step down.

  6. I knew a woman who said it drove her crazy to go to concerts when the pitch was really sharp, due to her “perfect pitch”, Yu-Ting!