28. August 2007 · 9 comments · Categories: Ramble

So it might be that I can blame my genes for lacking perfect pitch. Or so some say.

She and colleagues analyzed the results of a three-year, Web-based survey and musical test that required participants to identify notes without the help of a reference tone. More than 2,200 people completed the 20-minute test.

Or maybe not.

A Web-based survey? Is this saying that anyone who decided to go to that site could take the test? With no one making sure they aren’t sitting by a piano or tuner? Or am I not understanding this?

I can identify notes played by an oboe for the most part. When I listen to a recording of an oboe work, I “see” the fingerings in my head. It just happens. I’ve checked a few times to verify that I’ve got it right, and I do. (I will confess I’ll pull my tuner out of my oboe bag when I’m driving, and sing a note into it to make sure I’m correct. But don’t tell anyone. It just sounds far too nerdy.)

I dunno. The study sounds sketchy to me. But I’m certainly no scientist.

And what about when an A was 415? Now it’s 440 or higher, depending upon the orchestra. So would folks back in the Baroque era hear a 415 as an A, and would folks now hear that as an A flat? What does that mean?

Oh … and contrary to the article’s title, I don’t covet perfect pitch.


  1. Haha, yup having perfect pitch is a real problem.. I do hear baroque recordings a tone down, for example, a while ago I had to study Bach’s brandenburg concerto in F for a high school examination… The recording our teacher gave us was played by a baroque chamber group, and for me, I was hearing the whole thing in E major instead of F. It gets irritating too, when playing the Cor Anglais.. Like pressing the fingering for C and hearing an F come out instead… it’s just pure weird and takes getting used to.

  2. Oops, i meant semitone =P apologies!

  3. So Nat, can you distinguish between a 440, 441, 442, etc. … ? I just wonder how accurate “perfect” is! Especially since pitch seems to “evolve.”

  4. Hmm, good question, Patty. I guess because in Singapore we’re accustomed to playing at 442, listening to an orchestra at 440 would be a little uncomfortable because it’s just a bit flatter. 415’s definitely an A-flat, but 439, 438 and perhaps 437 still sound A-ish.. Does that answer your question?

  5. So from what you write, Nat, a person will hear the pitch they are used to as “correct” and any deviation is actually heard. I guess we might drive you nuts here, when I tune the orchestra to a 440! 🙂

    Thanks for the info!

  6. Haha yep! I’ll have to get used to it though, I’m going over there to study next year 🙂

    Anyway I was just playing around with my tuner just now, and it could produce pitches from 430 to 449.. The 430 one didn’t sound an A-flat to me, it was just an extremely flat A 😛

  7. Jeannette Clemons

    Comment on “seeing the fingerings”: One of the hardest things about taking up Oboe in February was looking at a piece of music and instantaneously FEELING the flute fingerings in my finger tips… I could not go back and forth between instruments at all for about 3 months without MAJOR discomfort in my hands…On pitch: I have very good relative pitch but not the perfect pitch.Interesting a “middle C” on the flute or a low Bb on Oboe sounds very LOW to me, but played on the piano its just middle c. Some of that is timbre for sure. I also hear upper tuba octaves as sounding “high”, but of course we all know they are mostly midrange. So certainly there is a very large learned component on top of the genetic one… A new book that explores the topic of Musicophilia from a neurologic by Oliver Saks (?sp) is coming out in early September; I preordered it as I am anxious “to hear” what he says….

  8. Jeannette Clemons

    That was “neurologic standpoint”…sorry…

  9. I had written to the author of “This is your brain on Music” (Daniel Levitin) about how we can hear the same note played or sung by different instruments or voices and one will sound low and one high. Funny how that works, yes? Timbre is an interesting thing. (And I’m fascinated that even a non-musician can hear that I’m playing a “high note” when, on flute, it wouldn’t be considered high.)