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Perfect Pitch And Multiple Temperaments


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I have just been reading an interesting article on Gottfried Silbermann's voicings, and the points about the various temperaments involved triggered a thought. Namely how someone gifted with perfect pitch in the equal temperant world of today, would have coped with the various baroque temperaments. Presumably there is some pitch tolerance associated with perfect pitch, so small variations such as those with differing temperaments do not affect this capability. Though it must have been a bigger issue dealing with the larger frequency variations associated with tuning to anything from A 409 through A 480.

 

So for the the itinerant perfect-pitched musician in the pre 19th century, would perfect pitch have been more of a curse than a blessing?

 

If so, it makes me feel a whole lot better about the lack of mine.

 

Sq.

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Guest Cynic
I have just been reading an interesting article on Gottfried Silbermann's voicings, and the points about the various temperaments involved triggered a thought. Namely how someone gifted with perfect pitch in the equal temperant world of today, would have coped with the various baroque temperaments. Presumably there is some pitch tolerance associated with perfect pitch, so small variations such as those with differing temperaments do not affect this capability. Though it must have been a bigger issue dealing with the larger frequency variations associated with tuning to anything from A 409 through A 480.

 

So for the the itinerant perfect-pitched musician in the pre 19th century, would perfect pitch have been more of a curse than a blessing?

 

If so, it makes me feel a whole lot better about the lack of mine.

 

Sq.

 

I have met very few people with perfect pitch and upon discussion practically always they agree that it's more a curse than a blessing, with the exception of how easy they find it is to cope with aural dictation and such in examinations.

 

Further back in history, my guess is that if one was grew up with a variety of pitches and tunings, I think it would be even more rare to find someone with a particular pitch 'built in'.

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Guest Patrick Coleman

If perfect pitch is akin to pitch memory, which most musicians have to some extent (the ability to remember in context the pitch of a particular piece), then hearing in unfamiliar temperaments must surely be a matter to be learned.

 

I don't have perfect pitch, but find it hard to sing a piece in a new key when I have become accustomed to singing it in another. Put crudely, the intervals never feel quite right.

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I have friends at university, who find listening to pieces at A415 almost impossible 'as it just sounds wrong'

Poor them! I don't suppose great musicians of the past, who existed in worlds of many pitch standards, had any particular similar problems to your friends or they would probably have mentioned it enough for their feelings to be widely known; as it is we have some stories about JSB's attitude to the wolf and a story about the child Mozart expressing surprise that a violin he was asked to play being a fraction of a tone lower than his "butter" fiddle upstairs. And if anyone had perfect pitch I would bet that those two had it. How do your friends cope with pieces that exist in different keys, such as the song Ol' Man River, which appears in 4 different keys in the musical for which it was composed, Show Boat? Or some of JSB's organ pieces which exist in two keys? And are they at ease writing for transposing instruments such as clarinets and horns or thrown into inner aural turmoil?

 

I'm probably just jealous :rolleyes:

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It seems to me that awareness of perfect pitch varies can vary between individuals, some feeling it more acutely than others. My wife has it, but if I ask her to name a note she has to think about it. Also, when she is tired her perfect pitch is apt to become unreliable. Others I have known have felt perfect pitch very keenly, even the slightest variation being offensive.

 

I wonder how much tolerance or intolerance of Baroque tunings is tied to perfect pitch. I do not have it, but I still find the Werkmeister III tuning on my toaster just plain out of tune in keys with more than three sharps or flats. But maybe it is!

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How do your friends cope with pieces that exist in different keys?

Sidney Campbell's sense of perfect pitch was quite intolerant, yet he was perfectly happy to transpose unaccompanied choral music into whatever key he felt suitable. Then again, he regarded transposition as an essential skill. I remember one Evensong when we had had a debate about the key in which an anthem should be sung. It was hardly an argument - one didn't argue with Campbell - but I was in a slightly bolshie mood, so for the voluntary I played the St Anne Fugue in E major (and what a wonderful pschological effect the extra semitone has - try it!) As was his wont, Campbell had disappeared downstairs to make sure he was seen, thus ensuring any credit or blame for the playing devolved where it was due. As I finished he reappeared in the loft and with a Herculean effort at being objective said, "Well of course, on organs of Bach's time it might have sounded in that key." I think it had the desired effect!

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I have just been reading an interesting article on Gottfried Silbermann's voicings, and the points about the various temperaments involved triggered a thought. Namely how someone gifted with perfect pitch in the equal temperant world of today, would have coped with the various baroque temperaments.

 

Speaking personally, I can cope with pretty much everything as long as the key note is in roughly the right place. Orchestras and choirs left to their own devices sing in pure intonation as they need no temperament at all (it is the nature of the keyboard which enforces all that on us) so I suppose the variation between key flavour or lack thereof is easy to iron out between hearing a choir sing and a keyboard instrument play, and the same goes for unequal temperaments which (if playing in sympathetic keys) show no more variation than those two extremes (except where wolf notes are used for effect).

 

I had a horrid experience in Malta, transposing up a semitone on an instrument which was a tone flat of A=440. See an A, play an A# and hear a G#. That was almost too much for the brain to cope with and I ended up managing by following the bass line, pretending I was deliberately mis-reading viola clef and transposing that, hearing Alice sing the melody and improvising in the rest. Aagh.

 

What does happen after quite a short time of hearing a bad choir sing flat or just lifelessly is that my point of reference disappears and I have to shut my eyes in silence for a good 5 seconds or so in order to get a reliable A back.

 

Our ears are so used to equal temperament that we seem mystified by old writers who described it as foul and horrible, but objectively speaking all the thirds are pretty nasty. I think being conditioned by that is why others I know with perfect pitch are in the same predicament of not being aware that a choir has lost pitch over a prolonged period until it's gone beyond the 1/4 tone mark or shifted very rapidly. The most interesting experience I can recall lately is hearing Taverner's The Lamb drop a semitone in the first four unique notes (somehow they did GBBAAF#G and ended up on a dull F#) and a sixth overall.

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Guest Barry Williams

I have heard a quartet of singers all with 'perfect pitch' (as has my best friend, bed mate and lover, aka, my wife,) stray almost a semitone in some modulations when singing a capella, (yet return to correct pitch.)

 

This has been extensively researched and has far more do to do with perception of pitch than temperaments.

 

Living with someone who has 'perfect pitch' I can assure you it is no advantage except in music examinations.

 

Barry Williams

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Living with someone who has 'perfect pitch' I can assure you it is no advantage except in music examinations.

 

Or when the conductor forgets their tuning fork at a concert, or when you look round at the end of the Creed and discover the person responsible for giving a G has gone for a stroll.

 

As for a sheltered life - of course.

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My aural teacher in first year University claimed that her 'perfect pitch' was acquired from an out-of-tune piano when she was a child, and hence was a terrible curse.

 

A violinist with 'perfect pitch' was taken on in a HIP nurturing program that I am involved with. I've performed with her every couple of months for a number of years, now. At first, she complained of getting headaches as the organ would float away from A = 440 Hz with the weather and she was not able to tolerate even small shifts. Reading this thread has brought to mind that this no longer appears to be a problem, and that she is happy to play in the various pitches we commonly use when performing, as well as using a number of different temperaments. Clearly, she has at least learned to tolerate this without ongoing headaches, as she is most happy to continue in the program.

 

I'll have a coffee with her when we can and I'd be happy to report back if readers are interested.

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Guest Cynic
In an emergency the tweezers on a Swiss Army penknife give a g#, albeit rather faint.

 

 

In an emergency, practically any electrical equipment plugged into the mains gives off an out of tune G sharp if you listen carefully enough to it. I gave up Science at 14 (to do extra music) so I couldn't attempt to tell you why this is. I can be annoying actually, I can sometimes sense this pitch beating with the bass as I listen to myself playing soft music in some buildings.

 

Are the BBC pips an A? I'm sure I heard that they were.

 

Then there's all that lovely recorded music you get when you 'phone any utility company and they fail to pick up promptly. Spring from The Four Seasons anyone?

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In an emergency, practically any electrical equipment plugged into the mains gives off an out of tune G sharp if you listen carefully enough to it. I gave up Science at 14 (to do extra music) so I couldn't attempt to tell you why this is. I can be annoying actually, I can sometimes sense this pitch beating with the bass as I listen to myself playing soft music in some buildings.

 

Are the BBC pips an A? I'm sure I heard that they were.

 

Then there's all that lovely recorded music you get when you 'phone any utility company and they fail to pick up promptly. Spring from The Four Seasons anyone?

 

There are many tapes/Cds/CD-ROMs/web-downloads available to measure/improve/acquire both relative and perfect pitch and a few of the web-downloads are free. I should be interested to hear whether any membes have found any of these helpful. The best known are those by Graham English and David Lucas Burge, both from USA. There are also a number of websites about intonation and temperaments (as well as IPA charts for singers) and some have examples to hear. I have enjoyed reading a recent short book by Ross Duffin entitled "How equal temperament ruined harmony and why you should care".

 

I think of two conservatoire trained, highly qualified professional musicians who found that their perfect pitch varied up up to a whole tone when they reached their late 60s. If envy were not a sin I would be very envious of the 18 year old violinist who recently heard my church organ for the first time and immediately (and accurately) pronounced that it is currently tuned to 437 instead of 440.

 

Malcolm Kemp

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Guest Barry Williams

Welcome to The Board, Malcolm.

 

For those who do not know, Malcolm is a very well-qualified organist and choirmaster, much be-lettered and a pupil, as I was, of Douglas Hawkridge and Eric Thiman. He is a long standing friend of mine and was until recently a professional colleague.

 

He has written many erudite articles. I am sure we will be delighted with his contributions here.

 

Barry Williams

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Guest Nigel ALLCOAT

What a hornets' nest of a topic! It is a strange thing to possess - something uncanny to fully explain. I had a piano belonging to the family and which provided me with the first played sounds from the very earliest of my days, that was in a low German pitch. However the piano of my teacher was a concert pitch Steinway. When taking my first AssBoard piano exam and doing Aural Tests for the first time she started of with playing the key chord and she named the note I was to start sing. I said that I knew that. She played a few more which I also named and with glee told my father when he came to pick me up that I had Perfect Pitch. To this day I cannot reconcile that fact that my 'norm' of three or four years was at a pitch that differed from the A440. The first time that it was a gruesome hinderance was when at the most impossible notice I had to play for a Choir concert given by St Mary's Warwick in Arundle Cathedral with no prior rehearsal other than a titchy warm-up. The opening piece was the only one to be tried and it was Finzi's 'God is Gone Up'. The first phrase lept a semitone under my hands as I played my first organ not in 440! Suffice it to say that I could not carry on but I did play my Reger W. Auf from memory for the solo just by rigidly keeping my fingers and toes where they should be without listening to the organ. Such an odd experience and the beginning of a learning curve.

With continental pitches, it takes quite a time but I have trained myself to 'lock into' the pitch, but it takes a good couple of hours. I still need far longer for Choir Tone Pitch (as at Sonderburg Castle in Denmark) which is sounding a 5th higher. For the exercise of Transposition, the early days of doing RCO tests made me physically sick and would make me often have to find a toilet. The mental wrestle was appalling. And still is. But these downs, certainly do not outweigh the ups and it is an 'affliction' that I certainly would never like to be without. Having said all that - I play a concert at Reading Town Hall tomorrow evening which is not at 440! This post might have a coda, come Friday! Hey ho!

All the best,

Nigel

 

PS I seem to recall that Albert de Klerk wrote out his music into the key he was going to hear it in when playing at Zwolle. Dedication!

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