Some notes on perfect pitch.

Originally published in The American Mercury, pages 459-60, 1934.

Louis Cheslock

The faculty of so-called perfect pitch among musicians (that is, their ability definitely to allocate tones from memory) is today almost as much a mystery as it has always been. Despite fifty years of psychological and scientific prying into the phenomenon very little of real value has been unearthed, and still less definitely proved and established. Nevertheless, it is now possible to dispose of some of the illusions concerning it, and to institute in their place the known facts.

To begin with, there is no such thing as perfect pitch. Assuming the tone A above middle C to be 440 vibrations, there is not, and there never has been, an ear that could unfailingly identify it and nothing else to be true A. The same is true for all other tones distinguishable to human ears, roughly about one hundred of them in semitones. But this is only pitch identification.

Accurately to produce tones on instruments having only tonal continuity is infinitely more difficult. Imagine yourself blowing for A into the end of a tonal tube having a plunger at the other end, and stopping the plunger at exactly the point of 440 vibrations by ear! Or singing, on command, the G below at exactly 392 vibrations; or any other note within a narrow vocal range of about twenty semitones! To do these things is not only more difficult; it is, in fact, absolutely impossible. And further to complicate the business there is no universal agreement for a standard of pitch, the present Occidental choices being based on A-440, A-435, or what have you. No human being possesses, or ever has possessed, true perfect pitch, the legends about Bach, Haydn, and Mozart to the contrary notwithstanding.

What is commonly called perfect pitch is really some form of relative pitch, an ability to identify from memory pitches comparatively close to the true tones. There are various kinds and qualities of relative pitch. One, for instance, requires the aid of a starting tone from which higher and lower tones may be judged. Another, posing as absolute pitch, is the ability to identify the approximate pitches without any starting tone, especially on the piano. Now the piano is a tempered instrument, whose tones are not in perfect pitch to begin with. C# and Db, for instance, are one and the same tone on the well tempered clavichord, as are all the other enharmonic (compromise pitch) tones.

But any ear-talented string or wind instrument player or vocalist would make C# in its movement up to D higher than Db-- the C# (let us take the one above C-264-- middle C-- for illustration) to vibrate close to 278.44 or 281.92 (according to the key in which it occurs), but never so low as 278.12, which is the vibration rate for Db. The pitch created should have the effect of C# wanting to progress to D, and, contrariwise, Db wanting to move to C. These (and many other key and chord relationships and combinations, too involved for inclusion in this short sketch) are subtleties in pitch discrimination not even possible for pianists to practice. They are better than piano or tempered pitch for the very reason that they are less fixed and more musical.

As a rule, pianists acquire pitch identification ability more readily than performers whose instruments do not have fixed intonations. They are not encumbered with so many shades of pitch. Nor are they encumbered with vibrato, tremolo, dynamic, and other changes within the individual tones. They do not need to tune their instruments, and not enough of them know when to have them tuned.

Any test for pitch identification, to be entirely fair, should be given on the instrument the subject plays. The timbre and kinesthetic senses are important elements in stimulating the pitch memory. Thus a good absolute or relative pitcher on the piano may fall short when tried on the tuba, and vice versa. Improvement may set in, of course, in each case as the subject accustoms himself to the above named elements.

Incidentally, it has never, to my knowledge, been scientifically established by precisely what means tone memory is induced in the ear: whether the tectorial membrane of the cochlea is stimulated all the way from the vestibule in the auris interna, and extends up to a certain ending point which gives the clue for pitch recognition, or whether only the small isolated area or point forming the local sign is affected. The latter theory seems to be favored at present. In any event, the faculty does not seem to be purely physiological, since through training and experience the musical aural abilities can be cultivated to a certain degree.

According to personal observations about 2% of all music students up to the age of say seventeen, who have had several years' training, have tonal memory. From seventeen to around twenty-one years of age about 5% have it, and very advanced students and teachers may number about 20%.

But I very strongly doubt that 50% of all professional artists have pronounced absolute pitch. In my opinion, a fine discriminatingly adjustable ear is decidedly preferable and more practical than the ear that knows only definitely fixed pitches, even if the latter were possible.

The uses of tonal memory are extremely limited, and it is in itself far from being, as is generally believed, a sure sign of musicalness, although the total absence of any form of relative pitch can more certainly be taken to prove the reverse. The gift is obviously useful to a certain degree, however, to composers and conductors. On the other hand, its possession can prove decidedly disadvantageous. Some so-called perfect pitchers are greatly disturbed, for example, when transposing music by hearing tones different from those indicated. Picture the maddening effect on a French. horn player transposing the innocent triad C, E, G from a D-horn to A, C#, E on an F-horn and then actually hearing D, F#, A! He'd have to fling himself or his absolute pitch into the river. The gift gives rise, in the worst of its possessors, to the abominable habit of audibly performing note-naming autopsies on the most beautiful of musical creations. I once heard Johannes Brahms's noble Second Symphony thus dissected and desecrated during what would otherwise have been for me an inexpressible delight.

I know violinists and singers who perform miserably out of tune, yet who rarely miss an opportunity to parade their self-styled perfect pitch.

And Beethoven was deaf!