Not So Perfect
“How are you supposed to improvise in a tonal context if you do not have perfect pitch?” It seems that one is either born with this ability, or acquires it at an extremely young age. The only other solution would be for the second musician to have a sheet of the melody/chords to follow, or for the first musician to yell out the notes and key changes…”
These comments were posted in response to what I wrote last week about teaching improvisation. Once again, the idea of a sense of absolute pitch is being held up and revered as if it were the Holy Grail. If one possesses this object, the Western tonal world is at your fingertips—improvisation is possible! Otherwise, you are destined to muddle your way through others’ music, never able to create your own.
What is perfect, or (as it is also called) absolute, pitch? Most of my colleagues feel it is the ability to be able to recognize any pitch and identify it without having to relate it to another in an intervallic manner. While I agree with this description, I still think that in the larger context it is a skill based on relations. For example, I have perfect pitch. I can identify any pitch you give me, based on the assumption that an A is 440hz. But would I have that same identification of if I were a musician, say 300 years ago? No. I would have developed my pitch memory based on the tonal centers of that age, which is close to a half step lower than what we apply to most of Western music written in the past 200 years.
Even the Oxford Dictionary of Music definition of absolute pitch alludes to it being more a highly refined skill one learns, even as it describes it as an innate attribute:
Absolute (perfect) pitch is really an innate form of memory; the possessor retains in his or her mind (consciously or unconsciously) the pitch of some instrument to which he or she has been accustomed and instinctively related that pitch to every sound heard.
To my thinking, if it is something that one becomes accustomed to, it means that it is something that one has developed a relationship with. It wasn’t something that just happened; it was the result of a process. Since the act of becoming is always affected by the context, e.g. the environment in which it occurs, it is relative, not absolute. And anything that is relative is not “perfect.”
So-called perfect pitch is supposedly innate and only achievable at the youngest stages of life. But while it is advantageous for someone to have developed his or her tonal ear as a child, it by no means precludes one from ever learning to hear music in such a way. Music is a language. Like most languages, to speak it fluently without an accent one needs to have learned it by a certain age, usually before adolescence. However, it can be done. Like a student of a foreign language, older music students usually develop their ear in a more intellectual, rather than instinctive, way. Regardless of the method, I have seen students ranging in ages from three to fifty able to master the ability to hear pitches out of intervallic context.
So, I do not believe in perfect pitch. I also do not believe it is an innate gift. What I do believe is that there is perfect “relative” pitch and that it is attainable by most anyone. As for the belief that, without perfect pitch, one would need to rely on a written sheet that possesses the melody and chords of the piece one is to improvise on, even those that have perfect pitch use such tools. The cult of perfect pitch is not an exclusive club, and membership is not required.