an essay by Jack Grassel
Absolute or perfect pitch - the ability to identify a musical tone without hearing it in relation to another one is a rare gift, found in as few as one in 10,000 individuals in Western societies.
I've taught college Ear Training classes in which I've compared the abilities of those with and without perfect pitch. I have interviewed those with and without it. I have played in ensembles where no one else had perfect pitch, everyone had perfect pitch or it was mixed. I have perfect pitch. Here's what I know about it. I feel that instead of trying to develop Perfect Pitch, your time could be better spent improving your musicianship.
Every sound that doesn't emanate from a musical instrument, 24 hours a day, becomes a musical event for the person with perfect pitch. Perfect Pitch does not make a musician superior, just different than one who doesn't have it. Mozart had it, but Wagner and Schumann did not. Charlie Parker had it but Sonny Stitt and John Coltrane did not.
Everyone in the band in the above picture has perfect pitch. It was not necessary to use words to communicate between songs. By one person playing a few notes, everyone instantly and silently knew what tune, what key, what tempo, and what the key modulations were. If one player knew a song, the other's could learn it upon hearing after one repetition. Folks without perfect pitch just communicate the same information with words.
Q. What are the cons of having "Perfect Pitch"?
A. Unaccompanied choirs of singers without perfect pitch tend to "go flat" during a performance. The PP person has difficulty singing out of tune with the rest of the choir, especially while reading the "in-tune" notes on paper. The musician with it is somewhat of a "sighted person among a sea of blind". Since there are so few people with this gift, the musician can appear "crazy" because he or she is the only one in an ensemble that hears everything that happens. This gift cannot be turned off, so every sound, 24 hours a day, becomes a musical event which may torment the musician his or her entire life. To a person without Perfect Pitch, a car passing by is just that. A person with Perfect Pitch hears the same car as a cluster of pitches eminating from the tires, car body and wind which triggers memories of songs containing those pitches. However, when performing music he or she may have the ability to create a superior performance. There is also the possibility that the PP person may perform poorly do to sonic distractions in the performance environment. The musician without PP is probably more consistant in performance. The person with "Perfect Pitch" is most effective in an ensemble where every musician has perfect pitch.
Many musicians are driven mad by "Perfect Pitch" because they are too sensitive to live in the present world and may exibit intolerant behavior (Jaco Pastorius, Charles Mingus, Charlie Parker, etc.)
According to his autobiography, Miles Davis was stopped by a police officer for speeding. He told the officer that he was not speeding even though his speedometer was broken. He could tell his speed by the pitch eminating from his tires.
The PP person can be easily "thrown off" by wrong notes or chord changes or out of tune notes played by other members of an ensemble. Imagine what it's like for a perfect pitch person to play in a symphony orchestra where 50 of the instruments do not have fixed pitch capability. Also cell phones going off in the audience, drink mixers behind the bar, or even women in the audience laughing. Everything because a musical event, the equivalent of people in the audience with instruments playing different tunes. For their own survival, PP musicians must make sure they play only with the finest musicians, in quiet venues. . One person reported having difficulty looking at music in one key and singing in another while transposing. With training, many of us have overcome such problems, even "turning off" our absolute pitch if necessary.
Q. What can be done to preserve Perfect Pitch?
A. Otolaryngologist Dr. Albert McLain Jr., treats the ears of famous musicians. I asked him about the effect of various substances on ear function: "The ingestion of caffiene, salt and wintergreen temporarily alter the ear's blood vessels causing inaccurate perception of tones." The person with perfect pitch may then identify tones a half to whole step sharp. It's suggested staying away from these substances 2-3 days before performances and college ear training exams whether you have perfect pitch or not. In tests conducted on myself with these substances, this has proved to be true for me.
Marijuana not only alters ear function but the brain's perception of what is heard by the ear. Ineffective processing by the brain causes the musician unawaredly to speed up and/or slow down tempos creating a problem with the non-marijuana smoking musicians in the band. Ensembles are most successful when either everyone smokes it so they can all speed up together or if no one smokes it resulting in steady time keeping, "song form maintenance" and consistant dynamics. The ear also may become insensitive to volume so that one may play too loud causing tonnitus to oneself and the audience. It may take weeks or even months for these negative effects to wear off so the ears hear normally.
A permanent or temporary shift of absolute pitch, may be caused by strokes, head injuries and brain infections.
In his book "Musicophilia", Olive Sachs said that one correspondent told him that his absolute pitch shifted a semitone during an attack of multiple sclerosis and remained slightly off thereafter.
Folks with perfect pitch which has been temporarily altered by these substances are usually aware of it and able to restore accuracy by compensating for their altered perception.
Q. How do you know when to use protection?
A. Whether you have perfect pitch or not, you need to vigilantly protect your hearing: Hearing loss may be caused by a one-time exposure to an extremely loud sound (such as an explosion) or by exposure to loud sounds over months or years. It is irreversable. If you are uncomfortable with the volume, damage may be happening. According to researchers at The University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, one in five people between 48 and 59 is already experiencing a deficit. The Journal of the American Medical Association found that a record one in five teens is suffering from hearing loss, as well.
Susan Kaplan, Audiologist @ University of California-Davis health system tells us: "The louder you listen to music, the shorter amount of time you should listen to it. It doesn't matter if you are 15 or 60."
Distance: The farther you are from the source of the sound, the less impact it will have even if it has the same intensity. The farther the sound source is from your ears, the better. Listen to music through speakers, not earphones or earbuds.
Loudness, or sound intensity, is measured in decibels (dB). The scale runs from 0 dB (which is the faintest sound a human ear can detect) to more than 180 dB (the noise of a rocket during launch).
Decibels (dB) are measured on a logarithmic scale. Every time the intensity increases by units of 10, each increase is 10 times the lower figure. So 40 decibels is 1000 times as intense as 10 Db.
Experts believe that prolonged exposure to sounds above 85 dB without any protection can damage your hearing.
30 dB - a whisper
50 - sound of heavy rainfall
60 - normal conversation
70 - rush hour traffic
85 - RISK LEVEL: loud TV, a live band, louder than normal conversation
90 - power saw, power drill, kitchen blender, subway train, leaf blower, truck back up signals
115 - sandblasting, motorcycle reving
130 - race care noise
140 - jet engine, car stereo at full volume
150 - fireworks
170 - shotgun blast
There are many levels of protection:
(Have ear protection with you at all times. Wipe plugs daily with alchohol to reduce chance of ear infection.)
A. The ability to identify and produce any pitch without the aid of a sound source. It is the ability to instantly know the quality and make up of a group of pitches sounded simultaneously. A musician can tune her instrument without an external sound source. Most of the people I've tested who've said they had perfect pitch did not have it and did not understand what it was. If you have it you will know you have it. If you feel you need to be tested, go to www.perfectpitchtest.com and take the test. Do not use an external sound source for help. The test should take you less than 30 seconds.
Q. Is it possible to develop "Perfect Pitch"?
A. Absolutely not! I nor anyone I know has ever seen evidence of this. The person with perfect pitch is unchangeably physically different than one without. "The neural correlates of absolute pitch have been illuminated by comparing the brains of musicians with and without absolute pitch using a refined form of structural brain imaging (MRI morphometry), and by functional imaging of the brain as subjects identify musical tones and intervals.
A 1995 paper by Gottfried Schlaug said: "In musicians with absolute pitch (but not musicians without), there was an exaggerated asymmetry between the volumes of the right and left planum temporale, structures in the brain that are important for the perception of speech and music."
As an experiment, I taught the principles from a mail order perfect pitch course in a college ear training class for one year to talented students. The results were poor to non-existant. The students and I both felt that our time could have been better spent improving our musicianship in other areas in addition to practicing standard relative pitch ear training. As a result of interviews I conducted with people who have perfect pitch, it seems that the ability to develop perfect pitch awareness disappears after the age of four and a half.
In his book "Perfect Pitch", Nicolas Slonimsky states: "My contention, based on numerous observations and experiments, is that perfect pitch is an innate capacity, which cannot be cultivated."
Q. How many people have it?
A. 6% of children taking music lessons in elementary schools. 7% of students studying music in U.S. universities. 15% of musicians in major U.S. orchestras. 32.1 - 63% of Asian university students. It has been observed that PP runs in families about 20% of the time, occurring in either a parent or a sibling. In contrast, for musicians who do not have PP, the likelihood that one of their family members has PP is only about 1-2%. There is a striking association of absolute pitch with early blindness (some studies estimate that about 50 percent of children born blind or blinded in infancy have absolute pitch). The rate of appearance of perfect pitch in the broad population of children taking lessons in public schools is about 1 in 1500. In some schools, over half the Asian students reported perfect pitch! * There are so few people that have perfect pitch that it's difficult to accurately study the development of it.
National Geographic Magazine, in March 2005 stated that perfect pitch is "found in as few as one in 10,000 individuals in Western societies. 7 percent of non-Asian freshmen at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, were endowed with absolute pitch, as opposed to fully 63 percent of their Asian counterparts at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing."
Marc Damashek states: "Older piano tuners tend to tune the highest treble octaves quite sharp...perhaps there is some sort of atrophy of the basilar membrane or a stiffening of the hair cells which causes this."
Q. Are there benefits from having "Perfect Pitch"?
A. Having PP is not a prerequisite for outstanding musicianship, however, in many cases it leads to faster musical learning. Children with PP display interest in music early, which may result in parents starting musical training at a very young age resulting in a head start over peers. An electronic tuner is not needed to tune instruments since the PP person is a "human tuning fork".
If you have Perfect Pitch: protect yourself:
Always have earplugs. Select your apartment or house carefully. Get a quiet car. Associate with those that have "Perfect Pitch" and discuss it when "normal people" are not present. Refuse to be turned into a "circus act" by performing demonstrations. Don't tell people you have it unless it's absolutely necessary.
I've consulted with a few married couples where both the partners have it. They say they enjoy the support of someone who understands the advantages and the problems. (My wife and I both have it.) If you have perfect pitch and are married to someone without it, make sure your partner knows how you experience the world so that he or she can help you be more comfortable. Perfect Pitch is in operation every minute of a person's life.
If you do not have Perfect Pitch: don't waste your time and money trying to develop it. Don't buy a perfect pitch development course. Work on "Relative Pitch" instead. You can leave it on the stage when done working. Relative pitch doesn't require you to be "on call" to music 24 hours a day. There is much more to being a musician than having PP. You can be a great musician without it.
We sell a lot of copies of "Ear Training for Instrumentalists" by Matt Glaser, a valuable aid for players without perfect pitch wanting to improve their performance in every musical situation. It's also used to improve grades in college Ear Training classes. It's available here on our shopping cart. Pull down "Books and CDs" at the top of this page and click "Ear Training Books" in the pull down.
Q. What are some interesting PP "adventures and observations"?
A. I was hired to accompany Luciano Pavarotti on classical guitar at one of his concerts. I knew that he specified in his contract that the orchestra needed to tune to A 438. Before Luciano appeared at the rehearsal, I heard the oboist produce an A 440 to tune the orchestra. I didn't say anything and kept my guitar tuned to A 438. (The "Perfect Pitch" person usually learns to keep his mouth shut since he's in the minority) Mr. Pavarotti came out and proceeded to start the rehearsal. After a few bars, he stopped the orchestra and reprimanded the oboist for tuning the orchestra to A 440. The oboist played an A 440 and said it was A 438. Then Luciano sang a perfect A 438, and had the orchestra tune to him.
Water running out of a faucet produces different pitches depending on it's temperature. The PP person needs only to listen to the pitch of the running water to know when it's safe to enter the shower. Hot water has a lower pitch than cold water.
There is a relationship between the pitches produced by crickets and temperature. Most crickets "sing" around Eb at 60 degrees and increase their pitch to nearly G around 100 degrees. A person with perfect pitch can tell the temperature outside by listening to the pitch of crickets.
Q. Is there anything that can be done to reduce tonnitus? (Ringing noises in the ears)
A. First of all, you need to stop exposing your ears to the loud sounds which cause tonnitus. It may or may not go away by itself. This condition will confuse you when hearing pitches whether you have perfect pitch or not and can practically drive you crazy. In experiments done on myself, I've found that ingesting Ginkgo Biloba can eliminate or reduce tonnitus by increasing blood flow to the cranium. But Ginkgo isn't standardized and varies greatly, even with different bottles of the same brand. If you take too much, you may get a terrible headache. If you don't take enough, there will not be the desired effect. You need to experiment slowly with dosages. I purchased some while in Mexico and it worked best. In the United States try the various premium brands available in health food stores. A mixture of Vitamin B12 and Folic acid has been shown in some cases to reduceage related hearing loss in the upper ranges.
According to Earl Mindell, Ph.D. (in his book "Secret Remedies"), noise induced ear damage can be reduced and hearing loss improved by taking 500mg of Magnesium, and 800 mcg. Vitamin B-12 daily. Include 60mg. Gingko Biloba three times a day. Good cardiovascular health is vital to keeping the blood flowing to the head. Exercise, eating well-balanced meals, reducing high blood pressure, and getting enough restful sleep all help to maintain good overall health which will lessen the degree of hearing loss as you age.
To find an interactive loudness scale and more online resources, visit www.parade.com
Q. What does diet have to do with hearing loss?
A. Hearing can be improved with proper diet and supplements but not completely restored. According to a study of subjects older than age 50 in the Journal of Nutrition, 39 percent who had low folate levels were much more likely to experience hearing loss. Homocysteine, an amino acid in the blood that causes vascular disease, is also lowered by folate. The daily value is 400 micrograms. This can be gotten with a B vitamin supplement, but is best absorbed from the foods wheat germ, spinach, beets, and peanuts. Studies suggest that people with high cholesterol levels have greater hearing loss as they age than people with normal levels. Take measures to reduce your cholesterol level. Eat an apple a day. Take a niacin supplement. For severe cases take a red yeast rice supplement. But first, have your cholesterol measured regularly so you make educated decisions. A very general healthy rule to follow is to eat the foods that spoil the quickest. The faster it spoils the better it is for you. For example, is it healthier to eat rasberries picked 5 minutes ago in July at an organic farm, or a "snack cake" with synthetic whipped cream wrapped in cellophone a year ago from a vending machine ? In fact, it could be 2 or 3 years old. Those things don't spoil because even mold can't survive on it. Swallow Some Protection.
Researcher Richard D. Kopke, MD recommends taking 1,200 milligrams 12 hours before you're bombarded by loud noise. If the noise is unexpected, pop 1,200 milligrams as soon as possible and take 900 to 1,200 milligrams three times a day, with meals, for the next 14 days. A daily 167 mg dose of magnesium also seems to offer preventive protection, according to a study by the Israeli military. This could be because magnesium helps promote blood flow (poor blood flow puts stress on the cells of the inner ear).
From Oprah Winfrey's website: Inside our ears lie thousands of hairlike cells that turn sound waves into electrical signals so the brain can interpret what we hear. But very loud noise generates free radicals that damage those cellsâ€”sometimes permanently. The U.S. military has been pouring money into research on prevention, and it's paying off. A clinical trial revealed that an over-the-counter supplement called N-acetylcysteine worked much better than earplugs alone at minimizing damage in Marines exposed to gunfire. Researcher Richard D. Kopke, MD, recommends taking 1,200 milligrams 12 hours before you're bombarded by loud noise (say, at a sporting event). If the noise is unexpected, pop 1,200 milligrams as soon as possible and take 900 to 1,200 milligrams three times a day, with meals, for the next 14 days.
AP News (Genetics of Absolute Pitch Study), Perfect Pitch (National Geographic, March 2005) Dr. Ranit Mishori, Peter K. Gregersen, (Principal Investigator, Division of Biology and Human Genetics, New York School of Medicine) Elena Kowalsky, (research assistant) Nina Kohn, Elizabeth West Marvin: Division of Biology and Human Genetics and Biostatistics, North Shore University Hospital, Manhasset, NY and Department of Music Theory, (Eastman School of Music, Rochester, NY). Oliver Sachs for his book Musicophilia. Marc Damarshek (piano tuner), Office of Dietary Supplements at the National Institutes of Health, Phyllis A. Balch (CNC), James F. Balch (MD), Dr. Albert McLain Jr. (Otolaryngologist), Earl Mindell, (PH.D.), Susan Kaplan (Audiologist, University of California-Davis health system.) Richard D. Kopke, MD.
MUSICIANS CONSULTED WITH PERFECT PITCH:
Jeff Pietrangelo, John Price, Jill Jensen, Glen Asch, Richard Boukas, myself.
MUSICIANS / MUSIC TEACHERS CONSULTED WITH RELATIVE PITCH:
Kaye Berigan, Harold Miller, John Babbit, Joe Kroll, Keith Watling, Gene Morrissette
SUPPORT MATERIALS: These books are in stock and available on our shopping cart.
Ear Training For Instrumentalists by Matt Glaser
Ultimate Ear Training For Guitar and Bass Players by Gary Willis
Essential Ear Training For Today's Musician by Steve Prosser
NOTE FROM JACK: If you are going to experience color, you must use your eyes. If you are going to experience sound, you must use your ears. You SEE colors. You HEAR sounds. "Ear training" does not train your ears or improve your hearing. It increases the brain's accuracy at interpreting what enters the ears. Hence the term "Aural Skills" is more accurate than the term "Ear Training".