Perfect Pitch: No Measure of Musical Ability

I once saw a YouTube video of a dog demonstrating perfect pitch.  A lovely Golden Retriever sat at what looked to be a makeshift, paw-friendly piano keyboard . Opposite and off screen, a woman played a penny whistle and addressed the dog in German.  The woman would play a pitch on the whistle, inviting the dog to play the corresponding note on its doggy keyboard. Without fail, the dog would play the correct pitch on the keyboard, even making distinctions among octaves. There is no way to determine whether this was rigged or staged somehow, but I choose to assume that it wasn’t.

Despite the possibility that it’s a hoax, it is an undeniably impressive presentation, fun to watch and, for me, thought provoking. With my musician’s mindset, my first reaction was, “Wow, this dog has perfect pitch!”  I was impressed in a way similar to the way people often react to humans with perfect pitch. But, after watching this for a while it dawned on me that what is impressive here is not that the dog has perfect pitch, but that it has the visual memory and dexterity to express it on the keyboard. (And that it speaks German — ausgezeichnet!) We all know that dogs have a sense of hearing that is superior to that of humans. It should not be surprising that, for a dog, an F and an F♯ might be two completely discrete objects, whereas most humans would not be able to discern one from the other out of context, meaning without another known, named note to relate it to.  For the dog, context is not a factor. Comparing these two objects must be the same as for humans visually comparing, say, an apple and a vacuum cleaner.

To what extent does perfect pitch have any bearing upon one’s musicianship or ability to appreciate music? Is this dog a better musician than I, if I don’t have perfect pitch?

Some humans have this ability to discern musical pitches as distinct objects, and others  don’t. For those who do, it is a natural ability akin to having a good sense of direction or being good at visually judging spatial relationships. Among those who don’t, many are capable of acquiring it with time and practice.

In discussing what we loosely call “perfect pitch”, there are two categories that are actually quite different from each other.

Absolute Pitch

This is what the dog probably has: the ability to recognize pitches as individual objects, each with their own properties. For people (and —who knows — dogs) with this ability, each pitch is immediately recognizable as different from the others, and can be named without hesitation.  It is akin, I suppose, to most of us being able to recognize and identify colors. I have had many students with this ability.

Although most people consider Absolute Pitch to be a gift, it is also a major obstacle to overcome as a part of musicianship training. The keys to the understanding and appreciation of music and what makes it tick are found in intervallic relationships between pitches, not the pitches themselves. One should be able to effortlessly transpose a melody to any key, and express it and analyze it without even using a staff, clef or key signature. Students with absolute pitch usually find this very difficult at first.

Pitch Memory

This is something that any musician can and should strive for on an ongoing basis, and I will admit that  I have not fully mastered it, myself. Over many years of training and day-to-day work as a musician, I have effectively memorized certain pitches and can either sing them on demand, or identify them upon hearing. I would imagine that most guitarists, whether they realize it or not, have memorized the sounds of the open guitar strings, and could easily recognize, say, an “E” if they heard one. In my case, it has a lot to do with how the “feel” in my voice, as my musicianship training has always been heavily voice-based.  It is still not as reliable or, well, absolute, as Absolute Pitch must be, but it is constantly improving, as I make an effort to pay attention to it.

While many teachers seek to train students’ Pitch Memory at the beginning stages (usually calling it “perfect pitch”), I consider it something highly advanced and not something to push until relative pitch has been fully mastered. In most cases (as in my own) it will happen naturally.

For our purposes, I will continue to use the term Perfect Pitch to serve as an umbrella for both of these abilities with the understanding that one is innate and the other is acquired.  Whereas absolute pitch is something one either has or doesn’t have, pitch memory can and should become a part of musicianship training for any musician. Either way, it must take a backseat to the mastering of relative pitch.

To what extent does perfect pitch have any bearing upon one’s musicianship or ability to appreciate music? Is this dog a better musician than I, if I don’t have perfect pitch? The common assumption is  that people with perfect pitch are better musicians than those without. Who knows? I don’t think there’s any way to prove this to be true or untrue.What I can say with absolute certainty is that some people with perfect pitch are better than some people without, and vice versa. Most musicians probably do not have perfect pitch, and there are a great many superb musicians out there. At the same time, there are people with perfect pitch who have no musical training and/or no interest in music. There is also a dog.

…putting things in the perspective of human history and a global scale, our names for pitches are basically arbitrary and ephemeral.

Considering that the range of human hearing, measured in vibrations per second (Hz), is between roughly 12 Hz and 20,000 Hz, one could make the case that there are around 20,000 identifiable pitches. Thankfully, our Western Music notions of naming pitches evolved between the time of Pythagoras, the Greek philosopher and mathematician of the 4th Century B.C., and the rise of Equal Temperament in the 16th and 17th Centuries, coinciding with the rise of the keyboard, by which time we had fully established our seven letter-named pitches and their sharp and flat neighbors. The exact tuning of these letter-named pitches has always been a moving target and remains so despite a 1953 resolution of the International Standards Organization that seeks to impose 440 Hz as the international standard definition of the “A” above middle “C”, which is the pitch used as a basis for tuning instruments. This standard is adhered to in the United States, but orchestras around the world have their own tuning preferences.

Moreover, consider that our Pythagorean, Western notion of how to divide the octave into scales is only one of infinite solutions.  Looking at musics from around the world we see a number of very sophisticated tuning systems that defy our Equal Temperament 12-note naming system.  The point is that, putting things in the perspective of human history and a global scale, our names for pitches are basically arbitrary and ephemeral. And so, while I may be able to know a B♭ when I hear one, it’s only a B♭ because people decided to call it that, and relatively recently at that!  So, what does it matter, really?

Everything about music that matters has to do not with the pitches themselves, but the distance between them, or intervals. Take, for example, this famous melody from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story:

Perfect Pitch Bernstein Somewhere in B excerpt

It begins with that soaring minor seventh, resolving gently, as it should, by a half step and then rolling out a relaxed cascade of thirds. The second phrase reaches to begin a major ninth higher than the first, and proceeds to return to the same cascade of thirds as the first phrase.  This melody is about the reaching and relaxing of intervals and the use of repetition. Perhaps it’s also about avoiding the tonic.  It’s not about reaching from a B up to an A.

Now, is this melody any less effective if I present it like this?

Perfect Pitch Bernstein Somewhere in F excerpt

When we talk about the emotional content of music, it’s always about intervals. A single-line melody like the one quoted above is packed with emotional content all derived from the composer’s choice of intervals, and to an extent, rhythm.  Then of course there’s harmony. That shiver you get from a Neopolitan chord in a Beethoven piano sonata?  Intervals.  That really cool spot in Sibelius Symphony No. 5 ? (You know the one I mean.)  Intervals.

It’s true that composers usually choose specific keys for specific reasons.  Sometimes it’s because of a certain quality they feel the key has, and sometimes it’s based on what works best for the instruments being used. A good sense of pitch memory certainly informs a sophisticated listener’s reaction to music that is heard, but the basics are needed first. In teaching musicianship, particularly at the beginning level, we’re concerned with developing the student’s mastery of  intervals, melodic shape, patterns, form, inner hearing and musical memory.

As for the dog, the video demonstrates that perfect pitch, on its own, is an innate ability possessed by some and not others that has little connection to musicianship or musical ability. Now, when they make a video of that dog taking four-part dictation of a Bach chorale, heard in one key and written down in another, then I’ll be impressed!

Categories: Musicianship, Teaching

Music for Soprano Solo and Orchestra – "Blue Hills Over the North Wall"

“Blue Hills Over the North Wall” is an excerpt from my 1996 piece Cycle of Friends for soprano, chorus and chamber orchestra, commissioned by the Music Group of Philadelphia, and premiered by them in conjunction with Orchestra 2001. I was in my twenties when I wrote this piece, but it remains possibly my best work

Cycle of Friends consists of five movements, with settings of texts from various parts of the world and moments in history, each using various combinations of chorus, soprano solo and orchestra.  This movement is only for soprano and orchestra without chorus.  Here it is superbly performed by soprano Janice Fiore and Orchestra 2001, conducted by Music Group Artistic Director Seán Deibler. The text is a poem by Li Po (701-762), translated by Innes Herdan.

More information about Cycle of Friends

You may also wish to view a similar video of the one a cappella movement, “Are Friends Delight or Pain?

Categories: Choral Music, Past Work, VideoTags: , ,

Are Friends Delight or Pain for Double SATB Chorus A Cappella

This setting of Emily Dickinson’s short poem is an excerpt from my 1996 piece Cycle of Friends for soprano solo, chorus and chamber orchestra.  This video perusal score features the premiere performance by the Music Group of Philadelphia, conducted by Seán Deibler in May, 1996.

“Are Friends Delight or Pain” is now available as a stand-alone piece in octavo format from Swirly Music.

Categories: Choral Music, Past Work, Performances, Short Choral Works, VideoTags: , , ,

"Ducks in the Garden" for SATB Chorus

This off-beat little a cappella piece was written many, many years ago (1991, to be exact).  It is an earnest and faithful setting of a very silly poem by my friend Will T. Laughlin.  It happens to be very difficult to learn and perform, with a lot of meter changes, asymmetrical rhythms and odd, modal harmony, so over the years I’ve stopped thinking of it as a piece I ought to be promoting among choruses, and it has never been performed until now.

Among the people I did send it to, all those years ago, was Magen Solomon, conductor of the award-winning and extremely capable San Francisco Choral Artists.  This year, out of the blue, the piece was added to their “Poetry on Musical Wings” program.  Delighted by this unlikely stroke of luck, I quickly revised the piece to make it more suitable for performance, and they gave this wonderful, nuanced  premiere performance.

My approach to this surreal and brilliantly goofy poem was to treat it as if it were Shakespeare and treat the musical setting with utmost, deadpan seriousness.  I hope you enjoy hearing the piece with the appropriately silly video montage above!

Categories: Choral Music, Past Work, Short Choral Works, VideoTags: , ,

"Roll the Tide" for SATB Chorus

“Roll the Tide” is a short, a cappella quasi-spiritual excerpted from the larger work Waiting…, based on poems by Elisabeth T. Eliassen.

In the “video perusal score” above, you can follow the score as you hear its premiere performance by the 2011 Kodály Summer Institute Chorus at Holy Names University, conducted by László Matos.

“Roll the Tide” is available in octavo format from Swirly Music.

Categories: Choral Music, Past Work, Short Choral Works, VideoTags: ,

Upcoming Performances for Summer 2012

The SF Choral Artists, conducted by Magen Solomon, will give the world premiere of my very short (and very, very silly) a cappella madrigal Ducks in the Garden, which was composed in 1991. Details…

July 27 – Kodály Summer Institute, Holy Names University, Oakland

The chorus of the Kodály Summer Institute Chorus, conducted by visiting professor Judit Hartyányi, will give the premiere of a new, commissioned work.  The a cappella piece is based on John Milton’s poem “Surge, age surge“.  (Did you know he’d written in Latin?  I didn’t.)

August 5 – HellHot Festival, Hong Kong

Details are sketchy, but my string quartet City Walks will be performed at this summer’s HellHot festival in Hong Kong. (Last year’s info still on that site.)

Categories: Announcements, Choral Music, Performances, Uncategorized

Poetry and Music: A Conversation With Poet Elisabeth T. Eliassen

What is so wonderful about for me about my poetic “thought music” is that while it can have specific meaning for me, it doesn’t have to have a specific meaning for anyone else.

— poet Elisabeth T. Eliassen

My new choral work Waiting… is built around a hand-picked group of poems by Bay Area poet Elisabeth T. Eliassen, who is not only singing in the upcoming premiere, but has been very supportive and accessible during my process of composing the piece.

Owing to the unique aspects of this particular collaboration, we thought it would be interesting and edifying, to say nothing of fun, to share a bit of our ongoing email discussion about the creative process as it relates to music and poetry.

You can read the piece here, on Elisabeth’s blog Songs of a Soul Journey, where a great deal more of her work can also be read.

The Sanford Dole Ensemble will give the premiere performance Waiting…, for chorus, string quartet and piano, at the San Francisco Conservatory on February 4th at 8:00pm.  Tickets will be available at the door or directly from the Sanford Dole Ensemble for $30.

Update: (1/31/12) Elisabeth has posted an additional installment of our conversation.  You can read that here.

Categories: Choral Music, Composing, FriendsTags: ,

New Choral Work to be Premiered in February

The Sanford Dole Ensemble will give the premiere performance of my new choral work Waiting…, for chorus, string quartet and piano,  at the San Francisco Conservatory on February 4th at 8:00pm.

This “All New, All Local” program also includes new works by San Francisco composers David Conte and Peter Scott Lewis, as well as Sanford Dole himself. All of the pieces use various combinations of chorus, strings, piano and percussion.

Like my earlier large choral work Cycle of FriendsWaiting…, is imagined in the tradition of my favorite non-liturgical choral masterpieces, ranging from Brahms to Vaughan-Williams to John Adams.  The text is chosen from among the beautiful works of Bay Area poet Elisabeth Eliassen.

Unlike most such choral works and song cycles, where the work is organized around a sequence of poems,  Waiting… is cast in one movement, and is based on one large poem with a few smaller poems nested among the stanzas.  The work is dominated by Elisabeth’s masterful poem, “Come again”, whose relentless use of the word “waiting” in stanza after stanza provides something like a dramatic framework, taking us from urgency to desperation to resolution.

The stanzas of “Come again” are set in a fast-paced, narrative style, occasionally exposing my musical theater roots, whereas the other poems are treated in more relaxed settings.  Here’s an excerpt from “Come again”.

beyond waiting, there is nothing waiting,
and no one shall come down from on high, waiting,
as one might be, for a sign that we are ready and waiting,
for, lacking such an offer, still for some reply we are waiting
for something, from what we suppose to be a heavenly realm, waiting
for a new and familiar face to appear, waiting
to be acknowledged, to be loved, to be led.

The smaller poems are set as little diversions from the narrative drive, forming a kind of sub-plot and bringing about a sense of contrast and commentary.

Hear an Excerpt

One of these smaller poems, “Roll the Tide”, is set as a kind of a cappella spiritual. It was performed as an excerpt last year at the Kodály Summer Institute at Holy Names University, conducted by László Matos, and that performance can be heard below.

—Roll the tide,
o roll the tide over,
roll the tide over me,
and so hide my tears
in folds of your timelessly flowing,
salty blanket of turbulence
and music.

—Roll the tide
and rock me to a watery sleep,
rock and roll me
until my cares
have worn to sand,
and lay me bare and free
in the bosom of your shore.

The poetry excerpts “Roll the tide” and “Come again”,  the latter from the book Songs of a Soul Journey (2002), are by Elisabeth T. Eliassen, and appear here with the poet’s permission. More of her work can be found on her blog, also called Songs of a Soul Journey.

Categories: Announcements, Choral Music, FriendsTags: ,

What is a Tritone? And, What Isn’t It?

The word tritone is frequently used interchangeably with the terms augmented fourth and diminished fifth.  Let’s see if we can clear that up.

The intervals of the augmented fourth and diminished fifth indeed sound the same when played out of context on a piano, but they are not the same interval, they are not both the same thing as a tritone, and the tritone is not an inversion of itself.Read this post

Categories: Musicianship, TeachingTags: ,

Raw Dough and Tea: Diabolical Solfège Songs

I recently discovered that an old acquaintance of mine is a fellow musicianship teacher and has been writing and recording diabolically clever songs that illustrate musical ear training concepts in a refreshing and fun way.

David Newman is an accomplished baritone soloist and teacher of voice and musicianship at James Madison University, who apparently knows a thing or two about songwriting as well.  His songs are on YouTube and they speak for themselves. If you are at all concerned with getting students to hear harmonic progressions and intervals, you will be thoroughly entertained by these.Read this post

Categories: Musicianship, Teaching, VideoTags: , , ,