Monday, May 26, 2008

The problem of perfect pitch

I've only known one person well who had perfect pitch and she suffered miserably for it. Hardly any music sounded right to her. Choir concerts were out of the question. She couldn't listen to the music, the lines, the phrasing, the words, the articulation, the drama, or anything else because it pained her to no end to hear people singing out of tune, particular in a cappella passages. It all sounded bad.

Asked to sum up a wonderful evening of music, she would say "the tenors were terribly flat, the altos were sharp, and the sopranos were flat going down and sharp going up, while the basses only gravitated around the notes. And did no one think to tune up the strings before playing?"

So she was something of a downer, if you know what I mean. This created an attitude in her that she couldn't help: grave intolerance for listening to any music. She couldn't play on a piano that was even slightly out of tune. Harpsichords drove her nuts. Even hearing a group sing "Happy Birthday" was painful. It would have been better from her point of view if everyone would just stop singing and stop playing because it all sounded awful -- the way most of us would react of speakers dropped every second consonant or consistently mixed up vowels.

So was was intrigued to read this blog's comment:

It is beyond me why everyone assumes perfect pitch is such a wonderful thing. The nearest visual equivalent would be if everywhere you went, you saw a Cartesian plane projected onto the landscape which told you the approximate dimensions of everything you were looking at. While this might amuse people at parties ("Hey Osbert! How high is that mountain out the window?" "157.2 metres." "OMG THAT IS SO COOL DID YOU HEAR THAT EVERYONE HE DIDN'T EVEN NEED A TAPE MEASURE"), it would also tend to take some of the aesthetic enjoyment away from life.

There are also problems of practicality. When I sing with less skilled choirs, I am forced to transpose the music down a semitone when the ensemble begins to go flat. And you can imagine what mental gymnastics I have to go through in order to perform at A-415.


To sum, if you don't have perfect pitch, consider yourself blessed. (Thanks Choralnet)