Thursday, April 12, 2007

Absolute or Perfect Pitch

People often ask my husband and me if we are musical. Usually, the question comes up in conversation when we explain where are children are and what they are doing. Our daughter is a music major in both voice and piano performance. Our son plays the viola in the UM orchestra and the Missoula symphony. We are planning to travel to Missoula next week to listen to Lucas play his viola with a soprano for another student's senior recital. As I have written before, our daughter is in a band where she plays the guitar and does vocals. The point is, both of our children enjoy their music. Our daughter is ultra-passionate about every aspect of music.

Neither my husband nor I are musical. I took piano lessons for four years and it was a struggle. My husband tried to be in a band in junior high but they demoted him to do the light show. Dave's parents were not particularly musical although Dave's Mom would play the organ by ear. My parents---sorry, Mom, but nope, nor were either set of my grandparents.

I have heard family stories. I have a first cousin on my Dad's side who was a music major at the UM and she plays the piano and sings. Dave has a first cousin on his Dad's side who is a professional singer in the midwest and she does jingles for commercials. Dave had an aunt on the same side of the family who was a successful opera singer. My Mom has relatives on her Dad's side who we are told had beautiful voices and could play multiple instruments. My sister-in-law sings and plays the piano but she is not blood related to my kids. Frankly, I suspect, every single family has the exact same stories.

For some reason I do not understand, both of my children were attracted to music over other activities and I followed their lead. They asked me for lessons. They asked me for instruments. They practiced without my interference. Both of them could have practiced more but they were each self-motivated. What is also unusual, is that neither Dave nor I could guide them in any way and we were totally dependent on their teachers.

Kaley has always done well with music theory. Unlike other music majors who hate having to take it, Kaley likes it--a lot. Discovering that she could do things without thinking, her teacher at Whitman pulled her aside and did a little testing. She informed her she had absolute or perfect pitch. Evidently, Kaley is required to tell this fact to her music history professor because for students like her, tests have to be adjusted. Let's see if I, not being musical, can explain this. I'm sure Kaley will point out the error of my ways. In this class, they learn about historical pieces of music. Many of them are named or titled by the key in which they are written (Bach Sonata in F Major for example) The students learn the about the history and the composer of these particular pieces and then when quizzed, the prof plays the music. The students then are required to name the piece.

Since Kaley is able to immediately identify the key of a piece of music simply by hearing it, she is not challenged to recognize all of the things she is supposed to be learning. In order for me to understand all of this, I did a little looking online about "absolute pitch" and this is what I found (thank goodness for Wikipedia and Answers.com):

Absolute pitch (AP), widely referred to as perfect pitch, is the ability of a person to identify or sing a musical note without the benefit of a known reference.


Absolute pitch, or perfect pitch, is "the ability to attach labels to isolated auditory stimuli on the basis of pitch alone" without external reference. Possessors of absolute pitch exhibit the ability in varying degrees. Generally, absolute pitch implies some or all of the following abilities:

>>Identify and name individual pitches played on various instruments
>>Name the key of a given piece of tonal music
>>Identify and name all the tones of a given chord or other tonal mass
>>Sing a given pitch without an external reference
>>Name the pitches of common everyday occurrences such as car horns

Individuals may possess both absolute pitch and relative pitch ability in varying degrees. Both relative and absolute pitch work together in actual musical listening and practice, although individuals exhibit preferred strategies in using each skill.

Kaley is kind of like a walking tuning fork or pitch pipe. You can play a note for her on any instrument and she can tell you what the note is. She can also identify chords and as described above, when she hears a song, she can tell you what key it is written in. You can say to her, sing an "A" for me and she can do so. Also, she evidently knows what note or tone the bells and alarms at Kamiak high school ring in. When she explains it to me and what it is like she says that for her it is like naming colors. If I look at the rhodie outside my window right now, I immediately know it is red. When Kaley hears a chord or a single note, she immediately knows its name in the same way.

Evidently, 1 in 10,000 people have this ability. Scientists aren't sure if it is genetic or learned but think probably a combination of the two especially if music education is begun at an early age. Kaley probably has the genetic predisposition but then it was helped along because I started her in Kindermusik classes at age 3. She was taking piano lessons by age 6. She could read music before she could read words. But I started her in music so early because she was so drawn to anything musical. Her whole way of thinking or experiencing the world is with music and because I am observant, I recognized that in her by the time she was 18 months old. So, it is a chicken and egg thing.

Interestingly, perfect pitch is not required to become a successful musician. Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin, and Liszt had it but Haydn, Wagner, and Stravinsky did not. Certainly for Kaley, it helps her with classes she needs to take as a music major. She can tune her guitar and nobody sweats if somebody forgot the pitch pipe before a gig.

Who knows where it came from? Certainly, not from Dave or me but I am glad--sooo glad my kids love music. It will be a source of enjoyment for them for their entire lives. And for me, too!

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Our circa 1880's cherry wood piano which has been in my family since it was brand new. Kaley took lessons on it, as did I, as did my Mom, as did my Grandma, and my Great Grandma.

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Yes, my Dad (the handsome center one) played the violin until he discovered the love of his life---basketball. This photo was just sent to me by my sister-in-law and it must be about 1939. He graduated from high school in 1941.

Parents, start the music education early because evidently the window closes if children are not exposed before the age of 11.