I’ll never forget the look that I shared with a friend of mine after one of our first University music tests.
It wasn’t even a high stakes situation. It was simply a pre-assessment to determine what class we should join for our aural studies. As you learn really quickly in a music degree, it’s not about where you start, it’s about how hard you work to get where you want to go. So even though the test wasn’t easy, we all left free in the knowledge that it didn’t determine any of our final grades.
We all went to get the obligatory midday coffee, and one student just couldn’t resist it. He had to have his moment of glory.
“I know he didn’t ask for it, but on that final transcription, I included that it was in A Major, just to show that I knew it.”
Now, to give context, many of the rest of us had struggled on the final task. It was 5 bars of piano music, with no key signature, time signature or starting note. I don’t remember managing to get much beyond the base line. (Remember, where you get to, not where you started).
He then went on to talk about his perfect pitch.
And that was just one of many times I felt like I was an insufficient musician because I didn’t have this one magical thing. Because the assumption is that perfect pitch equals an astoundingly brilliant musician.
Spoiler alert: it doesn’t.
As a short disclaimer, there are those people who have what is scientifically described to be perfect pitch, where they can identify what I will hear term ‘pure’ notes. They are a very rare subset.
What is usually meant by perfect pitch is that you can hear any sound, and say what pitch it is without any further support.
It essentially means having a perfect memory for sound.
Here’s the problem though: what sound are they remembering?
More often than not, the sound of a piano. The sound of one flawed tuning system, that itself admits to not being ‘in tune’.
The sound of one instrument that is not used by the entire globe, that informs whether sound is ‘correct’ or not.
The sound of one scale, that is not a natural phenomenon, but rather has been developed by only certain countries in a musical history that itself only remembers a small part of what happened. Because the politics, the racism, the knowledge holders at the time didn’t in fact record everything, or even know everything.
You can hear that I’m passionate about this; it even sparked the founding of an arts collective. If you want to hear more about it, check it out here.
The point is that sound is not perfect. The note that you might call ‘wrong’, or the scale that you would call ‘incomplete’ forms the foundation for a whole genre of music you have never heard.
So I discourage perfect pitch. I insist on singing without the piano, often starting on a completely random note, just to expand the concept of what sound and music is.
If you have perfect pitch, I am not here to tell you that you don’t have a skill that can be useful. But I am here to challenge you, and how you teach.
Perfect pitch is not the end game.
Adaptable, effective musical skills are what we are all after. Expand the sound world, build the tools to use it, and you will produce incredible mini musicians!
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This post was originally published September, 2021.
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