Absolute pitch

Originally published in The Musician, Volume 22, page 413, 1917.

by Effa Ellis Perfield

Why is it that although there are many ear-training exercises on the market, and a large number of teachers are teaching ear-training, very few really hear inwardly? Because the majority of exercises are based on PITCH instead of TONE, and hearing in not inner-hearing, if it were, many musicians could not, hence, would not tolerate their own unmusical speaking voices.

In the public schools we do a great deal for the eye and touch. Pupils create drawings, paintings, paper cuttings; they mould, build, and paste, etc.; but what is being done for the inner ear? Nothing but rote songs and imitative interpretative work, which is only hearing; nothing is being done to create inner-feeling through the ear.
Private teachers spend hours with pupils trying to develop absolute pitch and to enable them to name any key played.

I care nothing for absolute pitch.

Those who have it are often greatly distressed when they are required to look at a piece in one key and sing it in another. If pitch is so important, why have one song printed in several keys and pitches?

It is considered very wrong for a public school teacher to start a song on any but the EXACT pitch of the keynote. She must always sound the pitch pipe, then do re mi up, or down, to the key of the piece. This demonstrates what I call "leaning on authority." How shall we ever know the compass of our voices, if we always lean on the pitch pipe?

Harmonic feeling is the important thing. There really is no such thing as a single tone, because each tone is one of a series of overtones. Fundamentally and finally music consists of chords, not single tones, and certainly not scales.

Play the highest, or lowest key, on the piano, and ask the music teacher to sing that tone. He cannot because the pitch disturbs his hearing. The majority of us have been "pitched to death." We have not been trained to hear TONE.

Play a familiar melody and alternate the tones in very high and very low pitch, and the average music teacher will not even recognize the melody.

I do all I can to eliminate pitch. I develop tone. I have had teachers in my classes who had been drilled on "absolute pitch." Although they had well-trained ears, they could not write a modulation, even after I gave them the first tone. They heard pitch, but did not feel and reason tone. Here is a test:

Play one tone, name it, then play it with sixty different chords, including triads and seventh chords. Then see if the teacher and pupil can write these. Remember, To Be, To Know, To Do, but only know and do the things that make you be.

Some teachers give guides for naming any key played, as: EC, AC, FDC, GBC. Pupils memorize the tune of these; the teacher then plays E; the pupil knows that it is E, because it completes the word EC., etc. The first letter of any of these "words" is esslly recognized by singing and completing the latter part. Of what musical value is this? Here is another guide:

Play A, then G, and the progression of A going to G is felt; play CEG, then play F to E, I) to C, then BC. This little MELODIC progression is memorized, then the teacher plays A, and the pupil knows that it is A, because it progresses to G. If B is played, it goes to C, etc. The pupil must be able to start any place in this melody. This is a pattern, and is not founded on true inner feeling.

Now, I will play A to G, CEG, F to E, D to C, BC and HARMONIZE each in several different ways, and A will not even feel as though it must progress to G. F will not go to E, etc. Harmony decides the tendency of the tones, and until wecan definitely feel and reason tones in chords, our hearing is not what it should he.

If we wish to develop real inner hearing, we must teach TONE and not PITCH.

I play any key on the piano and one pupil names it A, another B, another C, etc.; then I play a chord sentence, and even though each pupil spells it differently, will the chord relations and progressions be different? Certainly not! The musical feeling is not disturbed. The one who has the "God-given Absolute Pitch" may say that he gets a great deal of satisfaction out of knowing the exact key in which the orchestra is playing, or the exact pitch of a high or low note being sung. I grant this, but it is of no musical value. If I listen to a piece in G and think it in F', I am getting just as much out of it musically as though I thought it in G.

Hence why not develop the thing that is of real value, and not waste energy, time, and money on drills of no musical importance?

If you can write out any modulation from one given tone, even one that you have never heard before, you have the true inner feeling for tone and your ear is really trained.