Originally published in Zeitschrift Internationalen Musikgesellschaft, 13, 267-72.
Hugo Reimann, Liepzig.
On January 13, 1912, Professor G.E. Müller, in the Math and Physics division of the Göttinger Kgl. Society of the Sciences, submitted a paper by Géza Révész, lecturer at the university of Budapest: proof that, with respect to so-called pitch, two independent characteristics may be differentiated from each other. Leaving aside the fact that this treatise contributes only six short pages to the science of music cognition, I would like to say quite bluntly that Révész's "proof" is merely a dazzling display of logic, and is by no means a discovery of any importance.
Révész describes a second characteristic of an individual tone, apart from its distinct "absolute height", which he calls "musical quality". It turns out that the quality of a tone, as he describes it, is exactly as we know it within our music system, e.g. as "G-sharp", "C", etc., in the sense of recognizing the same pitch within each octave exactly as I have already described in 1877 in my Musical Syntax and which K. Stumpf also described in his Consonance and Dissonance with the term "expansion concept". Révész comes to the conclusion that there are two different kinds of absolute hearing: tone Height recognition and tone Quality recognition. In his definition of who can truly recognize absolute pitches, he excludes those whose judgments are made only approximately, uncertainly, and after longer consideration; he insists that the true absolute judgment is active, searching, testing, controlling. For others, tones do not have a unique character; the ability is acquired, developed by music making and conscious practice. People who can truly recognize tones, says Révész, deliver their judgment exactly, rapidly, and with confidence; the names of the tones are produced directly, and feels more like a psychologically passive occurrence than a special process. Each tone possesses its own personality. It is not a prerequisite of this ability to have had a detailed experience of musical sounds. Finally, Révész says that the Quality-sensitive absolute listener will always be able to recognize pitches, but there are many people who can recognize pitches without being able to hear their Quality.
We must stop at this distinction. The author has the insolence to include only those who were born into the world with absolute hearing, such as a musically-talented dilettante, and excludes all those who acquired the ability gradually and laboriously for themselves through continued instrumental practice. Drawing this distinction would be conclusively evident if, for example, the innate absolute listener could distinguish between G-sharp and A-flat; however, it is well known that this is not the case. The musician who acquired absolute hearing by long practice will not have a moment of doubt if, having heard one known tone, they are asked to name a second tone; they will know the difference between C-F# and C-G# without error. As you know, this ability to determine intervals is called relative pitch; it is not, like absolute pitch, a gift of nature, but rather wide-spread, and this ability is an insdispensible requirement for all singing. He who has no interval judgment will not be able to sing the simplest melody correctly. Furthermore, to accomplish this, a singer needs no knowledge of each note nor of the names of each sound. Révész's absolute listener, who names each tone without having to reflect upon it, must have nevertheless learned those names. Or does Révész believe that the knowledge of the pitch names is also innate? The ability of relative pitch, i.e. the relationships between the pitches, is what differentiates between the tones and identifies the temperament.
For the singer, singing C to B-flat is very different from singing C to A-sharp. The whole question of the "pure quality" would be groundless, if it were not for the fact that these are two completely distinct concepts which require two strictly different intonations. Nobody is able to produce sounds at precisely equivalent temperament. Unfortunately, Révész makes no suggestion of whether his tonal "Quality" is wholly restricted to the twelve semitones of our pianos (or to the dominant tuning of concert pitch!), or whether there are comma differences related to the circle of fiths, etc., etc.
Révész's classification of absolute listeners is even more precarious when he includes those whose hearing is influenced by pathological failures of normal functions, such as in [Parakuse]. He makes much of these listeners, concluding that their ability supposedly proves the independence of tone Quality from absolute Height. This part of his paper is essentialy the most interesting (he attaches Liebermann's report from Zeitschrift für Psychologie, Bd. 48, S. 259 ff), but I do not understand how he can ascribe fundamental meaning to these judgments of such patients, especially when he himself says that with these subjects, when making pitch judgments, their psychological behavior is completely different than under normal conditions.
If, for example, two G-sharp sounds that have been slightly altered (either played on a retuned instrument or sung) to form a major-seventh interval as judged by a healthy listener will, in the psychologically-deficient listener, make the exact impression of an octave, then this does not prove that the pitch judgment of this deficient listener is intact, but demonstrates rather that it is completely lacking. I can indeed confirm that, in [Parakuse], the perception of pitches produced by voice or instrument can be so deficient that it produces glaring contradictions between the pitch names offered and the actual ratios between them. But this shrinking (or sometimes expansion?) of the recognized sounds represents a malfunctioning of the ear's converting apparatuses, not a "misjudged tone Quality with intact Height recognition."
Other strange statements call the author's authority into question. On page 4 of Révész's paper he claims that the highest and lowest tones cannot be recognized according to their quality. I disagree with this completely. It is a well-known fact that it's difficult to tune very low tones, but these are usually for mechanical reasons (with the lowest piano strings, their weaker tension can make pure tuning almost impossible; similar difficulties can arise in a Monstre-32 organ pipe because of its dimensions); but no musician would profess that it's impossible to recognize the octave ratios of such low sounds. Similarly, the very short strings of the highest tones naturally cause a certain difficulty in judgment, but I remember recognizing with the highest tones of a Leipziger cabinet that the last steel blocks had a distance of a ninth instead of the alleged octave.
What is it supposed to mean when Révész says on p. 5 that the tones of intervals in the lower octaves "have, as is well-known, a much smaller height distance" than in the middle octaves? I have always perceived it as exactly the opposite; the step between "large C" and "contra B" is much larger, and more powerful, than "small C" to "large B". Correspondingly, the sounds in still lower regions seem to me to be grotesque giant steps, and my ear has no doubt of their "quality". It is evident that because of the heaviness of the lowest tones, fast changes are generally avoided, but Révész seems not to acknowledge this. It also makes no sense to say that bass drum tones have no quality; this is a contradiction; it takes little imagination to recognize the intervals of the bass drums in Beethoven's 8th and 9th symphonies. No, Révész's "Quality" is not a characteristic independent of the pitch, which I describe in my Elementen der Musikästhetik with the somewhat ponderous name "relativity of the pitch quality."
That is, the ability to assess pitch heights is identical to recognizing the pitch itself, as far as this is possible for music. The musical scale represents harmonic relationships which make the melody measurable by intervals. A melody can be recognized by the distance separating each pitch, not by isolated sounds following each other, and these distances are recognized by the imagination (kata thn thz aisqhsewz jantasian) as though they were a variation of a steady pitch, in a manner formulated more than 2200 years ago by Aristoxenos (Harm. 8-9). Révész's description of two characteristics independent of each other are nothing more than the two possibilities that Aristoxenos distinguished between the handling of the pitch variation (kinhsiz jwnhz), namely the sunecez and the exhz, the latter of which is only an artistic replacement for the naturalistic former.
Therefore, the musical phenomenon Révész calls "Quality" is inherent to the art and therefore cannot be separated by/for psychological investigation without infringing on the area of
Révész's invention of a musical "Quality" deserves closer scruitny. The phenomenon is an integral part of the art, and therefore can't actually be studied by itself without crossing into the area of psychology, and this is a topic which psychology expressly excludes.