The gift of absolute pitch.

Originally published in Musical Opinion & Music Trade Review, 34, 753-4, 1911.

C. Whitaker Wilson

One might start an article on the subject of absolute pitch by asking something like the following conundrum.  "What is it which some people want when they haven't it and yet which others find a nuisance when they have it?  "Absolute Pitch."  There is no doubt that, although of great use and often a source of entertainment to the possessor, the gift of absolute pitch can be a great nuisance; at the best it is like the telephone, a mixed blessing.  It is a gift which of course only a comparatively few possess, the only true absolute pitch being birth given.

Some musicians will say that the gift can be cultivated, but such is not the case.  I do not say that the ear cannot be trained so that it becomes most sensitive, but there is a distinct difference between the natural ingrained sense and the trained ear.  In the case of a child whose gift of absolute pitch is born in him, he will at the age of five, that is as soon as he has learnt his notes, be able to tell each note as he hears them played even though he be in another room.  His knowledge of music being necessarily at that age only elementary, his ear will in consequence perhaps only take in one sound at a time; but a little later on he begins to learn about key signatures.  Then he will find that he can tell in what key his small sister plays her favourite hymn-tune, without of course going to see what notes she is actually touching.  This is merely the beginning of the possibilities of this extraordinary power with which some of us are blessed or cursed.  Personally, I find it often more of a curse than a blessing; but there are times when keen enjoyment can be got out of it.  As this subject appears to be one not often dilated upon, perhaps a few lines on its possibilities and limitations will not be out of place and may prove, if only momentarily, of interest.

It is surprising how many orchestral players, violinists especially, have it.  I must say here that I think that in a fair number of cases it is a matter of constant ear training that makes a violinist tune his instrument to the "low pitch A" without reference to a tuning fork or to a fixed toned instrument for guidance.  Among organists and choirmasters it does not appear to be so common, judging by the attempts some of them make to fit an "Amen" to the priest's intoning!  It is extremely useful for an organist to be able to detect instantly not only on what note the priest is intoning, but when he is between two semitones-- as he often is, unfortunately-- to find out to which actual organ note he is nearest; thus making the "Amen" as euphonious as possible.  I am, as I daresay most organists are, in favor of the unaccompanied "Amen"; but sometimes it is expedient to accompany on the organ, so it is here that the keen ear comes in useful.

Again, you can imagine how useful it is for the organist who trains his own choir when, perhaps being single handed and having no one to play for his rehearsal, he leaves the organ loft to come down into the chancel to correct mistakes and thus is able to give them the note at the pitch of the organ without the necessity of going upstairs again to the instrument itself.  This organist can pitch a note to start an unaccompanied anthem at rehearsal with the utmost ease.  Then there is the case of the singer who with such a gift never sings out of tune, unless it be from purely physical cause such as bad production or from a cold.

Though the gift of absolute pitch is distinct and apart from what is termed the "mental ear" (which is purely a matter of cultivation and is of course hearing in the head what is seen with the eye), yet it aids the latter accomplishment in no small degree.  The mental ear is indispensable to a man who sits for Mus. Bac. or FRCO paperwork.  He is not allowed to have a pianoforte to try his chords on, so everything has to be done from the head.  Now it is quite possible for a man to look at a new hymn tune (for example) and though he hears the effect of every chord in his head and could detect any ugly dissonances, etc., should such exist, yet he might after hearing the tune mentally get quite a shock on playing it on the piano, because he was thinking at a different pith!  A man who has absolute pitch never gets an experience like that.  This is where absolute pitch helps the mental ear by causing the possessor to think at the right pitch.  And of course brings up the point that there may be, and often is, a considerable difference between the pitch of two given pianos.

A man with absolute pitch properly developed perhaps will play something on his study piano on a Sunday morning and then go off to his church; and perhaps an hour later starts the voluntary or the processional hymn, as the case may be.  If there is a difference (even of the very slightest, even about as much as there is between the pitch of a voix celeste and the stop it beats with) between the organ and the piano he left an hour ago, he will notice not only that there is a difference but what the difference is, knowing at once that the organ is flatter than the piano or vice versa, whichever happens to be the case.  On going to a symphony concert and listening to a Strauss tone poem, he knows every note that is played, however "modern" the chords; and could, if there was time enough, take down those chords, properly distributing them among the various instruments at the correct pitch.  This to him is an easy matter.

This again brings up another point and a very interesting one it is.  The extraordinary gift is absolutely out of the controlling power of the possessor and this is how it becomes a great nuisance.  Supposing the man is sitting, say at a desk by the window, writing a piece of five part florid counterpoint, which of course is taking all his attention.  Some distance down the road somebody strikes a chord on a piano and the sound of it, though faint perhaps, reaches him.  In a thousandth part of a second, whether he likes it or not, that chord comes before his mental vision in either of two ways-- a mental picture of a keyboard or one of a staff.  It is absolutely instantaneous and he has not the very faintest control over it.  If the piano continues playing, he must close his window down to shut out the sound, not because he is irritable and hates the sound of a piano when he is writing but because he simply can not keep his attention on his work, every note which the wretched instrument produces going through the poor fellow's brain whether he will or not.

I mentioned the fact that pitch can be "carried in the head" and that the difference in pitch of two pianos can be detected.  Unless two pianos happen to be exactly a semitone apart, the acute ear soon detects the difference and adapts itself to the new circumstances.  When there is exactly a difference of half a tone or a tone a little difficulty might be experienced; and a man with absolute pitch might easily think that G was Ab or vice versa.  But this is not always the case.  An interesting thing once occurred to a friend and myself.  We had been playing on his piano and had left his house and had cycled together some distance.  passing a small house we heard a child playing a piano.  My friend (who had absolute pitch keenly) asked me what key I thought the piece was in, adding that he was doubtful.  I suggested Ab and that it sounded like G and that the piano must be a semitone flat.  He seemed to think so, too; but he argued that, if it sounded as G, why should it not be G?  This we could not answer but could only say that we felt that it was Ab.  In order to satisfy ourselves, we wheeled round and got off at the house and looked in through the window which was close on the street.  A glance was sufficient, the key was Ab and the piano a semitone flat.  Now, I think you will agree with me that the odds might have easily been against the child playing in four flats at all; but to make doubly sure my friend produced an adjustable pitch pipe and I fixed the pitch of the Ab on this particular piano.  On reaching home again, we found that this Ab corresponded exactly with the G on his piano!  If any of our readers can explain that, I should be interested.  There is nothing to brag about; in this extraordinary gift, no one can help having it and it is certain that no one can get rid of it!  It is a nuisance, as the following will show.

I was once asked to sing a few simple little things to illustrate a lecture given by one of our university professors, under whom I was studying at the time.  An extra example of what he happened to be discoursing upon being required, the lecturer handed over a short and simple thing, saying in an undertone "That key is too high; but I have it a fourth lower, so you will be all right."  My key was C, his was G.  He struck the chord of G to start with and for the life of me I could scarcely refrain from singing C!  I was reduced to mentally transposing a fourth and to sight singing at the same time.  Fortunately the thing was fairly simple and all passed off well; but it might not have been otherwise.  This will show that it is not "all jam" to be gifted with absolute pitch.  But there are uses for it and the training of the ear is a most important branch of musical study, as everyone knows.

I trust that these few words on this subject are not out of place, but I regret having had to drag in personal reminiscences.  They are to my mind never desirable in any article on a given subject; but in this case I had no other means which would enable me to adequately illustrate the various points that I have raised.