Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Absolute E

Fiona has been learning to whistle. This morning she puffed out a nicely audible breathy note and said "I can whistle E." And she could, and it was an E, bang on. So it's official. All of my kids have absolute pitch.

I've been interested in the phenomenon of absolute pitch (what is also somewhat misleadingly referred to as perfect pitch) for years. It's best described as excellent pitch-memory. A person with absolute pitch will be able to hum or sing a particular pitch even if they don't have a reference. They'll get out of bed in the morning and decide to hum a little tune they like and they'll start it exactly on E-flat above middle C if that's where they want to start it. A person with absolute pitch who also knows the name of the notes and can read music will be able to hum a B-flat if you want one, or tell you that the choir is singing a half-step above the notated pitch.

Absolute pitch is not to be confused with excellent relative pitch skill. A person with excellent relative pitch skill can play or sing perfectly in tune, provided they're given some sort of reference pitch or starting point. Most musical instruments provide that starting point. Singers most commonly gather their reference point from an instrument playing accompaniment. Most professional musicians do not have absolute pitch; what they have is perfect relative pitch. Absolute pitch can actually make some things awkward. If you're singing in a choir, from printed music, and the piece is being sung one note lower to accommodate the sopranos' ranges, it is very disconcerting to someone with absolute pitch to be singing an E-flat while the reference on the printed page clearly says F. If you're listening to a recording (less common in these days of digital music, thank goodness) that is playing back at a slightly slower or faster speed, you can't enjoy it at all -- all you can think about is how the pitch is 'off.' Absolute pitch is a burden as well as a gift.

I've got it. One of my brothers has got it. It used to be thought that absolute pitch was a very rare ability dictated by the genetic hand one had been dealt. These days, when children tend to begin formal music training at younger ages, with nature/nurture issues the focus of countless studies, it's become apparent that absolute pitch ability is not actually that rare. It's been suggested that all of us have the potential to develop it, and it's just a question of whether we receive the sorts of experiences that nurture it. The ease with which we can develop it seems to be genetically mediated. It's interesting to me that of myself and my three siblings, all of whom reached a professional playing level on our stringed instruments, the two with full-on absolute pitch ability are the two of us who are genetically related to my parents, while my two adopted siblings have excellent relative pitch.

About a month and a half ago Fiona became interested in doing some note-reading work on pitch. My older kids were closer to 7 or so when we began, but Fiona was eager, and nearing the end of Suzuki Book 1, so I figured some playful, low-key pitch-reading games would be fine. Her interest has abated a little now, but I think that the work we did matured her awareness of pitch names. Whereas previously she thought of A and E and D and G as names for her violin strings (strings which happen to have certain pitches), she now thinks of those letter names, and others, as names of pitches. And so today it was perfectly natural for her to whistle and tell me the note was an E. The pitch-reading work we did hadn't given her absolute pitch, but it allowed me to diagnose it. With my older kids, I had to wait longer to gather definitive evidence of their pitch-memory skill. Sometimes the evidence was subtler -- they'd complain that I was singing some song 'wrong' (because, I assumed, I'd started on a different pitch than the one they were used to), or they'd consistently sing "Happy Birthday" starting on exactly D above middle C (who would notice this but a mom with absolute pitch herself?). I haven't been hoping that they'd gain absolute pitch ability -- in fact, I haven't really been thinking about it at all, except that because of my training I'm aware of the little clues that they might be developing it -- but it's been an interesting thing to observe.

This whole issue of absolute pitch is, I've realized, a pithy example of my educational approach with my kids. I've tried to give them a life that is rich in musical experiences. Not because I wanted any specific outcome, but because I believe there is value and joy in music. I haven't actively taught them anything, except where they've requested active teaching. I haven't created situations that allow me to assess their ability; sometimes it has taken years for a serendipitous situation to arise that has given me claer evidence of their ability. I've taken private delight in evidence of ability, but I haven't portrayed it to them or to anyone as some sort of major praiseworthy accomplishment. To me it's simply been a natural part of their learning, driven by interest and joy.

And so it goes, whether for math, the history of science, reading, parts of speech, or writing cursive.


  1. Interesting! I know very little about music other than what I enjoy. I did take piano as a child, but my parent put me in lessons as a 12 year old preteen who absolutely did not want to be there--thus I learned nothing. I do remember playing the recorder in school as a young child and loved it. One of my favorite kinds of music is classical--but again, I know nothing other than what I like.

    Your children are truly blessed to have the sound of music as part of their lives and learning and being :-)

  2. Tagged you for a Meme

  3. Hey Shawna, thanks for thinking of me. However, I've decided not to include memes in my blog, so I'm afraid I'm going to decline. Just a question of style and my longstanding reluctance to 'work to task.' Cheers!

  4. What is interesting is that both my children have absolute pitch, although only one of them has had formal musical training.

    My daughter is hearing impaired--slightly--right in the middle of the speech range. She got hearing aids when she went to college, but doesn't use them much because they "ruin my music."

    I had never heard of people having absolute pitch and a hearing impairment before this experience. Their grandmother was a professional violinist and their biological father is a skilled amateur musician who plays piano, flute and recorder--and any other woodwind instrument he picks up by ear.

    I am a singer as well as an amateur flautist, and I play the recorder. I don't think I have absolute pitch, though.

    Odd--I would have thought a congenital hearing impairment would rule out absolute pitch.

  5. Eli, that's fascinating about your daughter. I guess it fits with the whole idea of absolute pitch being related to pitch memory, rather than to highly developed auditory discrimination and acuity ability.

  6. Anonymous8:17 pm

    If you all tune separately (without hearing each other), will your A's all be synchronized? We have a similar musically enriched home environment, but most of us do not have absolute pitch. DH's sister does, DH knows a non-A440 when he hears it (without being able to fix it), our son seems to be able to associate certain pitches and their names, and our middle child (of 3) has a sort of indirect way of determining the pitch of a note without an outside reference. She "plays" the Suzuki Book 1 recording in her head, and because she knows what the pitches are, can identify/generate any pitch. When she was very small, she astonished her violin teacher (who had absolute pitch) by her method of tuning her violin, sounding only one string at a time: first A, then D, then G, then E.


  7. Hi Deborah. Not sure about my kids. I can pick a 440A out of the air, and all my kids seem to come pretty close when tuning. I'd say that Sophie is always within 3-4 Hz, Erin and Noah within 1 or 2. Their accuracy seems to improve with age. Fiona tunes her violin exactly as you describe your daughter's early method!

  8. Interesting - the only person I know with what you call absolute pitch (and what I always referred to as perfect pitch) is my father. He is one of those people who can self teach himself any instrument but mainly spends time with his guitar. I am always surprised as he can tune string instruments without a reference and they are always correct. He is a man with no formal music training whatsoever, can play anything on his guitar by ear, and at the age of 65 still cannot read a single note of music. I know I don't have it (though I do have excellent relative pitch skill) and I don't think either of the kids do. Em certainly doesn't - Will is a little up in the air. His piano teacher has always worked with him and before he starts into the piano work at a lesson she will ask him to sing middle C then check and see how close he is on the piano - and usually he is either on or close -but she never asks for anything other than the middle C.


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