The Messy Secrets of Perfect Pitch

Inside the science of a skill revered in much of the music world. /

The kid was standing with his back to the piano, eyes closed, humming intervals quietly to himself while a single note slowly died on the piano’s strings. A small crowd of our friends stood behind him, leaning across the piano to peek at what note had been struck.

“E-flat,” he said. Cheers erupted from the crowd.

A moment later, another note, another short interval, and then, “A.” Cheers again. Another note: “C-sharp.” More cheers. This went on for several minutes. He never missed.

If you ever wondered what theater geeks and music nerds did on a Friday night during their high school years, this is a fair glimpse. I confess to being present and being impressed, though I should also admit that this was not my scene. I was there because of a girl. But I was a musician and I’d heard of “perfect pitch.” But I’d never seen anyone exercise it before.

When someone says “So-and-so has perfect pitch,” they could mean one of several things. They might mean that this person can do what the kid was doing in the scene described above: they can hear any pitch and tell you where, in the 12-tone series of notes that makes up the Western scale, that pitch falls. In this sense, perfect pitch is a matter of recognition.

On the other hand, perfect pitch might refer to the creation of pitches. So when someone says, “Whitney Houston had perfect pitch,” they mean that her voice and her ears were dextrous and precise enough to always sing in-tune with whatever music was accompanying her, or in perfect intervals with herself. People say this about other musicians, too: horn players and cellists and slide guitarists.

Another way to describe these abilities is “absolute” and “relative” pitch. Someone with a sense of absolute pitch can recognize pitches out of context; one can plunk a G-sharp on the piano and they’ll know it’s a G-sharp. Someone with a gift for relative pitch is probably good at creating and matching pitches, playing in-tune with a band, or singing with a choir. These skills are related but slightly different.

Born Perfect

In a recent study, scientists showed evidence that infants are born with a sense of perfect absolute pitch. It’s a fascinating theory, especially since they believe this ability has nothing to do with music at all.

They demonstrated that infants recognized a melody when it was repeated at the same absolute pitch. But if they played the melody at a different relative pitch (that is, if they changed the key) the infants didn’t recognize it. They registered it as an entirely new song.

Scientists suspect that this ability exists in order for children to be able to recognize language. Their sense of absolute pitch is like a grid upon which all sound is mapped. The cartography that develops as infants map various sources along the grid lets them recognize patterns and (ultimately) language. Over time, once language is learned, the brain stops exercising this particular muscle, and the ability to use it diminishes or disappears completely.

I find this fascinating, not least of all because of Noam Chomsky’s theory of “deep structure.” He argues that language—indeed, something like grammar, a way of communicating—is built in to the human brain. That idea fits nicely with the thought that the brain has a built-in grid for decoding language. There may be something fundamentally linguistic about being human. Perfect pitch—something revered in corners of the musical world—may simply be a byproduct of the wiring that makes us ready to live life with a God who reveals himself through and as Word.

Good Vibes

When we’re talking about pitch, we’re talking about sound. And when we’re talking about sound, we’re talking about vibrations. Pitch is essentially a matter of the frequencies at which a given object is vibrating; the faster it vibrates, the higher the frequency, and the higher the pitch. That frequency is more or less determined by the size and density of the vibrating object. Larger and denser objects vibrate more slowly (and have lower pitch) than smaller and less dense objects.

So you take a thin string and a thick string, and you stretch them across a plank of wood. You put roughly the same amount of tension on both strings. Then you pluck them both. The thin one will vibrate faster—at a higher frequency—than the thick one, and will have a higher pitch. Incidentally, if you make those strings of metal, put a magnet wrapped in copper wire underneath them, and pluck the strings again, the electrons in the copper wire will start to move at exactly the same frequency as the vibrating strings. Plug those wires into an amplifier and speaker, and you’ll hear those pitches. And that, Virginia, is how Leo Fender invented the Telecaster.

What Is A?

A few years back, I helped to run a music venue in Louisville, and worked with a number of sound engineers—some local, some traveling through town with bands. A good sound engineer is tough to find, and the best ones have a wonderful and fine-tuned sense of pitch. Like the kid in the story at the beginning, they have an ability to hear a sound and identify the pitch. But they speak a different language to describe it than musicians do. Where the kid at the party heard “A,” a sound engineer might hear the same thing and describe it as “about 450 hertz, give or take.” That’s because, in the audio world, they’re trained to deal with sound as a spectrum, and not as a musical language. They have to hear the music and identify where, in the spectrum, something might be too loud or too soft. If it’s harsh, they’ll say it’s “too bright” and they’ll start dialing back frequencies around 1.5khz and higher. If it’s “muddy,” that’s usually because anything between 400hz and 1,000hz is too loud, and if it’s “boomy” it’s somewhere below there.

Good engineers are very good at this. They can hear the difference between 1.2khz and 1.5khz (a subtle difference, I assure you) and dial out problem frequencies in a microphone or a mix in a matter of a few seconds. But where, with musicians, the ability to hear and identify pitches is seen as almost a superpower, for audio engineers, it’s just part of the job. If you can’t hear and identify problem spots in a mix, you’ll always have trouble with mixing. So, while we might not be inclined to call this ability “perfect pitch,” from a purely physical perspective, it’s the exact same thing.

If you have your piano tuned by a professional, in all likelihood, when he’s done, the A above middle C will be tuned to 440hz. A440 is known as “concert pitch,” and was recognized as the tuning standard in the 20th century by the American recording industry and organizations like the International Organization for Standards, but you would be sorely mistaken if you thought this meant that there was anything like universal agreement on the fact that an A should be 440 Hertz. For instance, the New York Philharmonic tunes to A442. In Boston they tune to A441. Slightly different tunings can be found in orchestras around the world.

If you really want to waste some time on the internet, go look for conspiracy theories related to the standardization of A440. According to this particular crowd, the Rockefellers and the Nazis collaborated on standardizing pitch at 440hz. A better choice, according to them, would have been A432, a number more naturally divisible and (again, according to them) more pleasant and harmonious. As a result, the Western world is a little more irritated and a little more ready for war.

In the 1990s, many guitarists tuned their instruments down a half-step. Prior to that, both Stevie Ray Vaughn and Jimi Hendrix were known to do this as well. You could say this changed their tuning from E to E-flat or you could say it had them tuned to A415. The reasons given for this tuning vary. Some think it was because the guitar was slightly easier to play (though in SRV’s case, this is just silly; he used enormously thick strings and had hands the size of a 500-lb gorilla; ease-of-play was not a concern for sure). Others think it was simply to sound different from everything else on the radio. But if you hear from guitarists who like that tuning, they’ll often shrug and just say, “I don’t know. It just sounds better.”

In another interesting controversy, some think that the great blues pioneer Robert Johnson’s music was recorded at the wrong speed—or rather, that somewhere between him originally recording his songs and those recordings being cut into 78s, the format from which all modern recordings of Johnson are converted—the recordings were sped up, and thus pitched up. Some say that this was just a mechanical error. Others suspect the record label wanted to speed up the songs and make them more exciting. Either way, the story goes, the real recordings of Johnson are a little slower, a little less bright and energetic.

The Problem with Your Piano

Another thing that will happen, should you hire someone to tune your piano: he won’t tune it perfectly. At least, if he knows what he’s doing, he won’t tune it perfectly.

Since about the Renaissance, music in the Western world has been built around 12 tones. Prior to that, music was built around 5 or 7 tones. The beauty of the 12-tone system is in the variety of expressions that it enables. The complex harmonies of Western classical music and jazz are the height of its achievements, but folk music takes full advantage of it as well, from the chromaticism of bluegrass to the dark modal sounds of Radiohead.

The trouble with 12-tone music is that the notes aren’t perfectly evenly spaced apart. So for a fixed-tuning instrument like a piano or an organ (and to a certain extent, a fretted instrument like a guitar or mandolin), there’s no way to perfectly tune the instrument. If it’s perfectly in tune in one key, it will be out-of-tune in another key; the spacing between the notes (most significantly, the major thirds) won’t be quite right. Another way to describe this would be to say that there is not a universal 12-tone “language” that makes up all of music. As you change keys, you have to shuffle the tuning of the various pitches in order to make the pitches in-tune with the rest of the scale.

If you don’t do this, you’ll especially notice it because of disharmony in what’s called the overtone series—the ghost-like notes-within-a-note that make a strummed guitar or a big chord on a piano seem to shimmer. When a piano is tuned perfectly in one key, when you play in another key, the overtones will start to push against one another. You’ll hear “beats” in them, where the sound waves literally are in conflict. Get far enough away from the original key, and the conflict in the overtones will make you wince.

This led to the creation of what’s called “equal temperament” tuning. Without getting too in-the-weeds, it’s a way of tuning a piano or an organ that makes a series of compromises—it’s slightly out of tune, but in such a way that one can play pleasantly in all 24 keys. It also means that different keys on these instruments will have different character: they’re all out of tune in slightly different ways. (This may be why some piano players think B-flat is too sweet-sounding.)

Any way you shake it, there seems to be something imperfect about the 12-tone series. It seems out of joint. Bach can write “A Well-Tempered Klavier,” a piece of music written to show off equal temperament tuning that uses all of the 12-tone series’ major and minor keys, and it’s a masterpiece. And a piano that’s been tuned in equal temperament will sound good in all of those keys. But it is also, necessarily, imperfect.

Beautifully Broken

I called Harold Best to talk about all of this. A lifelong musician of 84, the former dean of Wheaton College’s Conservatory of Music is the author of two excellent books on music and worship and a powerful book of prose prayers. This happens to be the sort of thing that he thinks about all the time.

So I asked him what’s wrong with the 12-tone system.

“I don’t want to curse the 12-tone system, it’s a great blessing,” he said. “It’s one of the few times we can break laws and get away with it.”

“What do you mean by that?” I asked. “How are we breaking laws?”

“We have had to compromise the natural purity of the overtone system,” he said. “Now, I could come along and say, okay, the Creation is fallen, therefore the overtone series is out of tune. And Western culture has found a way to redeem the fallenness within the overtone series. Theologically, I would almost have to be compelled in that the overtone series, along with everything else, is straining and groaning and longing for the time when it will be put right.”

It’s a fascinating idea: within the most fully-developed musical system in all of civilization, there are cracks and flaws, hints at fallenness. But Best stopped me before I drew too many conclusions from this.

“You have to be careful,” he said. “People come along and say, that’s why playing in a minor key is always sad. But if you play Bach’s fugue in G-Minor from the Fantasy and Fugue, it’s really happy.” He proceeded to lay the phone down on top of his piano and play a section of the fugue for me. When he finished, he picked up the phone again. “I just don’t want to go to a funeral when I hear that.” I didn’t either.

It further underscores something about music, something Best has said many times in books and lectures. When we explore the world of music—particularly instrumental music, divorced from any words—we are journeying into the world of absolute relativity. Bach’s fugue reminds us that a minor-keyed song doesn’t have to be sad, just as Radiohead’s “Fake Plastic Trees” reminds us that a major keyed song doesn’t have to be happy. Music, as a cultural artifact, can import all kinds of meaning into itself. As Slavoj Zizek once pointed out, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony has been used as propaganda by democracies, Nazis, Fascists, and Communists. All of them said it somehow embodied their ideology.

Nothing about music is absolute, and nothing about music is perfect—least of all pitch, a perpetually moving target. Some artists, like the slide guitarist Ry Cooder, have found perfect pitch to be a detriment to their work, and have learned to embrace micro-tonality, intentionally using pitches that are a little off to color their recordings. Some credit the sound and charm of Bob Marley’s music to his embrace of “wider” (slightly out-of-tune) intonation. Kanye West, too, has made his out-of-tune singing a key feature of his music, a bold statement of imperfection in the midst of meticulously crafted productions.

The phrase “perfect pitch” should invoke the question, Perfect according to who? If I say “play an A” and you play an A, is it A440 or A432 or A441? We discover a dizzyingly diverse world of sound, and a brain that has a variety of ways of mapping it and tracking it.

Maybe Best is right. Maybe in the new-making of all things, the overtone series will be fixed and we’ll discover new harmonic pathways to explore. I’m not so sure. I wonder if the conflicts in the overtone system are part of their design, and that like sculpting or mountain climbing, the difficulty involved in navigating them is part of what makes them worth exploring. Maybe, the word “perfect” in “perfect pitch” is simply a misnomer, and we need to describe mapping and creating pitches in a way that accounts for the way that music is a fluid, relative thing. Maybe the good of music—good, as in “It was good,” created good—is supposed to involve wrestling and reckoning with music as something full of obstacles, something profoundly relative, profoundly puzzling, and profoundly beautiful.

Mike Cosper (@MikeCosper) is director of the Harbor Institute for Faith and Culture. He wrote on falcons and flight for The Behemoth’s issue 27.

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The Behemoth is a small magazine about a big God and his big world. From the editors of Christianity Today, these articles aim to help people behold the glory of God all around them, in the worlds of science, history, theology, medicine, sociology, Bible, and personal narrative.

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October 2016

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