Singing is about more than perfect pitch

Understanding perfect pitch may be difficult for those without the ability to instantaneously name a note upon first hearing it.

Imagine a classroom full of children. All are colorblind, save one, and they all get palettes and paint.

“Just imagine what that [one] child will experience with the color in comparison to the other kids,” Dr. David A. Ross said. “It’s the same way with people with absolute perfect pitch.”

A team of researchers at the Yale School of Medicine in conjunction with the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine have set out to find the mechanisms behind perfect, or absolute, pitch. Ross MED ’99 GRD ’05 and Lawrence Marks teamed up to delve into the mechanics behind perfect pitch, and their conclusion is almost simple — perfect pitch is not a direct decoding tool, nor is it a musical skill. Ross said the study suggests a difference in the brain stem, which is believed to be the region where pitch is encoded.

What their research has suggested is that the uncanny ability results from a difference in the way an individual’s brain codes musical tones, allowing some to develop a mental “template” of notes to be able to name that tune. It just so happens, according to the research team, that those with perfect pitch are usually drawn to music.

Most musicians would agree that perfect pitch is not necessary to be a successful musician, nor is it something that makes one musician better than the next.

“It’s really just a cool parlor trick,” said Eric Kubo ’07, a member of the a cappella group The Society of Orpheus and Bacchus.

He said perfect pitch is something striking, and that he is impressed by those who can hear a melody or tune and instantly name the notes.

“It’s cool to be able to hear someone say ‘Oh, that’s an E flat,’ but I would say it is definitely not necessary to able to do that,” Kubo said.

Some musicians, such as Danielle LaRocco ’08, a singer in Out of the Blue, cited the importance of perfect pitch as a tool for arranging music. While some people may have to sit at the piano and play a key in order to arrange a piece, she said, those with perfect pitch are simply able to arrange it directly on paper.

However, both college students and professors who have perfect pitch assert that the talent can be a nuisance at times.

Eric Trudel, lecturer at the Yale School of Music, was trained as a pianist and now dedicates most of his time to vocal music, including coaching at the Yale Opera. As a result, he says, his idea of perfect pitch has changed throughout the years.

“At the beginning of my career, pitch was black and white, like the colors of the piano keys, but as I began to work with singers and vocalists, my perception of pitch has changed and evolved,” Trudel said. “Now, it is a matter of the color of the sound, the vibrations and the harmonies, and that is how I can tell you exactly what note I am hearing.”

But, Trudel said oftentimes, at least in operatic music, the ability to be able to hear a tune and name it right away can be frustrating and counterproductive. There are instances when singers become so wrapped up in whether or not the key and note are correct that it interferes with their singing, he said.

Trudel added that relative pitch, or the ability to mentally recognize a note based on notes previously heard, is usually a more valuable tool for a singer.

Not all vocalists are in tune with Trudel’s idea that perfect pitch usually gets in the way. Rebecca Blum ’07, pitch for the a cappella group Out of the Blue, said that when it comes to arranging music, perfect pitch is a great tool.

“It just makes it easier,” said Blum, who has perfect pitch. “You can write the notes down right away.”

But, how exactly does one acquire perfect pitch and more importantly, where does it come from?

Marks said the theoretical position behind perfect pitch is twofold — some people develop perfect pitch by creating a mental template of notes in their head as they are exposed to music, usually at a very early age, while others, for unknown reasons, have an innate ability to instantly recognize notes. Marks said that it could in fact be genetic.

In fact, Trudel said that his father has perfect pitch and has very little musical background.

“He can always sing a tune right on key, every single time,” Trudel said.

The experiments performed by Marks and Ross divided subjects into several groups. One tested whether or not the amount of exposure to music actually determines one’s ability to name a note. Ross said most people in the music field are adept at naming notes because of so much exposure, but that this is not what he would classify as absolute perfect pitch.

“Many people can name notes. Because I can sit there and tell you that the opening trumpet of the Star Wars theme is a B flat does not mean that I have perfect pitch, rather that I have been exposed to it many times,” Ross said.

The idea for the research came when Ross was an undergraduate at Yale singing in the a cappella group Red, Hot and Blue and had the opportunity to work with someone who had perfect pitch.

“Something I think is really interesting, which we will have to be studying in the future, is why it was so easy to find people with absolute pitch here at Yale, while it was harder to find it elsewhere,” Marks said.

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