“He that toucheth pitch shall be deified therewith”

Perfect pitch enables musicians to name any note in isolation without the aid of another note. Prokofiev had it, but it is by no means foolproof as a recent study has shown.

Someone who has the almost godlike ability to say that a particular sound is a D natural, for example, has perfect (or absolute) pitch. Others rely on experience, such as repeated hearings of the note to which orchestras tune, or by reference to their own instrument, such as the piano (which is easier because its tuning is fixed).

Now, a study at the University of Chicago has revealed that people with perfect pitch may not actually be as in tune with the notes they hear as they think. Played a long piece of music, participants in the study failed to notice when scientists surreptitiously turned the tones slightly flat. They then misidentified in-tune sounds as being sharp. Researchers say it demonstrates the adaptability of the mind even for those skills thought to be fixed at birth.

Nature abounds in sounds made up of a number of vibrations per second which determine their pitch. The basic note sounded is the fundamental, but in addition there are divisions by a half, third, quarter and fifth that produce a succession of rising notes called the harmonic series. As the musicologist Deryck Cooke pointed out in The Language of Music (1959), “This means that in nature itself a single note sets up a harmony of its own; and this harmonic series has been the (unconscious) basis of Western European harmony, and the tonal system.”

Owing to uncertainty in the historical record, it is often impossible to determine whether notable composers and musicians had absolute pitch. Among composers of the Baroque and Classical eras, evidence is available only for Mozart, who is known to have demonstrated the ability at a very early age. Experts have surmised that Beethoven had it on the basis of excerpts from his letters. By the 19th century, it became more common for absolute pitch to be noted in musicians such as Camille Saint-Saëns and John Philip Sousa.

ProkofievThe Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev began work on his Symphony No. 1 in D major (Op. 25) in 1916, writing most of it in 1917 in a style that imitates Haydn. Prokofiev, who had perfect pitch, wrote the symphony on holiday in the country, using it as an exercise in composing away from the piano. No actual quotations of Haydn are found in the work, but a version of the symphony’s Gavotte also appears in Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet (Scene 2, No.18, departure of the Guests.)

The programme notes for the first performance, conducted by Prokofiev himself in newly named Petrograd, stated that, “The composer’s aim was to resurrect the ‘good old days’ of strong traditions, the days of hoop skirts, powdered wigs, and pigtails.” Prokofiev called it the Classical Symphony, “First of all, because it was simple. And secondly, out of mischief – to ‘tease the geese’ [possibly a reference to his harmony professors at the St Petersburg Conservatory] – and also in the secret hope that it would be accurate if, in the course of time, the symphony really did turn out to be a classic.”

Not only is the Classical Symphony a tour de force in itself, it is an astonishing accomplishment for a composer relying solely on his inner ear – even if enhanced by the odd glass of vodka!

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