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DrKrettin

Sensitivity to musical pitch

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My 8-year old grandson plays the violin. He usually tunes his violin before a lesson, using his teacher's electrical device which measures pitch exactly (you specify, say, middle A and play the note, and the machine shows green if spot on). Yesterday he tuned his violin at home, this time using his mother's identical machine which she uses for singing practice. He then claimed the machine was wrong, it wasn't the same note. This was dismissed as nonsense, but she checked later and discovered that her machine was set to A=440 Hz (Concert pitch in the UK and USA), whereas the teacher's machine was set to A=443 Hz which is standard in Germany (where he and his teacher live).

 

Given that half a tone difference is a frequency change of about 25 Hz at that pitch, I find that noticing a difference of 3 Hz is unusual to say the least. Now I know that the ear is sensitive enough to detect a difference of about 1 Hz when two notes are played one after the other, but this was not the case - he just heard one note in isolation and claimed it was wrong.

 

So my question is this: Is such a sensitivity to pitch plausible?

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Yes. Some people have "perfect pitch" - an ability to recognise the absolute pitch of a note. I think it is pretty rare. I'm not sure how much an indicator or advantage or disadvantage it might be in a musical career (being aware that the whole orchestra is out by a quarter tone could be an immensely frustrating experience!)

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I recently started taking singing lessons and actually learned that I possess this trait. My instructor realized this when I first started working with him and whenever I would miss a note, I reacted the way I always have: by vocalizing the hideousness of the sound. I’ve always done this. No matter what the instrument, I can always tell if a note is on pitch or even just slightly off. My instructor says it’s a gift while I think of it more as a curse because of the AWFUL feeling I get when I or anyone misses a pitch. Unfortunately, with this ability of identification doesn’t necessarily come the ability to always produce it. This makes for an infuriating process of learning any new instrument. It’s also infuriating to hear some people who make millions in the music industry when they cannot hit pitch without technological correction.

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I recently started taking singing lessons and actually learned that I possess this trait. My instructor realized this when I first started working with him and whenever I would miss a note, I reacted the way I always have: by vocalizing the hideousness of the sound. I’ve always done this. No matter what the instrument, I can always tell if a note is on pitch or even just slightly off. My instructor says it’s a gift while I think of it more as a curse because of the AWFUL feeling I get when I or anyone misses a pitch. Unfortunately, with this ability of identification doesn’t necessarily come the ability to always produce it. This makes for an infuriating process of learning any new instrument. It’s also infuriating to hear some people who make millions in the music industry when they cannot hit pitch without technological correction.

Yes, I don't see how an extreme level of sensitivity is an advantage since all it does is cause irritation for those afflicted with it and those that don't have it don't care; hardly a gift. It does nothing for musicality except that it is sure to be within the range of tolerance for being in-tune for those listening with normal hearing. I'm pretty deaf so my range of tolerance is pretty mahoosive! :)

Edited by StringJunky

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Yes, I don't see how an extreme level of sensitivity is an advantage since all it does is cause irritation for those afflicted with it and those that don't have it don't care; hardly a gift. It does nothing for musicality except that it is sure to be within the range of tolerance for being in-tune for those listening with normal hearing. I'm pretty deaf so my range of tolerance is pretty mahoosive! :)

 

I think this has to depend strongly on the instrument. A piano, say, produces a note digitally, i.e. you either hit it or not, so perfect pitch is not important. But the violin is analogue, the position of the finger can vary infinitely so that the note produced can vary in pitch. Perfect pitch can be a real gift for string instruments because even if the variation in notes is not immediately noticeable, the overall impression of performance is determined by the accuracy (so I'm told, and it sounds reasonable). Presumably this applies for the human voice too.

 

Being able to hear a wrong pitch but not being able to produce the right one yourself (as FaithRider reports) must be a double curse.

 

What I was asking in the OP was by the way a slightly different question - not necessarily about perfect pitch but the sensitivity to differences in pitch.

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I think this has to depend strongly on the instrument. A piano, say, produces a note digitally, i.e. you either hit it or not, so perfect pitch is not important. But the violin is analogue, the position of the finger can vary infinitely so that the note produced can vary in pitch. Perfect pitch can be a real gift for string instruments because even if the variation in notes is not immediately noticeable, the overall impression of performance is determined by the accuracy (so I'm told, and it sounds reasonable). Presumably this applies for the human voice too.

 

Being able to hear a wrong pitch but not being able to produce the right one yourself (as FaithRider reports) must be a double curse.

 

What I was asking in the OP was by the way a slightly different question - not necessarily about perfect pitch but the sensitivity to differences in pitch.

Right. In isolation, i can't see how a singly expressed note makes much difference, regardless of the fundamental frequency, but simultaneously played notes not in tune will produce destructive interference and I can hear that to some extent. The degree of being out of tune with each other will vary with each individual. It probably has something to do with memory and if a played note doesn't match with the memory then a person with perfect pitch gets annoyed; sonic pedantry. :)

Edited by StringJunky

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