A composer does not, of course, add bit by bit, as a child does in building with wooden blocks. He conceives an entire composition as a spontaneous vision.

(Arnold Schoenberg, Fundamentals of Musical Composition)

I once read an interview with a famous classical musician – I just can’t remember who it was – I want to say Arthur Rubinstein but I’m not really sure.

Anyway, one of the questions was “Do you have perfect pitch?” and the answer was “No, thank God.”

I have perfect pitch. I cannot recall a time when I didn’t know I had it. It is both a gift and a curse.

I cannot recognize A440 Hz (or Concert A) every time, although I can come very close when I actually sing it; you could only tell the difference if you compared it to a tuning fork, electronic tuner or other instrument. What I can do is to know at once what note, chord, or tonality is playing without knowing the music or seeing which key a musician hits. I can tell if it’s significantly sharp or flat too. Without comparison I couldn’t tell the difference between, say, the Vienna Philharmonic’s A445 Hz and the New York Philharmonic’s A440 Hz. (Unless I recognized the orchestras, which I certainly could.) But if it’s more, down to A430 Hz for instance, I could certainly tell something was off. That’s a real problem with period-instrument groups; most of them tune to A415 Hz or somewhere thereabouts, and they sound a semitone flat to me.

Out-of-tune orchestras are no more torment to me than to the average music-lover. But choruses can cause real difficulties. It’s not uncommon for an unaccompanied chorus singing perfectly in tune with itself to vary a semitone more or less as they sing. Jesus!

I have heard the theory that perfect pitch may be learned when very young. It’s possible, I suppose. In my case, I was surrounded by music from earliest childhood; my father played violin in a quartet and we had hundreds of LPs. However, that raises the question “Why do some children learn it while others in near-identical situations don’t?”


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