The Etude
Name the Composer . Etude Magazine Covers . Etude Magazine Ads & Images . Selected Etude Magazine Stories . About

Absolute Pitch for Violinists

A correspondent writes to know whether it is necessary for a violin student to have the gift of "absolute pitch," in order to rise very high in the profession. First, let us consider the capacity of the ear to recognize tones by their pitch. "Absolute pitch" is the ability to name a note in the musical scale by sound alone, without having previously heard a tone, the name of which is known, from which it could be calculated. For instance, the possessor of the gift of absolute pitch can name the tones struck on a piano or other instrument in the next room, or when blindfolded. Or he can hum any tone in the scale without having heard that or any other tone from which he could calculate it.
"Relative pitch" is the faculty of finding any tone after another known tone has been given. For instance, if the tone C is struck on the piano and the person undergoing the test is asked to find A flat or F, or any other tone in the scale, and can do so successfully, he is said to have the gift (or the faculty achieved through training) of relative pitch. A person singing at sight must have relative pitch, but not necessarily absolute pitch. In the same way, to make good progress a violin student should have the faculty of relative pitch. If he hasn't it, he is liable to play all manner of false intervals without knowing it. It is, of course, an advantage for the violinist to have absolute pitch also, for such a player will infallibly play in better tune, and one cannot have too sharp a faculty in violin playing for recognizing musical sounds. However, I have known many successful violinists who had not the gift of absolute pitch, or at least to only a limited extent.
The gift of relative pitch is quite common, but that of absolute pitch is comparatively rare. I had quite an interesting example of the gift of absolute pitch in my immediate family. At the age of eight my little son, now a successful composer, could name any tone by name, or the names of the notes composing any chord, when struck on the piano or other instrument, without having previously heard any known tone struck. He was able to do this in the entire compass of the instrument, from the lowest to the highest note. I conducted many interesting tests, to learn the extent of this natural gift. When asked to sing any tone by name, immediately on awakening in the morning, before he could possibly have heard an instrument of any kind, he was able to do so, and on comparing the tone with an instrument, it would be found invariably correct. At a concert he could name the tone any singer had just sung, or which had been played on an orchestral instrument, or he could name instantly the key in which the orchestra was playing, even in the most difficult or involved passage. Questioned in regard to the matter, he said the name of the tone or tones being struck seemed as plain to him as if he had been asked the colors of various articles. This faculty had never been cultivated in the slightest degree, but was a purely natural gift. It seemed strange to him that everyone should not be able to recognize tones by name as readily as he could.
The gift of absolute pitch in its highest perfection indicates a deeply sensitive musical nature, and usually indicates great talent. There are many instances on record, however, of eminent, instrumentalists and composers who did not possess it. Some of the great musicians possessed it to a really wonderful degree. One of the great violinists—whose name I cannot at the moment recall—when he was a boy called to see an eminent violin teacher, whose pupil he wished to become. The teacher was entertaining some friends at a banquet, which was being held in honor of some musical event. He directed his servant to show the boy into the dining-room. The boy was somewhat dazed at the bright lights and festivity, and looked expectantly around at the company. "Well, my boy," said the host, "you would become my pupil, would you? Well, you know a violinist must have talent. Now, what note is this?" and the host tapped a wine glass, partially filled with wine, with a fork. "C sharp," instantly responded the lad.
Then the violin teacher went around the table, striking the various glasses of the guests, which, being filled to a greater or less extent, gave different tones when struck by the fork. The lad not only named each tone correctly, but when the tone given forth was slightly lower or higher than the true tone, told how much flat or sharp it was. This extreme sensitiveness of ear so struck the violin teacher that he at once arranged to instruct the lad, who became his favorite pupil, and, later on, one of the most eminent violinists in Europe.
The faculty of relative pitch can be cultivated to a great degree, as is evidenced by the fact that a major portion of a sight-singing class learns to sing well at sight without the aid of an instrument. Anyone who can sing well at sight has the faculty of relative pitch. Absolute pitch seems to be more of a natural gift, and it is claimed by some authorities that it cannot be cultivated. In this I think they are wrong, since the great majority of violinists possess the faculty to some extent.
Many violinists, who might not be able to name any note off-hand, on hearing it are able, from long experience, to tune their violins to the correct pitch without the aid of any instrument, tuning fork or pitch pipe. This proves that they possess the power of remembering pitch to, at least, some degree.
People not musicians, in all sorts of trades, are often able to remember pitch to a really remarkable degree. An English writer, Gardiner, in his famous work, the Music of Nature, says of this: "By practice the discriminating powers of the ear may be carried to the highest degree of perfection. The success of thieves and gamblers depends on its quickness. Since the money has been recoined, the regularity with which each piece is struck gives them a uniformity of sound that is very remarkable, the half-crowns having the sound of
perfect-pitch.jpg"Bankers discover the least deviation from the proper tone of a coin, by which they readily discover the counterfeits. In the tossing up of money, gamblers can perceive a difference in the sound, whether a coin falls on one side or the other. Pye-men are furnished with a covering to their baskets, made of a smooth plate of metal, by which they take in the unwary, as they readily tell which side is uppermost by the sound upon the plate, though concealed by the hand."
A host of other examples could be instanced. Hucksters and street venders, crying their wares, from long habit invariably do so at the same pitch.
In an instrument like the violin, where we have a smooth fingerboard, without frets or other mechanical means of finding the correct pitch, it goes without saying that the violin student should devote much time to systematically improving his musical hearing. He should cultivate his powers of recognizing tones by their pitch as far as is possible, and should also study sight singing, so that he is able to tell how a piece of music sounds by simply looking over it, without an instrument in his hand. A student possessing this skill will make three times the progress that one will who gropes about over the fingerboard without first hearing in his mind the tones of the passage he is trying to produce.

<< The Beginnings of Instruction in Organ Playing     Violin Questions Answered >>

Monthly Archives


The Publisher of The Etude Will Supply Anything In Music