Monday, February 12, 2007

More on Pitch and Intonation

Some people are born with a natural sense of musical intonation, a few with perfect or absolute pitch, and others with an ear that even without training can tell if music they hear is in tune. For most, this is a skill that can be developed, either through careful listening while practicing on an instrument, or with the help of a dedicated teacher. Then there are those who are simply tone deaf. Strangely, people in all these categories sometimes end up in the field of music.

Having perfect pitch is both a blessing and a curse. It works as a parlor trick to amaze people by having someone press different keys on the piano and instantly being able to tell what note it is, or hearing a foghorn of a ship or ferry and say that it is a “C”. I’ve found it a curse when I’ve had to play with an organ tuned to A=435, or to listen to ‘authentic’ performances a quarter tone flat, as I hear notes but they make no sense. It is similar to hearing a language that sounds familiar but none of the words are understandable. For a Finn, listening to Hungarian is like that; yet to an outsider the languages may sound quite similar, both being members of the same linguistic family. Luckily, as enough people with perfect pitch have had problems with the ‘baroque’ tuning, the standard seems to have come down to A=415, a semitone flat and fully acceptable to us, even if seemingly transposed down a half step.

A pianist needs not to worry about intonation, and even those who have an excellent sense of intervals and pitch in general, get used to the fully tempered scale where everything is a little out of tune. Often a violinist, who also plays the piano, wants to play music as he hears it on the keyboard, and sounds strangely out of tune to another string player. The ear is adaptable: what is a ‘natural’ scale in Western music is not so for many other cultures and their instruments. Unless introduced to our music early on, our system of whole and semitones might seem very foreign to them. Those of us studying world music are well aware of this, evident for example on the different tuning systems of the gamelan.

The ear is also faulty: when we hear a perfect octave, fifth or fourth, they actually are not so. Before the invention of electronic devices that showed the sound wave frequency, piano tuning was an art form. Everyone in that profession knew the fact that if you started on a note in the middle and tuned the piano in perfect octaves up and down, the top and the bottom were far apart, although mathematically they should have matched. Every cellist and violist is aware that they need to tune their lowest string, a “C”, a little bit higher, especially if the music calls for a long note on that open string. Only three perfects fifths are needed for this. The phenomenon probably happens because nature avoids all types of perfect harmonies, as every scientist knows. An immaculate sounding octave is slightly more that 1:2, and none of the ‘perfect’ intervals are just that.

Just like a string’s natural harmonics, brass instruments work on the overtone system, and a good musician realizes when he has to compensate to match other instruments in an ensemble. Even on the violin (or any other string instrument without frets), after teaching a student to play faultlessly in tune, when it comes to playing chords, all the previous rules have to be tossed into a waste basket. A major sixth that sounds ever so sweet appears out of tune when the notes are played separately: the top note is a bit flat. In a string quartet players need to adjust constantly, especially those in charge of the inner voices, to achieve perfect harmonies. This can take years to achieve; then all that goes out the window when playing together with a wind or brass instrument. A clarinet’s ‘perfect’ intonation doesn’t match that of strings, and it is evident when playing a quintet for that combination, such as the masterpiece by Brahms. In a symphony orchestra perfect intonation in the strings is not all that important: sixteen violinists interpreting the same note slightly differently usually create a ‘rich’ sound. No wonder orchestra strings players’ sense of pitch suffers over time.

What happens to all the people without an ear who end up in music? If spoon fed from early age, they may learn to play the violin by simply remembering where to place their fingers. It is common to find singers who are in the business simply because of their capable vocal cords, yet are incapable of reading music or hearing intervals, not to mention counting. Many accompanists have become ‘vocal coaches’ even if they can’t sing themselves. They just hammer out songs and opera arias repeatedly on the piano, and the singer learns her/his repertoire by imitation. A pianist can be tone deaf as long as he has some sense of rhythm. Some ability to read music helps. But being able to type doesn’t make for a great writer! Strangely, some ‘intonation challenged’ people even end up on the podium: one cannot beat time out of tune. These limitations become evident when a conductor tries to fix a blatantly dissonant chord in the brass, and tells an individual to raise his pitch when it should be lowered and vice versa. Often these musicians are able to fix the problem themselves, just by listening to each other more carefully, and the satisfied conductor happily takes the credit for it. But then, blessed are the ignorant.

“Intonation” © Jurgen Gorg