Perfect pitch

Laura said: Jun 10, 2011
 
Suzuki Association Member
Piano
358 posts

A few months ago, there was a dicussion about perfect pitch, in which I shared that I don’t believe that having perfect pitch is necessarily all that helpful. (I have it myself.)

However, some recent observations have caused me to question my position somewhat. I still firmly believe that developing a good sense of relative pitch is by far more useful and applicable to a young musician than relying on the “crutch” of identifying notes through perfect pitch. However, I now wonder if perfect pitch is beneficial in the specific area of Suzuki students learning to read music, after a beginning foundation of learning only by ear.

My hunch is that students with perfect pitch are able to develop an aural memory of the true/absolute sound of each written note. When they begin the journey of sight reading, they already have an accurate way to predict what the notes should sound like, and correct themselves if they are wrong. (For example, their finger will naturally reach for an A once they “hear” the A in their head upon seeing it on the page.) If they have been staring at their Suzuki book during lessons and practice for any amount of time before formally learning to read, perhaps the formal start to music reading is bypassed altogether, since there has been a head start to the sight/pitch correlation.

I grew up with Suzuki piano, and with perfect pitch, and didn’t struggle much with the transition to music reading. I remember finding it rather natural to learn to visually correlate the written notes to the sounds of the pitches I already knew. I honestly don’t know if these factors are related, or if it was simply a coincidence.

To the best of my knowledge, none of my piano students have perfect pitch, and many of them seem to be having a harder time learning to read than I would like. Although I use good sight reading materials and always teach about intervals, etc., it’s a very challenging process for some. On the other other hand, a few of them pick up the reading skills quite well, so perhaps perfect pitch has nothing to do with it.

I’d love to hear other thoughts and experiences on this.

Jennifer Visick said: Jun 10, 2011
Jennifer VisickForum Moderator
Suzuki Association Member
Viola, Suzuki in the Schools, Violin
998 posts

I would think that reading intervals is more important than reading absolute pitches, especially if one is ever called upon to transpose anything, or to read a different clef…

MaryLou Roberts said: Jun 11, 2011
MaryLou RobertsTeacher Trainer
Institute Director
Suzuki Association Member
Guitar
Ann Arbor, MI
244 posts

I have a colorful alphabet sequence up on the wall of my studio. I use it to point to for reading, because many times the students are looking at a note as an individual event, and not relating it in terms of up and down, skip or step, The alphabet shows the relationship of the notes. It was also in the room of my Kodaly classes during my undergraduate study. This has improved the reading of many students who were having a hard time with reading. I spent many years as a child trying to read notes with my piano teachers, so I can say from personal experience this is the missing link for many students. Up or down, skip or step or leap….very simple!

Grace said: Jun 11, 2011
 Violin
110 posts

My one student who has perfect pitch had the WORST time learning to read! I think she was such an audio/aural learner and could play everything by ear so easily, so she hated to sightread. She joined the local youth orchestra in hopes of learning to read music, but she still faked her way through the first 2 years by playing everything by ear and memorizing her parts! Now, at age 10 she can finally read music for real. I think something just ‘clicked’ for her and it all came together, but I don’t think perfect pitch had much to do with it.

Noriko Nancy Tsuchihashi said: Jun 11, 2011
 Piano
3 posts

From my experience: If Suzuki method students start young enough by age 5, and parents follow the homework instructions of the teacher (listen to CD, sing melody lines in solfege), I have found perfect pitch is attained. Some more solidly than others, but definitely recognition of pitch seems natural. Keeping perfect pitch into the teen years varies probably because the amount of time spent listening and practicing varies.

Regarding the transition to reading music: I don’t think it hurts having perfect pitch, but becoming a sufficient reader of music coincides more with age and the mental ability to digest the language of written music or words. Though it is important to introduce the components of written music from very early on (3 years and up), as keroppi mentioned, things start ‘clicking’ at around the age of 10 for most of my students. Keen readers of books seem to become better readers of music early as well. The students who struggle with reading are usually not motivated to become readers.

I am sure all us teachers have tons of great ideas to assist this process. It is impossible to have enough ideas, no?
Patience on the teachers side as well as the parent is essential, it is not a short road.
Developing a child through music is a long process, and hopefully a happy one.

Suzuki piano teacher, 30 years experience with over 150 students total.

N. Tsuchihashi

Sarah said: Jun 13, 2011
 
Suzuki Association Member
Violin
9 posts

MaryLou Roberts

I have a colorful alphabet sequence up on the wall of my studio.

Is this chart still in print? Did you make it yourself? I’d love to see what it looks like.

Laura said: Jun 13, 2011
 
Suzuki Association Member
Piano
358 posts

I absolutely appreciate (and am always seeking) suggestions about helping students learn to read—so thank you for the helpful input! I look forward to more, perhaps in a separate discussion.

However, for this discussion I am simply curious about whether or not perfect pitch plays a role in how easily a Suzuki student can learn to read. While I have quite a number of years of teaching behind me, I haven’t had enough students to know if there is indeed any effect. For me and some friends I know, I believe it helped, but there is no way to know for sure, since I do not know what it is like not to have perfect pitch.

As for whether or not perfect pitch can be developed, I am uncertain about that, considering several families I know in which all siblings were raised in a similar Suzuki program and environment, and some of them have perfect pitch but their siblings don’t. I also wonder whether developing a sense of perfect pitch (but not true perfect pitch) can be easier to develop on stringed instruments than for piano, because of the different tonal colors in the four strings. But again, a separate discussion.

MaryLou Roberts said: Jun 14, 2011
MaryLou RobertsTeacher Trainer
Institute Director
Suzuki Association Member
Guitar
Ann Arbor, MI
244 posts

I love the alphabet cards from the Music Mind Games, which I ordered through Young Musicians, but I’m sure they are available on the web too. They have been very useful for all levels of reading, reading readiness, intervals, staff board games etc.

Yes, we combined two threads, I see reading music and pitch memory as two separate skills. One visual, one aural. They relate to each other. The only advantage would be that instead of reading notes being purely an intellectual skill, mapping up and down, intervals and processing that, the sound would be included. That could be confusing to sort out, or really helpful. I have seen both. I would allow time for processing, and lots of repetition so that the child sorts out what is going on internally. In this respect, the child with perfect pitch and the child without may be treated the same in a class situation.

Mark said: Jun 17, 2011
 
Suzuki Association Member
20 posts

I feel that the whole question of ‘Perfect Pitch’ as a desirable skill for a musician is somewhat overrated. I often talk with people who are not musicians and sometimes they ask me, “Do you have Perfect Pitch?” as if to imply that having it is the sole criteria for justifying my existence as a musician. I even hate the word, ‘Perfect’, because it implies that just because I can make my vocal chords produce 220 cycles/sec on command or that I can hear that a piece is in C major, does it mean that I have a more sophisticated ear than another musician who can’t? Rather, developing keen listening skills and demonstrating a love and passion for music seems to be more fitting qualities for which musicians should strive.

Music notation is a remarkable but vastly complex representation and conceptual system that has evolved over hundreds of years. On the surface, some aspects of the system are down right confusing to a novice reader: seven letter names for the musical alphabet with 12 different pitches?! Young children need to be taught the difference in meaning between a note that rests on the line of the musical staff and a note that rests between the lines. So just accessing the notational system requires a huge amount of knowledge, skill development and practice. And maybe after a student has figured out the system and then how it all fits on the instrument, then maybe he/she might correlate the fact that the note on the upper line in the base clef “A”, can be recognized consistently as a frequency of 220 cycles/sec (perfect pitch)

Those of us who have taken 30 years to figure it all out sometimes take sight reading for granted. This is why there appears to be such a range of ability in sight reading among students, because some of them have figured out more the skills necessary to access the musical notational system and some haven’t. From experience, I have discovered that reading skills can be broken down and taught separately from the a priori Suzuki ear training. The process of sight reading begins with my twinklers. For a long while this process appears to have nothing to do with reading notes on a musical staff. I don’t even tell them that reading is what they are learning. They figure it out eventually, but by the time they’re at the end of book 1 and the ear/hand Suzuki ear training skills are firmly rooted, they can sight read simple pieces. Their basic skills continue to be developed and practiced so that they are fully functional readers by the time they are in book 4.
So, is having “Perfect Pitch” helpful in Sight Reading? Perhaps. But it is only one component out of many in the complex of skills that we call Sight Reading.

Lori Bolt said: Jun 17, 2011
Lori Bolt
Suzuki Association Member
Piano
San Clemente, CA
226 posts

I agree with CelloRocks1 that having perfect pitch is overrated. I do not feel it has much to do with success in reading notation, but is probably helpful in producing beautiful tone that is “on pitch” for students of instruments where intonation might be an issue. I teach piano, so do not need to deal with other than tone quality since the pitches are predetermined (and hopefully in tune!).

I believe, as others mentioned, that some ear training in interval recognition would be a valuable aid in learning to read notation or in becoming a good sight reader. With that kind of foundation in intervals, a student can “hear” the music as he/she looks through what is about to be attempted. I should think that mistakes would be minimized, or at least recognized quickly and corrrected.

I do not have perfect pitch, I do not know of any of my students who have/had it. I learned to read notation well as an accompanist forced into different “on the spot” situations.

Lori Bolt

Celia Jones said: Jun 18, 2011
 Violin
72 posts

There was an interesting article on absolute pitch in New Scientist magazine recently.
http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20928011.300-finely-tuned-minds-the-secret-of-perfect-pitch.html

Laura said: Jun 20, 2011
 
Suzuki Association Member
Piano
358 posts

CelloRocks1

I feel that the whole question of ‘Perfect Pitch’ as a desirable skill for a musician is somewhat overrated. I often talk with people who are not musicians and sometimes they ask me, “Do you have Perfect Pitch?” as if to imply that having it is the sole criteria for justifying my existence as a musician. …. Rather, developing keen listening skills and demonstrating a love and passion for music seems to be more fitting qualities for which musicians should strive.

My sentiments exactly! I would even venture to say that it is “extremely” overrated. Having perfect pitch myself, for the most part I have found it to be a frustration, an extraneous awareness that actually delayed my development of good listening skills such as interval recognition. Instead of learning to truly hear intervals, I would simply indentify the notes and calculate or memorize whatever I needed to from there, instead of learning to listen. I’ve gone into more detail on this in a past thread.

One of the few instances in which I recall it being somewhat useful was in the area of “mental sight-reading” in which I could stare at notes, know what they were supposed to sound like before playing them, and then confirm whether or not my playing was correct. In that sense, I suppose I cheated in that skill, too, because I learned to read on a per-note basis rather than by learning to visually recognize intervals. (Let’s just say that I had a rough adjustment every time I needed to learn to read a new clef!)

But the bottom line was that I believe I did learn to read quite easily as a young Suzuki student, as far as anyone would care to notice without knowing was was going on (or not) inside my brain. By the time I started formal theory training and singing in a choir, all of the other skills eventually caught up. I started wondering if my experience is unique, or common to others with perfect pitch—hence my curiosity in starting this thread. I suppose that all of you posters are right, though—musical skill development is quite a complex process, and students may each have their own route to picking them up, depending on both on their individual strengths and weaknesses, and on how they have been taught.

Thanks for your most insightful comments to this thread. I’m eager to read more.

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