Absolute pitch

Don’t get me started on absolute pitch - but I have forked off from ‘Contemporaneous hearing’ and started a separate topic! What a disadvantage this is, hearing other pitch standards as wrong (which is what sufferers from this condition tell me), or flat, or sharp etc. And organs at all different pitches, and chorton and kammerton. I’d would not want to have this ‘skill’ one bit. It’s limited to A440 or whatever pitch standard they are trained on and seems to be set in concrete.

Violinists must not have absolute pitch as a strict requirement as it heavily impedes proper intonation, which is not equal by any means. Of course the main pathological symptom of this condition is equal temperament. Dear me.

Bach did not need super accuracy of hearing to tune a harpsichord by ear, just good perception and an understanding of the whole point of tempering. I, and most players and makers can sit down and tune a decent ad hoc temperament easily. We all do it. No need to follow strict recipes always. And you can bet he did not aim to set A440.0. Just tune to whatever pitch the other instruments or voices demand in terms of their tuning, or if playing solo, whatever pitch the harpsichord is happy with at the time and season. I have expressed this poorly but you know what I mean.

What evidence is there for absolute pitch in Early Music anyway, when people did not have tuning references or tuning forks until quite late in the show?

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I have never had absolute pitch, nor claimed to. But here’s a curious thing. I have always been a keyboard player but a couple of years ago I decided to take up violin. I got a superb instrument in baroque setup, gut strings, and a truly magnificent baroque bow. The full kit. The violin seems to want to sit nicely at around A415. Here’s what I found that really surprised the pants off me. I suddenly discovered I can tune the A to 415 pretty spot on by ear, without a meter (but checked with not one, but several) and I am within 10-15 (OK, maybe a bit more) cents of the pitch. I can do this at will, repeatable, and demonstrable. Not only that. I also got a very fine modern violin, steel strung, at A440. I can do the same with that violin but at the higher pitch. I am not making this up!

How this can be I have no idea at all. Someone suggested it just comes from years of tuning harpsichords and I just know the sound. It must be something like that. And yet, ask me to identify the pitch of a recording and I cannot even guess.

The only thing I can think of is that the brain is referring to memory of A415 (or A440) and then further picking up a lot of subtle side clues, such as the clearly evident resonances you can hear in any good violin, subtle sensing of string tension, and bow pressure and resistance, and harmonic content of the vibrating string. These would all seem to be second or third order effects, but perhaps they all add up in these complex neural networks of ours. I don’t know.

I never heard of anyone else having this specific reference pitch ability (without full on absolute pitch). Maybe I am just weird (people do say so :slight_smile: )

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In the days of aural tuning from an A fork, many piano tuners had fairly accurate memories of that one pitch.

@EdS Yes I think it’s the same thing. It’s funny that I am good with A415 and A440, but don’t ask me about A392 (maybe less often set by me).

I always grip the fork with my teeth, so maybe the memory of the vibration rate is embedded in my brain that way!

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I recently heard a short video on Facebook in which a young performer (cellist?) said that when she began playing early music she developed the ability to adjust her absolute pitch to different pitch standards for different performances. I would imagine, for example, that that’s what Mozart did.

One suggestion picked up from a post from here from years ago (though not necessarily one that I buy). The assertion was made that there is a barely audible vibration from the electric current in the wiring. Perhaps, subconsciously, you are aware of that as a reference pitch and are therefore able to use that to tune to a (limited) number of pitches.

Just offering someone else’s two cents,


Hi @RayLurie the problem I see with that is that Australian mains frequency is 50 Hz and for United States of America it is 60 Hz. How then would people from different countries arrive at the same pitch? And neither 50 nor 60 divide 440 or 415 in any harmonic way.

Let us not forget that there were fixed pitches in the lives of people back then: for instance, the local church bells, the chimes on the family clock, and even the pitch of the local church organ that you sang to every week must have been subconsciously memorised.

I spend a lot of time in my study, where my grandfather’s grandfather clock lives, and I am sure that I should notice immediately if the e-flat pitch of the hourly chime were to change!


@Pickett That’s a very good point! I like your clock - your grandfather’s grandfather clock. Marvellous.

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Dear Andrew:

Greetings from Germany and may all on this forum have a good 2023!

I have had a very good sense of pitch from a fairly early age. This was very useful for singing in choirs and later for solfége. I frequently had problems identifying harmonies though as I did not accept the character of the chords but was analyzing the individual notes to calculate what the harmony was. In general, “absolute pitch” has been an advantage in my carrier as a Tonmeister (balance engineer/recording producer).

Over the years, frequently working with ensembles and soloists in the “Alte Musik” tradition, performing at lower pitches, as well as recording and playing many historical organs with pitches all over the place has led me to have increasing problems of uncertainty! I need some time to adapt and to stop mentally transposing the score.

The recording school in Warsaw did some brilliant research in the early 80’s into absolute pitch. Without going into the details of their experiments, they found that persons which had this ability could usually reproduce a few pitches very accurately and other notes were approximate but not as repeatedly consistent.


Andrew Wedman

How exactly? Do you ask musicians to change their tuning? I’m curious.

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In Peak Ericsson states that a letter writer to a newspaper in Augsburg in 1763 wrote that young Mozart could identify any note played at any pitch on any instrument, even if he happened to be in another room when the note was played.

[Peak is a book about how to learn exceptional skills. I have found it helpful in my quest to recreate the ability to play keyboard after recovery from a hand injury.]

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I wonder how true these Mozart stories are. Who was the ‘letter writer’? Mozart would have been seven. Supposedly at 5 he wrote K1a, 1b. and 1c. I’m doubtful. Any instrument, possibly tuned at different pitches? Hmm.

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There may be other historically accurate ways to hold the thing. There’s
an, I think, Elizabethan-era manual on English pronunciation which says
something like “For E, thrust the tongue towards the great teeth, or
gums for want of teeth.”

A little before the tuning fork, but dental health was probably about
the same.

I found out the above-mentioned letter writer was ‘Anonymous’. Perhaps this was an early example of a purposeful media marketing campaign. Or a paid sockpuppet. :slight_smile:

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Or perhaps, hard as it may be to believe, Mozart did have exceptionally acute pitch recognition. There is no absolute proof either way.
The tuning fork was invented ca. 1711, and most extant 18th century tuning forks give pitch in the vicinity of A=420 Hz, so it was not an era of freewheeling pitch anarchy, particularly in the realm of professional musicians who would have considered a tuning fork part of their professional tool kits. If I recall right, Handel’s tuning fork is at A=422. [I don’t have a copy of _The Story of A_. Damned expensive, last time I checked.]

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It occurs to me that we have a naturally occurring phenomenon, the capacity to remember and recognize audible frequencies with great accuracy which, since it is most easily recognized in musicians, is named according to the way musicians recognize it, i.e. as the ability to recognize or produce 12 fixed frequencies of the musical scale, and it is called absolute pitch or perfect pitch, and we tend to recognize it in terms of our modern, highly controlled (usually) fixed pitch keyboards.

It is not easy for us to imagine what this facility is like outside of our fixed pitch ideas. What is it like for a non-musician? Can we really believe that it never existed before the establishment of an international pitch standard of A=440 Hz and that it only works in 100 cent intervals over a range of 8 octaves.

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Just a detail, but A=440 Hz is hardly used anymore by modern symphony orchestras. A=442 Hz and even higher is used nowadays.

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@FrankMento exactly. All the absolutists are going to have to recalibrate. Some European orchestras are even higher, and you cant even buy an A440 recorder from the main makers any more. Same with oboes.

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