“You must have perfect pitch.” I have heard those words many times from clients through the years. What is perfect pitch? Is it necessary to tune a piano? Where did the concept of pitch originate?
Musical pitch is simply a designation of how high or low a sound is perceived to be. It may go through different ranges referred to musically as a bass tone, a tenor or mid-range tone or a high treble tone for example. Scientifically, since musical sounds are perceived by the ear because of the vibrating air waves that reach the ear drum, the term “hertz”, or cycles per second of vibration, is a measurement used to designate a specific pitch. 880 hertz would be a very high “A” sung by a soprano female voice whereas 130.81 hertz would be a low “C” sung by a male bass. Who determined which musical note would be designated by a specific hertz measurement? A440, or the note “A” above middle “C” on a piano has a relatively modern history as the assigned frequency for International Standard Pitch to which most every Western musical instrument tunes to.
The evolution of adopting A440 hertz as a standard for pitch is an interesting study. Historically, there were not many efforts to do so until the 1700’s. Tuning forks, invented around 1711, have been found with various pitches for “A”. Through the following centuries, the pitch for “A” was set within a huge range anywhere from about 409 – 480 hertz. This range actually changes the pitch to a completely different note and would make the note “A” sound like a flat “G#” or a sharp “A#”. Within the same town, the pitch of the local church pipe organ could be completely different from other keyboard instruments in the same town or church. In 1936, the American Standards Association recommended A440 as the standard. Then in 1955 the International Organization for Standardization or ISO adopted the same designation for standard pitch, reaffirming it in 1975.
As a separate measurement related to tuning, the term “cents” is used to determine how far from the theoretically correct pitch a note is sounding. The distance between adjacent notes on a musical instrument is 100 cents. Certification testing for piano tuners demand that a tuner be capable of setting the note “A” to within ¼ of a cent from A440 – very exacting indeed. However, aside from this starting point as the standard, the other theoretically correct hertz measurements are somewhat irrelevant. Why? The reason is that they do not sound right to the human ear when generated from a stringed instrument. Stringed instruments have a peculiar characteristic known as “inharmonicity”. This is what occurs because a string will cease vibrating at the ends before the middle stops vibrating. The effect is that the string length appears shortened and its resultant harmonics will rise in pitch. One of the reasons why electronic tuners have become popular with guitar players is because of the frustration they experience while not being able to reconcile this effect of inharmonicity. A guitar player will tune his guitar using the strings pressed against the 5th fret method, only to find it is out of tune when they check the harmonics, and vice versa. The tuning needs to be compromised or “tempered” to sound correct. Multiply these 6 strings to the 200 plus strings on a piano and your admiration for the feat of an aural piano tuner should naturally increase.
The modern concept of perfect pitch refers to the ability of an individual to recognize or recreate a musical note pitch as being a “G” or a “C” or an “A” etc. I admire those individuals though it would have been somewhat impossible about 100 years ago. On a good day, I too have “perfect pitch” and can recognize these notes as can many musicians. However, a note that is an “E” can be flat or sharp on purpose because of having to be “tempered”. A person with perfect pitch will not normally know if a note is several or many cents flat or sharp. But this is not acceptable for a tuner. An aural tuner is held to a much higher standard though he may not possess “perfect pitch” How is that so? Tuners know how to hear the separate parts of a note – the fundamental and ascending harmonics. Often, an experienced piano tuner can hear up to the 10th harmonic of the lowest notes on a piano. The science and the art of tuning comes with knowing how to tune so that these harmonics and inharmonicity all work together so that a piano can be “tempered” to sound in tune as a unique instrument. In fact no 2 pianos are tuned exactly alike because of differences in string length and diameter, bridge placement, tonal qualities etc. Only a trained ear, can adequately determine what is needed to attack the challenging tuning process.
So when someone asks me if I have perfect pitch or tells me their “nephew” has perfect pitch, I am not intimidated. We experienced tuners can dance circles around those revered individuals because we live in the world of cents, inharmonicity, equal temperament and artistic choice of a scientific nature. I wish the question “Do you have perfect pitch?” had a simpler answer. But I marvel at the creation of music, sound, the human ear, and the analytical brain that can sort it all out for us.