NewsBlog Editorâ€™s Note: This post is the second of a series written by CMIE Research Fellow Anthony Green, as part of the documentation for Greenâ€™s CMIE Research Internship. See other posts in this series here.
Perfect pitch, absolute pitch, relative pitch – all terms thrown around meaning basically one thing: if someone says to someone else, “Sing an ‘A’!” this person can probably do it. Of course, some can do it more accurately than others. More often than not, such a skill is used by those born with this unique ability. For instance, some of my friends have such a sensitive perfect pitch that they can name the notes of the partials of a tire squeaking as it skids. These very same friends of mine have great intonation when performing, and can tune guitars and other string instruments without a piano, a tuning fork, a pitch pipe, an electronic tuner, or other devices which may or may not be readily available when tuning.Â
Can solfege be a step in developing such a unique technique? According to a study done by the University of California, San Francisco, absolute or perfect pitch is defined as thus: “Absolute pitch, commonly referred to as perfect pitch, is an intriguing cognitive trait involved in music perception and is defined as the ability to identify the pitch of a musical tone without an external reference pitch. To be considered an absolute pitch possessor, an individual must have the ability to identify pitches accurately and instantaneously.” It is a purely cognitive ability, which implies that it is a trait relating to one’s process of perception and memory.Â
In Professor Scripp’s Solfege for Singers class, the students are asked to remember “themes” – the beginning tonic excerpts of popular, tonal works – in different keys. Over the course of this semester, most of the sight-singing exercises used have been in the key of C-major. For this key, the student used a Mozart theme from the Marriage of Figaro – sol-sol mi, sol-sol mi, sol-sol fa re, fa-fa re, fa-fa re, fa-fa mi do. Such an easy melody, whether known before the class or learned in less than 10 seconds during class, has made for an extremely accessible C-major theme for one’s memory. Without having heard a note in the class, Professor Scripp will pull out an exercise, have the students examine it, then ask the students to “sing our theme in C-major.” Without fail, every student will more or less begin on the same note. And during the 3 or 4 seconds of singing the theme, the tonic is eventually established and agreed upon. All of this is done without playing the piano, using a tuning fork, a pitch pipe, an electric tuner – in other words, “without an external pitch reference.”Â
These observations have lead me to believe that a goal of solfege, relating to the one the class has already established of reinforcing one’s relative pitch, is to develop or discover an absolute pitch ability within oneself. I have not observed any discoveries in the class as of yet, but I have observed the development of an excellent pitch memory in a couple of students in the class. Knowing that absolute pitch is a cognitive ability, solfege can greatly aid in pitch memory to a point where one can ask someone else, “Do you have a G memorized?”, and this person can respond by singing the Marriage of Figaro theme’s first pitch. After this very basic step, two steps can be taken: 1) the solfege student can develop a excellent relative pitch, which would not only include the ability to sing any interval up or down from the memorized pitch, but also include the ability to reduce intervals to their shortest distances. For example, when I sing an A, I am inclined to sing an A4 in a falsetto. However, if I hear a E-flat2, then I need to either hear that note two octaves up or hear my A two octaves down. Such an ability has been worked on by the students in this class without directly naming this ability. (Professor Scripp encourages the students to jump octaves and sing different parts when sight reading polyphonic works.) And 2) the student can eventually memorize every pitch, and exercise this pitch memory to perfection. In a way, Professor Scripp advocates this method above others, but his method is very subtle, and works on a subconscious level. While the students have not yet sang exercise in every major and minor key yet, Professor Scripp feels it is best to memorize pieces in every key. When this was stated in class, I thought that this would be difficult. But has a music student ever contemplated the amount of repertoire stored in his or her brain? Finding tonal repertoire in each major and minor key might not be as hard as one thinks, if one is a music student. Pianists – if you have played through the beginning of each prelude of the Well-Tempered Clavier, book I or book II, then you can easily develop absolute pitch.Â
I must emphasize, however, that this was never directly stated in class, and it is not ever worked on directly in class. If one uses solfege as a method of pitch memory to develop a mild to strong absolute pitch ability, I highly suggest working with an external pitch device extensively in the beginning. I emphasize this because the “sol” in the Marriage of Figaro theme sometimes is a “sol-flat.”
Aside: throughout the semester, I have also briefly participated as a student. The class has helped me memorized an A, a G, an E, and a C. Consequently, when one of my choirs in Providence recently sang a cappella at an elderly person’s home and I did not bring my pitch pipe, we survived.