Saturday, December 04, 2004

Origins of Absolute Pitch

Absolute pitch, the ability to name or produce a note of an isolated pitch, is very rare in our culture. Less than 1 in 10,000 people of the general population have this rare ability. Characteristics of absolute pitch are a mystery, and its origin is unknown. Today, I will discuss the features of absolute pitch, experiments to explain absolute pitch, and discuss the framework proposed for the origin of absolute pitch based on the experiments.

Evidence shows that people who are unable to name isolated pitches still have a partial form of absolute pitch. An experiment conducted by Terhardt and Ward in 1982, found that musicians who did not have absolute pitch were able to judge whether a song they knew was played in the correct key. Likewise, in 1989, Halpern asked subjects with no musical background to hum the first few notes of familiar songs on different occasions. Their pitches were surprisingly consistent each time. Another experiment in 1994 was conducted by Levitin, in which subjects choose two songs, which had only been performed by one musical group, and were asked to hum, whistle, or sing the melody. Levitin found that 44% of the subjects came within two semitones of the accurate pitch for both songs.

Although absolute pitch is most common among highly accomplished musicians, they usually lack the ability to perform other musical tasks. For example, judgments of musical intervals and registers are not always accurate. Studies have shown that pitch is related to the languages or dialects individuals have been exposed to. The pitch range of a person’s speaking voice is related to that person’s dialect rather than to physiological characteristics, such as height and weight. In 1995, Schlaug, Jancke, Huang, and Steinmetz were the first to document that musicians with absolute pitch tend to exhibit a different brain structure, most commonly leftward asymmetry, than those without absolute pitch.

Lennenberg pointed out that adults and young children acquire absolute pitch in different ways, like learning a second language. If a second language is acquired after puberty, it is frequently spoken with a “foreign accent” and contains grammatical errors. Lennenberg included that there is a critical period, which extends to puberty, and is a crucial time for acquiring speech and language. Studies of second language acquisition have proven Lennenberg’s theory to be true. Individuals who were first exposed to a second language in early childhood were found to be more proficient in that language than children ages 4 to 6 and adults. Relating this to music, absolute pitch can be acquired in adulthood; however this occurs only through extensive training. When young children acquire absolute pitch, they do it unconsciously without specific training. Also, absolute pitch that is acquired as an adult does not have the same ease or preciseness than if it was acquired earlier in life.

There is also evidence that absolute pitch is related to the age of musical training. In 1998, a survey of musicians and music students was conducted by Baharloo, Johnston, Service, Gitschier, and Freimer. Figure 1 shows the results of the survey.

Figure 1

Age training began

4 and under




12 and over

Percentage of those with absolute pitch






Clearly, there is a decline of those with absolute pitch as the beginning training age increases.

The link between absolute pitch and speech becomes even clearer when evidence from tone languages, such as Mandarin, Thai, and Vietnamese are considered. In these languages, words’ meanings are different based on the tones in which they are pronounced. For example, in Mandarin, the word “ma” means “mother” when spoken in first tone, “hemp” in the second tone, and “horse” in the third tone. Likewise, when a person with absolute pitch hears the note G, and identifies it as “G”, the person is also associating a certain pitch with a verbal description.

Which features of pitch are critical to conveying meaning in tone language? One hypothesis is that absolute pitch is treated by tone language speakers as a critical feature of speech. Three experiments were conducted to test this hypothesis.

Seven native speakers of Vietnamese, who had been living in the United States for periods ranging from a few months to 17 years and had received minimal or no musical training, were the subjects of the first experiment. Each subject was tested individually in two sessions. Each session they would read a list of 10 Vietnamese words in a microphone at a rate of one word every two seconds. The words covered the range of all of the tones in Vietnamese speech. All subjects produced pitch difference scores of less than 1.1 semitones, and two of the seven subjects produced pitch difference scores of less than 0.25 semitones. Therefore, the subjects must have been referring to stable absolute pitch patterns when enunciating the list of words.

The purpose of the second experiment was to test the results from the Vietnamese subjects to speakers of a different tone language. It was also conducted to see the differences in pitch if the same words were in enunciated on different days. Fifteen native speakers of Mandarin were asked to speak a list of 12 Mandarin words, which consisted of three words in each of the four Mandarin tones, put together so that the same tone did not occur two times in a row. In contrast to the first experiment, each subject was asked to read out the word list twice in each session with readings separated by 20 seconds. Consistencies were once again achieved. For all comparisons, 1/3 of the subjects produced difference scores of less than 0.25 semitones. The results backed up the hypothesis that the subjects were referring to stable absolute pitch templates when enunciating the words. Although the pitch differences found in comparing the readings from different days were very small, they underestimated the accuracy of the subjects’ absolute pitch pattern.

The first two experiments examined the performance of tone language speakers only. However, the third experiment was designed to see if speakers of an intonation language, such as English, would display the same pitch consistency. The experiment was the same as the first two, except native speakers of English were the subjects, and a list of 12 English words were used. The Mandarin and English speakers showed the same degree of pitch consistency in enunciating their word lists twice in succession, but the English speakers showed less pitch consistency across days.

The results of the three experiments support the hypothesis that absolute pitch is treated by tone language speakers as a critical feature of speech. English speakers were very consistent in the pitches which they articulated on different days. This may be related to the previous studies which showed that those who do not possess absolute pitch can still have a partial form of it. From the studies, we can now expect that speakers of tone language would acquire absolute pitch for music best in early childhood, and this ability would decline with increasing age.

For the rare cases of absolute pitch among people who haven’t been exposed to tone language, Deutsch hypothesized that the critical period for acquiring absolute pitch is unusually long. This unusually long critical period could be genetically determined and could also be associated with an unusual form of brain organization.

The results from the three experiments suggest that parts of the brain underlying absolute pitch originally evolved to help speech, and that it is now involved in processing absolute pitch for both speech and music.

Deutsch, Diana, Mark Dolson, and Trevor Henthorn. "Absolute Pitch, Speech, and Tone Language: Some Experiments and a Proposed Framework." Music Perception Vol. 21, No. 3 (2004): 339-356.

Tuesday, November 30, 2004


Journal of Singing-"What not to sing"

The author compared choosing a repertoire to choosing a wardrobe. Some topics discussed were choosing songs from appropriate time periods and of proper length. Like the texture of a fabric, the texture of a song should fit a singers voice. Specific pitfalls mentioned included the fact that certain instruments might sound bad with a singers timbre. Secondly, some songs are too big for a particular singer's voice. Finally, it is important to choose songs from appropriate time periods.

Journal of Singing-"how to sing Recitative"

Recitative is difficult to sing; this is a commonly accepted fact. To make recitative easier, there are several things a singer can do. First, singers should treat recit like a monologue and make it as speech like as possible. Recitative is the musical expression of speech, so it also helps to understand the language being sung. To actually memorize the notes, a singer should study the underlying harmonies. Finally, it always helps to study good performers and learn from them.

More stuff about being a singer

"Pursuing the Wrong Dream" By: Heather Antonissen
Classical Singer, November 2004

A singer's life is filled with conflict and struggle. Most of this struggle comes from within the singer as they face challenges. These challenges include staying healthy, having a fulfilling career and enjoying loving relationships. Often these desires are tainted by the attachment of a deeper emotional need. When the desire is obtained the emotional need is still unsatisfied or when the desire is obtained the emotional need grows even stronger. To ultimately find happiness, a singer must look within and examine their motives.

"What Not to Sing" By: Sharon Mabry
Journal of Singing, Volume 61, No. 2, November/December 2004

Compares the popular TV show What Not to Wear and the selection of attire with the singers selection of vocal repertoire. Explores date consciousness, fit, length, texture of material, color, appropriateness, and style. Just as an individual body must be taken into consideration when choosing attire so must an individual voice by taken into consideration when choosing repertoire. Choosing appropriate repertoire leads to a better vocal self image, self-confidence, and a clearer career direction.


"The First Year of Lessons"
-Beverly Strathmann
("The Clavier"- September 2004 Issue)

In this article, the author talks about the great joys of teaching a person how to play the piano who has never had any experience at all. The teacher begins the first lesson with a parent-student interview, and how practicing at home and lessons will work.
Before the student plays a note he/she is shown different pianos and compares them while they study the piano inside and out. Soon the student can't wait to play the piano and the teacher will demonstrate how to play their first complete piece. At the end of their first lesson, which is normally about 45 minutes, the student and teacher will review the practicing assignment. The begginner will recieve a foam ball to help the hand shape while playing. The student will leave with a smile and a look of anticipation as they begin piano lessons.
The author enjoys teaching these children and feels that being a student's first piano teacher is a rewarding responsibility.

"Practice Can Be A Pleasure"
-Jan Mittelsteadt
("The Clavier"- September 2004)

In this article the author discusses many practice methods that can be fun, but at the same time very helpful!
It begins by explaining that certain "jumps" in pieces are sometimes hard for students. The way to fix this is having the student practice the jumps silently. This can become a game; if the student does the jump five times in a row perfectly, then he/she gets to play the notes out loud. Sometimes in a piece the melody will pass between the two hands. When this happens, the student should practice the accompaniment parts slightly touching the keys, while playing the melody loud and with arm weight. One of the many other ways to teach good technique and practicing methods, is through accompanying and ensemble playing. To help students feel rhythm, the teacher will sing while they play the tunes.
All of these practice techniques and more, are only effective if the student practices consistently. A simple reward system may motivate young students to set aside time to practice everyday. The auther believes that teachers who develope a practice plan will help students to develope coordination, muscle control and a feel for rhythm. In the end, they will be helping students to learn music independently, which should be the goal of good teaching.

The Horn Call and The Instrumentalist

Playing! With Ease

Based on hornist Arthur Krehbiel’s theories on horn playing, tips are offered to students hoping to increase the ease with which they play the horn. His technique is mastered only when the embouchure is able to consistently buzz with little drain on the lips. Krehbiel advises his students to focus first on the music and the technique will effortlessly follow. In regards to minimizing embouchure movement, he suggested simply whistling through the horn instead of shaping each note with the embouchure. Not only will this technique create more ease in playing, but it will also increase the student’s endurance. In addition, this technique will reduce the amount of warm-up and practice time needed by the student. Krehbiel’s teachings encourage creating a musical line with relative ease in playing.

Coping with Stage Fright

Much of the stage fright experienced by performing musicians stems from early or mid-life negative feedback regarding their performances. This negative stress often originates from the disapproval of individuals close to the performer by constantly striving for the elusive “perfection” in playing. It is emphasized that the first and most important step in overcoming stage fright is uncovering the underlying cause for each individual. Before this is completed, little permanent progress can be made for the performer. Also, the visualization of tense performance situations or use of Inderal, a beta blocking drug, is suggested for some. All musicians who have mastered the art of performing are ale to enter a “Zen-like state” while on stage. The conclusions were based on the author’s performance anxiety and his consequent degree researching the physiological and psychological repercussions of stage fright for the individual.

Goode, Michael. “Coping with Stage Fright.” The Instrumentalist. June 2004: 25-27.

Stevens, Paul. “Playing! Wth Ease.” The Horn Call. Feb 2004: 94-95.

My two abstracts

Listen to the Fans
By Peter deVries

In this article, “Listen to the Fans”, popular music can be a great teaching technique. In it, it tells stories of teachers’ experiences with children and how popular music such as, the Spice Girls, can help teach important lessons in the classroom. Letting kids listen to what they want gets them in the mood to learn more about music. This article also gives tips to teachers on how to help children appreciate music and learn more about the different varieties out there. One teacher used the song, “When I Get You Alone” by the performer Thicke and compared it to the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The children listened to both and began to notice the differences as well as the similarities. The article demonstrates the fact that you can effectively teach with popular music and work in some classical every once in a while. In a nut shell, if you are a “fan” of a certain type of music, you are more likely to be interested in learning more about it, as are many elementary children.

Teaching Problem Solving in Practice
By James L. Byo

This article, “Teaching Problem Solving in Practice”, examines problem solving in instrumental music practice and is based on the notion that too many students, too much of the time, look and feel inadequate when they attempt to problem solve. For example, when practicing, a student comes to a difficult point in the song and instead of stopping and fixing it, he goes right on and ignores the problem. In the article, the author says practicing the difficult part over and over again at a slower tempo will help. The author also gives more advice on how to overcome problems in practicing. Problem solving is a learned skill and this article looks at both the effective and ineffective ways of teaching it. It also includes a list of a few things to help students face challenges in practicing. A few examples would be: choose a section of the piece that is challenging and play it through a few times perfectly and then move on. The article also gives many ideas to teachers on grading a practice session and lesson plans. Students shouldn’t feel inadequate and get down on themselves when they come to difficult parts in music. By teaching them how to effectively work at it, the student will have more confidence and will get a lot more out of their own practice time.

Saxophone Journal and Keyboard Companion

Saxophone Journal
"The Baritone Saxophone: Playing Techniques and Recommended Repertoire"
By: Jay C. Easton

The baritone saxophone is the larger relative of the tenor and alto saxophones. There are many important techniques and tips on learning how to play the baritone saxophone.

The differences between playing the baritone versus tenor and alto saxophones is addressed right away. On the baritone, low notes are more responsive and a softer reed is often needed. The issue of using sufficient air flow and support is a pertinent concern as well. These characteristics are critical to a good tone. Advice on how to improve a player’s support is suggested through exercises to stay relaxed among a variety of other tips. It is also important to be physically comfortable while playing and the article advises a player on the type of strap support that produces the best effect.

Finally, transposition and solo pieces for the baritone saxophone are introduced. How to transpose and which instruments work best as well as a list of over fifteen recommended solos is given. Each piece is graded on a scale of three to six with levels ranging from the advanced high school to first year college student material to very difficult pieces. There is also a one sentence summary of each of the pieces. In addition, a web address is provided to give the curious player even more suggestions in solo repertoire.

Keyboard Companion
"Let’s get Physical: Technique"
By: Stephen Cook, Christy Dolan, and Peter Mack

This article compiles the advice from three separate authors so that the reader can experience a variety of styles on how to teach technique in a fun way. The first author addresses the repetitiveness of practicing technique. This is related specially to scales and how changing the way they are practiced and performed makes it more interesting. Hanon exercises are also useful in developing quick fingers. These exercises can explore rhythmic variation, chromatic elements, key changes, etc. Finally, Schmitt exercises are suggested for developing “independence in the fingers.” It might make the exercises more interesting if the student must transpose the exercise to a different key or register.

The next author takes the reader through a chronological view of teaching technique. It begins with addressing technique at the very first lesson with how the piano works and the names of the keys. This teacher requires all technical exercises to be memorized so that the students can watch their own hands. Then, the teacher explores learning major keys and the circle of fifths. Finally, the issue of technique books and the pros and cons each possesses is addressed.

The final author covers how to use rewards or incentives, attitudes, and other devices to get the student excited about technique. Technical exercises must be performed at every lesson and the teacher’s attitude can determine how a student will respond. Another helpful tip is to relate the exercises to the repertoire being studied. Finally, a teacher must remember that it is ok to use “gifts” as incentives to improve. Oftentimes, metaphors about certain technique make it more fun to practice. Keep in mind, however, that what succeeds with one student doesn’t guarantee it will succeed with another.

Lip Care and Orff

Teaching Music
"Orff Techniques to Freshen Up Band Rehearsal"
By Dale Misenhelter

A traditional approach from the general music class room offers fresh possibilities for ensemble directors and provides a variety of methods for effectively teaching music concepts. The general music idea was created by Orff Schulwerk and is often associated with younger students and pitched percussive instruments. Orff-Schulwerk strategies can help band students understand advanced rhythm patterns, explore beat and meter, enlarge melodic and harmonic vocabulary and improvement of improvisation. One way to work on rhythm is to develop a layered, ostinato-based improvisation using only body percussion. Many other strategies are given about beat, meter, harmony, melody, composition, and improvisation. Focusing on these fundamental concepts will improve a students understanding and performance of music.

The Instrumentalist
"Take Care of Your Lips"
By Heather Rentz

For brass and woodwind players chapped lips and colds sore can impede good tone quality and comfort while playing. Cold sores can be triggered by stress, a weak immune system, overexposure to sunlight and chapped lips. It can take up to three weeks for a cold sore to heal. This may be very troublesome if the wind player if they have an audition or recital while they have a cold sore. There are a variety of lip balms and ointments available for coping with chapped lips and cold sores. When choosing a lip ointment or balm one should ask this question: Is this product for chapped lips or cold sores? The reason for this question is because cold sores need to be dried out and chapped lips need to be moisturized. Using the wrong product can cause your specific problem to become worse; drying your chapped lips or moisturizing your cold sore. Suggested brands for cold sores include Carmex, Super Lysine Plus, and Campho-phenique. There is also a recipe for a lip balm that has proven very useful for moisturizing dry, chapped lips.

Monday, November 29, 2004


Keyboard Companion
"Developing habits of good listening"
By Scott McBride

According to Robert Schumann, "The most important thing is to cultivate the sense of hearing. Take pains early to distinguish tones and keys by ear. The bell, the windowpane, the cuckoo-listen to the sounds they make." The first step to proper musicianship is to listen carefully as opposed to just hearing. An ear training exercise to encourage listening is to have students remain silent and make a list of all the sounds they hear during a four minute time span. Students are always shocked by how many sounds the silence contains. Another exercise is to play a middle C on the piano, and students will sing the pitch back every 15 minutes. Over time, students gradually develop a pitch memory of the note and are able to sing it voluntarily.

Tone is linked with legato and dynamics. Good posture, a rounded hand position, and free use of the upper arm are important for tonal smoothness which produces correct tonal matching. There are also three factors that influence the sound of every note: attack, duration, and release. A note attacked too slowly will result in no sound and likewise a note attacked too fast will sound too percussive. Rachmaninoff believes that natural motions, arm weight, and gravity are important in tone production. He believes that the hands should feel as if they are "growing into the keyboard." Most importantly, careful listening is important in maintaining proper tone.

Teaching Music
"Successful Sight-Reading at Your Next Festival"
By Cheryl K. Newton

Sight-reading does not have to be the most frightening or unmanageable aspect of festival performance. There are techniques that can be taught and rehearsed to prepare for an accurate sight-reading performance. The key to successful sight-reading is consistent practice throughout the year. Choose a selection that is one or two grade levels below the performance level of your band. Select music that includes changes in meter or challenging matter. Knowing all of the major scales is imperative for successful sight-reading. This helps one feel comfortable in all keys. Being prepared can help ease nervousness when sight-reading. Packing extra percussion instruments, stopwatches, and post-it notes for marking repeats or codas will make the day less stressful. New terms should not arise during the sight-reading at a festival; all material should be learned ahead of time in the class room.

Above all, a trustful relationship between the conductor and students is the most important factor of successful sight-reading. Sight-reading is a challenge but plenty can be learned, and it is possible to be fun and enjoyable.