NOTES ON ABSOLUTE PITCH
by Edward Gold
I have noted that, in internet musical circles, interest in
absolute (perfect) pitch seems on the upswing. As a non-possessor of
that faculty, I, too, have had a long interest in it and thought I'd
write some brief remarks on the subject.
We have often been told stories about the "Great Composers"
and how perfect their ears were. In fact, the ability to compose seems
pretty unrelated to all of this. I was once in a class that was doing
ear-training and there was a young woman with absolute pitch. But in an
exercise in which the tonic of a group of octave displaced notes, for
example, a high pitched A and a low-pitched D#, a tonic had to be sung
(i.e. the E.), she invariably failed even if I always succeeded.
(Incidentally, it would seem that absolute pitch ability may
be related to how early musical studies are commenced according to some
Though it is well-known that Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin and
Liszt had absolute pitch, so, apparently, did Tchaikovsky despite
opinions to the contrary. And because of their musical prowess, it is
assumed so did Bach and Handel but we must remember that this ability
could be a real drawback in an age where there was no standard pitch
and musical instruments might have been tuned any which way and in any temperament.
I think we have to leave these two cases as unproven.
Franz Joseph Haydn, one of the towering giants of music
apparently did not have this ability but he did indeed have a
well-trained ear. (There are accounts of his rigorous solfege training
which would be expected in any choirboy!) Someone mentioned to me that
Schubert didn't have it but I'm not sure one way or the other. But
Robert Schumann apparently tried to teach it to himself and developed a
hallucinatory note A ringing in his ears towards the end of his life.
But this may have been due to his physical condition at that time.
Others lacking absolute pitch were, apparently, Brahms
(unproven one way or the other. But the anecdote
concerning Brahms as a young pianist touring with the violinist Reményi
might have made this feat much more difficult if not impossible if he
did indeed have it!), Wagner, Debussy (?), Ravel, and Stravinsky.
For some reason, the name of Leonard Bernstein keeps
cropping up in this respect. Allow me to set the subject at rest once
and for all since I happened to have gotten the answer from Bernstein
As a student at Yale I accompanied the violinist Tossy
Spivakovsky assisting him in the preparation of the Roger Sessions
Violin Concerto for the New York Philharmonic. Spivakovsky had absolute
pitch and, in the course of rehearsing, the subject had come up.
Since Bernstein was the conductor, we went and played it for
him, Sessions and his son John. Before we arrived at Bernstein's studio
-- he lived diagonally across from Carnegie Hall in the Osbourne
Apartments at that time -- Spivakovsky remarked to me that he thought
Sessions didn't have it but Bernstein did. And, to my embarrassment, he
asked them both when we finished. Sessions replied that he had it one
way (presumably he could recognize pitches but couldn't give them.) But
Bernstein was adamant and said he never had it and it wasn't necessary.
I must also confess to another folly at this time: Before we
played the piece, Bernstein sang the opening four notes. I softly tried
them on the piano and, yes, though he sang them accurately enough
relatively speaking, they were certainly not at the right (absolute)
pitches. Another story I heard more than once was that Bernstein, at
one point, "locked" himself in a room for a month trying to memorized
A-440 and he eventually gave up. But this is just a story.
There have been other statements, I am aware, which
contradict the above but neither Mr. Bernstein, back then, nor I, now,
have had any reason to lie about it. A Psychology Today article is a considerable source
of misinformation on who did and who didn't have it and this includes
others besides Bernstein. I did once hear that Vladimir Horowitz didn't
have it but maybe I heard wrong.; and a book I read on Tchaikovsky stated at some length that he did have
it. The book was probably: Poznansky, Alexander. "Tchaikovsky. The
Quest for the Inner Man", (Schirmer Books, 1991).
One further anecdote, not mine, involved the violinist Adila
Fachiri, the sister of Jelly d'Aranyi, and a niece of Joseph Joachim.
Recently I had a book out of the library (Joseph MacLeod's "The Sisters
d'Aranyi" from 1969). Jelly claimed to have discovered the Schumann
Violin Concerto through a series of informal séances in which the composer supposedly came to
her and insisted that she perform it.). Jelly had absolute pitch; Adila
"But Adila had very selective hearing. Once in Geneva in the
company of Bartók, Kodaly, Milhaud and Ravel she heard for the first
time the Firebird, and remarked on the use of saxophones. The others
laughed, but Stravinsky later was astonished that only she should have
I have become quite good at hearing wrong notes in MIDI
files, even in most 20th century music, and perhaps more so than most
others. But, no one's "perfect"...
I am adding this addendum on the topic as the interest in
this remains high and I've recalled more on the subject over time.
It must be said that the additional anecdotes cannot be
vouched for as definitely as my personal experience in the case of
Bernstein. A case in point is Tchaikovsky where additional
contradictory evidence apparently exists, But I'm reasonably certain
that Tchaikovsky did indeed have it.
An even less certain case is that of Gustav Mahler. He seems
to have had absolute pitch as a child but gradually lost it as an
adult. The story I read somewhere is that Mahler was rehearsing an
orchestral work and stopped the orchestra saying that something was
wrong. Up popped Bruno Walter who was listening to the rehearsal and he
proceeded to tell Mahler exactly what was wrong. (It was in one of the
trumpets I think.)
Walter, by all accounts, definitely had absolute pitch so
the story rings true.
Sir Georg Solti, on a DVD "Solti: Orchestra! (1991)" told
Dudley Moore that he had absolute pitch (Dudley said he himself did not
have it.). Though I don't doubt Sir Georg's word, there is a story
about an unnamed conductor who boasted of his absolute pitch until his
musicians decided to put this to the test by secretly rehearsing a few
pages which they played for him, at first, in a different key. The
maestro was none the wiser till the orchestra inevitably fell apart.