31 October, 2008

What is Perfect Pitch?

Perfect pitch means different things to different people.

In several systems of music in the West, perfect pitch is usually used to refer to someone who has an ability to identify and recognise the exact pitch of a note rendered (a gift apparently given only to a rare few).

In Indian music, one finds the term being used in the context of alignment to the source of pitch (such as a tanpura/shruti box).

Specifically in Carnatic, this goes a step even further. When we say someone is pitch-perfect, we refer to their ability to distinguish the micro-tonal shruti values of the same note from raga to raga (say the Da and Ri in Anandabhairavi vs the Da and Ri in Reetigowla) as well as the values of the same note from context to context within each raga (like the Ma or Ni in Shankarabharanam in different contexts).

A perfect pitch in cricket could mean quite a different thing to a batsman than what it could for a pace or spin bowler, or to various spectators.

To a salesman or marketing executive, it could again represent something else altogether!

However, the one common thing to all of us is that perfect pitch has always been (and will forever remain) a quest... The term perfection is itself a very deep word and not to be used lightly. Perfection is more a journey than a destination...

Even going by my earliest memories, I can recall how my father and guru, Shri Chitravina Narasimhan, inculcated an awareness of the concept of perfection and placed me on that never-ending-perpetually-challenging-but-perennially-rewarding path. And it was not merely about just singing or playing a note or phrase attractively. It was more about visualising it and conceptualising it the right way first and then attempting to execute it. Needless to say, this approach was extrapolated to rhythm and lyrics as well.

And my father's greatest ability as a guru was to make me enjoy this quest from day one... To me, this was as valuable as him teaching me hundreds of ragas and talas by age two and around half a thousand compositions by age five...

I firmly believe that these are perhaps the two greatest responsibilities of a guru - (a) instill the awareness and relentless pursuit of perfection in an aspirant and (b) create a sense of self-enjoyment from the very first step.

Thanks to my father and another early guru of mine, Shri A Narayana Iyer (to whom I will dedicate another post soon), I also realized very early on that any talk of perfection would only be lip service without an emphasis on correctness first. In other words, there is little to be gained by perfecting things incorrectly and even more to be lost by perfecting incorrect things... This is another story altogether and I will share it with you all sometime soon...

9 comments:

Sriram said...

Very nice explanation of what a perfect pitch means in a carnatic context.

Vishinari said...

"concept of perfection - never-ending-perpetually-challenging-but-perennially-rewarding path" -

Very thoughtfully and analytically put; although universally applicable very inspiring for aspiring musicians in this context.

Look forward to reading more such!

Deepika said...

Thats really intersting..... inspiring for a musician like me...Its evident that you have enjoyed every moment of your learning experience...very fortunate indeed....

Thats a wonderful article on "perfect pitch " !!

Anonymous said...

Very enjoyable reflections on stalwarts and musicality, thanks for sharing. By the way, one advice from a writer. Since you write very well, it makes sense to go through a spell checker before you put your words out there. I notice typos that could be easily avoided! Keep writing!

Ganesh Raman said...

"wow... this ceared up many questions that i had about perfect pitch."

Anonymous said...

``Perfecting things incorrectly and even more to be lost by perfecting incorrect things...''

I like this particular sentence. ``The Perfect Pitch'' - a nicely conceived piece

harini said...

I liked the way you correlated the word pitch to perfection by drawing analogies from various professions & how it all boils down to one thing which is perfection, no matter what profession you are in ...

Harini Rajasekhar

harini said...

I liked your thoughts on how to get it right first & then a couple of repeats in execution thereafter could enhance & help attain perfection...

develop perfect pitch said...

Perfect pitch (also referred to as absolute pitch) is an ability to instantaneously identify or sing any given musical note without a reference pitch. There are two types of perfect pitch: active and passive. A person with active perfect pitch is able to sing or hum any given pitch; that is, if they are asked to sing a B flat without hearing the said note or any reference note, they can, whereas a person with passive perfect pitch cannot.