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sm25-3_EN_p50_Perfect Pitch_sm23-5_BI_pXX 2019-10-28 11:41 PM Page 50

POTENTIAL FOR ABSOLUTE PITCH


REVISITING OLD ASSUMPTIONS
by CAROL XIONG

I
n the West, the possession of absolute pitch (AP) – the ability to GODIFICATION COMPLEX
identify and/or produce a pitch without a reference pitch – is met The Chinese conservatory paradox shows that if a skill is valued
with admiration and envy. No wonder, seeing as the prevalence of enough by a group, then that group will pursue training until it be-
AP possessors in Canada and the United States is estimated to be 1 comes ubiquitous. If, indeed, AP can be learned, why then are there
in 10,000. Even in university music programs, AP possession fea- so few musicians in the West with AP?
tures as a mere 9% among students of non-Asian heritage. Compare Western zeal for AP has given rise to what I call a “Godification
this to 90% among students from China studying in North America. complex,” which has idolized rather than popularized this skill. The
Western scholars have long attributed this “Asian advantage” to ge- attitude towards AP is so glorified among Westerners that AP is col-
netics and then, for the past 20 years, the “advantage” of speaking tonal loquially known as “perfect pitch.” The American interviewees,
languages in childhood. some of whom had AP themselves, spoke of AP as a “gift,” a mark of
However, a study that I conducted at the Eastman School of Music “talent,” an act occurring “without effort” and “as though by magic.”
(Rochester, New York) under the supervision of Professor Ellen In all, AP has been lifted to a place so sacred that instead of train-
Koskoff has found evidence that casts doubt on these theories. Instead ing for it, people who struggle with identifying pitches without ref-
of administering computerized tests and quantitative surveys, as has erence are told to give up before they have begun to practice. From
been the convention of other scholars, I took the ethnomusicological the beginning of their musical education, Western children born
approach of conducting one-on-one interviews. The in-depth conver- with AP are sorted into an elite group in which their acuity of iden-
sations with Eastman students hailing from China, Korea and the tifying pitches is honed even further. For everyone else, there is rel-
United States ultimately challenge not only the theories on how AP is ative pitch, which, because it is learnable, is implicated as a
acquired, but the concept of AP itself. lower-grade alternative.

THE CHINESE CONSERVATORY PARADOX MIND OVER CULTURE


The story begins with the discovery of a little-known paradox at music Western theorists have drawn a cutoff line for AP at the semitone,
conservatories across China. Conservatories there are typically split but in reality, aural skills exist on a spectrum. One musician might
into two parallel sectors: one for Western music and another for tra- possess aural accuracy within a fifth, while another might be able
ditional Chinese music. According to the interviewees who came to to identify pitches down to the quarter-tone. Hence, the line that
Eastman from pre-college conservatory programs in China, almost divides AP possessors from non-possessors proves both meaning-
everyone in the Western music sector has AP. However, it comes as a less and limiting: It is meaningless because it is based not on any-
disarming surprise that the Chinese interviewees all reported that AP thing to do with cognitive or aural ability, but rather on one
is “just as rare as it is in North America” within the traditional Chinese culture’s arbitrary definition of the smallest musical interval. It is
music sector. How can it be that there is such a striking difference of limiting because it bars the people from one side of the line from
AP occurrence in an environment where almost every variable – ge- crossing over to the other.
netics, language, age, rigour of training – is identical? The “Asian advantage” coined by other scholars is also a self-sab-
The pervading cultural attitude in China towards AP is that it is a otaging and inaccurate designation. Asian students do not actually
trainable skill. Among the Chinese interviewees, AP did not even have have any inherent advantage over their Western counterparts. The
a separate name, but was referred to simply as “having pitch.” In order only benefit they have is cultural: Theirs is a culture that is not ob-
to “have pitch,” Chinese students in the Western music sector undergo sessed with the AP cutoff line, but rather believes in each musician’s
an ear training curriculum of several years that focuses on singing in potential for growth. Therefore, the dearth of AP in North America
fixed-do solfège, visualizing notes on an imaginary keyboard or staff, can be ameliorated with, foremost, a culture-wide change of attitude
and writing out increasingly complex music dictations. Youngsters may toward this skill. Indeed, AP is available to all who dare to seek it with
enter pre-college programs without AP, but by graduation, “having audacity and deliberate, hard work. LSM
pitch” is as commonplace an expectation for Chinese students of West-
ern music as being able to sight-read.
The idea that AP can be learned even if one is not born with it is fur-
ther substantiated by the paucity of AP occurrences in the traditional
Chinese music sector. Here, AP is unnecessary and even burdensome,
because Chinese music prioritizes being able to freely transpose and is
notated in relative values. Consequently, students in this sector can
manage such impressive aural feats as identifying microtonal inter-
vals, but AP remains a rare ability.

50 NOVEMBER 2019

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