I don't have perfect pitch, so why can I tune my violin w/o a reference pitch?

I pulled my violin out from under my bed today. I haven’t played it in a while, and the strings were nowhere near the proper pitch. I was able to tune the A string to pretty darn close to 440 Hz w/o a reference (I checked it after I was finished.)
I find this odd. I cannot identify random notes. If you play a C-sharp on the piano, I can’t tell you that it’s a C-sharp. I can’t even sing it without wobbling my voice around a bit! Why am I able to tune my violin?

Probably because your brain can tell what’s in-tune and what’s not without being able to identify it. You might’ve lucked out that merely the closest in-tune note on the string was the A you needed. If it was more than a note away, you might’ve tuned it to a B inadvertantly.

It sounds to me like you do have perfect pitch, just haven’t developed it. If you can consistently and always sing an “A” or identify an “A”, then you should be able to figure out all the other notes by relative pitch.

I don’t really have perfect pitch, more like imperfect pitch. I can sometimes tell when something is in tune.

That said, when I tune string instruments, I get them pretty near. Mostly it is due to years of feeling tension on the peg and string and knowing how taut each should be. I can easily tell an instrument tuned down a half step because the strings feel too loose. I suspect anyone who has played for any length of time can do similar.

You become attuned to what your instrument is supposed to sound like after a while.
I couldn’t tell you what a C sharp is on a piano either but you and I both know when our instruments are heavily out of tune. They have a smaller range and thus a more minute idea of what they’re supposed to sound like.

I’m a dabbler in violin but I can tell when it’s in tune - when I run the bow over the open strings it sounds just like an orchestra warming up.

Besides, I’ve learned that having a good ear is fairly essential to violin playing.

‘Perfect pitch’ is a fuzzy concept. Certainly being able to get a violin A correct doesn’t prove that you have it - simple practice & memory is enough to allow you to do this. Particularly on a familiar instrument, where you’re familiar with how the timbre changes with intonation.

I would have to agree. I can get a guitar in tune without a reference. Oddly enough, I tend to always go about the same amount flat. I never get 440Hz but I am uniformly right between a and g#. I have checked myself with a tuner, but I haven’t done a scientific test.

I guess it’s possible I have perfect pitch that’s exactly half a half a step low, but I suspect I’ve just gotten used to the sound of an in-tune guitar and that I always tune up from flat.

Yeah, I agree that you may just know what an in-tune “A” sounds like on the violin. I can definitely pick out flute pitches based mostly on the timbre of the note, but may not be able to on the piano.

I would tend to disagree. If you can memorize an “A” or whatever reference pitch, you should be able to memorize any other pitch. Then again, it depends on how you are memorizing these notes. Singers are sometimes able to name pitches by singing them and referencing them to a memorized vocal tension. That’s more a clever use of relative pitch. If you’re tuning a violin similarly, by noticing certain resonances in the wood, or the tuning peg, or the tension of the string then I would say, no, you don’t have perfect pitch.

But if you are doing it purely by ear, and can “feel” an a with certainty, then I think you must have some degree of untrained perfect pitch. If you’re occassionally confusing a G# or a B flat with A, then probably no. People who have perfect pitch clearly feel a difference between a G# and an A. Can you hear an A on other instruments, too? Like, say, a piano or a flute?

I can do this too on my guitar. When I’m changing the strings I can tune it near-perfectly without using a reference pitch. I can also hum a near-perfect A without having heard one all day. (I’ve checked with my tuning fork). This takes effort and concentration though. I can’t pick out an A 440hz in a song, nor can I just listen to a note and tell you what it is. In fact, if someone is quizzing me, trying to get me to ‘name the note’ on a piano, I can get so confused that I can no longer hum my A. I think it’s because I’ve heard the A so much that I’ve memorized it somehow. I most definitely do not have perfect pitch. My friend does, and I hate him I’m so jealous. The best I can do is tell you what string(s) a certain note was likely played on.

The friend I hate can listen to a song and tell you what note/root it is (some weird chords he can’t do so good). He can also tell when the musicians were not perfectly tuned to A. One of his favorite things to say is “oooh…that’s a few cents off”.

We’re muddling up ‘identify an A (as opposed to a G#)’ and ‘hear whether an A is in tune’. I’m confident I could pick out an A on other instruments with reasonable reliability, and equally confident in saying that this is solely an acquired skill. I couldn’t accuratley tune these As, though.

I cannot imagine how many thousands of times I’ve tuned my A string to a reference note - purely through this repetition can I tune it by itself. The ‘feeling’ of it being right isn’t something intuitive, just something very familiar. (I can’t tell if an oboe is accurately playing A440 - until I’ve tuned to the note being played.)

But that’s not what GorillaMan said - he talked about the change in timbre, i.e. the “quality” of sound, determined by the amount of overtones. A musical instrument produces an assortment of many different frequencies, not a simple sine wave, and this composition changes depending on pitch.

I don’t have perfect pitch myself, but the people with perfect pitch I do know cannot “accurately tune As.” They can hear a note and sing an ‘A’ on demand–it may not be exactly 440 Hz, but it’s damn close–it’s certainly an A. It may be A438, it may beA444, but it’s still an “A” in character, just like Pantone 266 and Pantone 268 are both shades of blue. I may deal (hypothetically) with Pantone swatches all day, but I can’t produce an exact Pantone 266 on demand.

I do think that, to some extent, perfect pitch is learned and developed. If you can pick out that A without timbral cues (which I was trying to say, scr4 with my comment about picking out a particular note across various instruments) equally on a guitar or piano or sine wave generator, then you must have some degree of perfect pitch.

From experience, there are certainly degrees of perfect pitch. Some people can name notes down to the quarter tone or finer–others cannot.

Read this link, for instance. Studies show that perfect pitch abilities can, in fact, be developed.

Students in Japanese conservatories have an AP possessor rate of 70%, as opposed to 8% in the US. I definitely think there is something more to absolute pitch than the simple “you’re either born with it or not” stuff we were taught.

When I was thinking of perfect pitch, I was thinking of my freak friends who can identify every note being played with you slam both hands randomly onto a piano keyboard, or who can identify the pitch of an insect buzzing.

Maybe I’ve just developed a slight affinity. It looks like I’m going to have to play around with this. I did check this morning if I could sing an A (without having knowingly listened to a 440 Hz tone since yesterday.) I almost got it; it was very very slightly flat. This is difficult for me because I have trouble singing notes even when I’m trying to match a pitch that I can hear. I tell my larynx “sing this tone” and it defies me.

I’ve been tuning my violin to A440 since I was 3, so I guess it doesn’t seem too weird to me that I may have finally figured that one note out.

Thanks for the link, pulykamell

Another vote for plain old experience. I can tune my guitar reasonably well without anything close to perfect pitch.

I cannot see any possible explanation for the ability to discern A-440 from A-338 being anything other than acquired. There is nothing natural about A-440, so any particular affinity with it is purely acquired.

I’d like to see a linguist’s opinion on such studies. European languages generally have little role for pitch, whereas it’s integral to some Asian languages. Such elements of a child’s upbringing will inevitably have an influence on their later ability to discern pitch.

We agree, then. However, “perfect pitch” has been traditionally taught by musical pedagogues as either a skill you’re born with or not. That’s how it’s been all throughout my musical instruction, and that’s still the general mindset of most musicians–students and teachers alike.

While I agree with you that there’s nothing inherendly natural about A440 v A338 (and most people I know with perfect pitch cannot discern between the two, they just know an A is an A) some people do seem to instinctually feel the difference between an A and, say, a G. It doesn’t matter if it’s A220, A440, or A800, they all sound like A’s and have some common “color”–to use the term most often associated with absolute pitch–between them.

I don’t think it’s entirely implausible that there is a genetic element to this, though. It’s been proven through studies that some people truly are “tune deaf.” I suppose there still is a genetics v. experience debate still to be had here, but it seems clear to me that some people just cannot hear obvious differences in music. Why such an ability would be genetic, I don’t know. But it’s plausible, even if I personally think absolute pitch is more nurture than nature.

On another anecdotal note (NPI), I spent some time in a studio and the “instructor” had me take a test to identify pure tones: what I would call sine waves at various frequencies.
It was amazing how different it was from identifying an actual note. A very valuble skill for a studio tech and one that can be developed.

This statement seems to be argument from ignorance(NOI). Mine own argument from ignorance is that I can’t see any possible explanation for the ability to discern A from A# being other-than-acquired. Some people may have a natural inclination, much as some people have a natural inclination toward chess. No one pops from the womb knowing anything about chess or music.

Many people are intimidated by chess and don’t get any instruction. In comparison with wunderkinds they figure they can’t even play.

Same goes for music and pitch. Those who acquire skills effortlessly make those skills appear intuitive. Very young children who acquire those skills make them appear almost innate.

I think we’re agreeing, here, in a way :slight_smile:

Almost innate is very different, in this situation, from actually being innate. I can accept that some people are born with a mind and body better suited to music than others, as some are born athletes. But identifying notes from the artifice of the chromatic scale is something that can only be done with a complete absorbtion of the sound of that scale, coupled with natural abilities. (If I go on, I’ll get into my usual rant about western musical systems being little more than an accident of history, and our collective indoctrination into tonality, so I’ll quit while I’m ahead :wink: )

emphasis mine

I’m reminded of a quote from the Simpson’s:

Some guy: In a way you’re both winners. In another, more accurate way, Barney is the winner.

My point is that “Perfect Pitch,” relative to something like 20/20 vision, is the ability to identify notes or tones.

The “innate” ability might be something like knowing what written music will sound like without hearing it played and vice versa. Or knowing what a group of notes played togather or in a series will sound like before the are played. Obviously, one has to have familiarity with the writing scheme and/or instrument in question, but that is another limitation in describing the innate ability to those who don’t have it. (I don’t have it.)

Beethoven, as well as (maybe) having African ancestory, must have had perfect pitch to compose music he couldn’t hear.

Recognizing notes is something one can and (the part I think we’re agreeing on) has to learn.

Sounds like you know more about this than I do, so I’m probably beating a dead horse. What do you know, his ass is a middle ‘C.’