Perfect Pitch! Help!

September 4, 2011 at 03:40 PM ·


A lot of us would consider perfect pitch an asset, but this one backfired on me. I have grown up with 440Hz or 442Hz A all my life, and I have a perfect pitch on 442Hz to the accuracy of few hertzes. Which is fine if you're playing Tchaik, I suppose.

However, I was selected to perform Bach Chaconne, and it's on a baroque violin, tuned to 425Hz or maybe even lower. I CANNOT play it without my fingers shifting up to 442Hz! My double stops are falling apart like a wet paper bag and it sounds like Schoenberg's composition rather than Bach's.

I have this performance in 2 months. I need it fixed by then. Any suggestions?

Replies (30)

September 4, 2011 at 05:11 PM ·

 Em, is there any reason why you can't tune it to standard 440? There seems to have no good fix, most perfect pitch pianist will have problem with out of tune piano too, let alone something fretless like the violin's fingerboard.

September 4, 2011 at 05:40 PM ·

This was my first thought, too: Must the performance be with baroque tuning?

Plenty of period instrument groups and performers tune to A-440 for baroque repertoire.  The problem happens when there's a period piano in the ensemble.  You can't tune this instrument to 440, because the strings would snap.

I can relate to your situation, because I have so-called perfect pitch, too -- although I don't play baroque violin or use baroque tuning.  I use 440 and can tolerate up to about 442.

A-415 is the most common baroque tuning.  So if you have to use baroque pitch, go for 415.  Since 415 is about a semitone below 440, just think of the piece as transposed down a half-step -- from d minor to c-sharp minor.  I do this whenever I listen to baroque-tuned ensembles on radio or You Tube.  Again, I don't do this kind of playing, but as a listener, I can live with it.

Perfect pitch has advantages -- and drawbacks -- as I know from firsthand experience.  Far more important to good playing is strong relative pitch.  I had a lot of experience in accompanying singers in musical shows during my student years.  Sometimes the musical director would ask us to transpose a song down or up a half-step, because the number, as written, was a bit high or low for the singer.  This kind of conditioning is one reason transpositions don't throw me off.

BTW, musicians who accompany opera singers have to be able to transpose on the fly.  You never know when the lead baritone might say: "I'm not in good enough voice tonight to make the top G, but I know I can hit F-sharp.  Could we take the aria in A this time instead of B-flat?"

So this kind of adaptability is part of a musician's life, like it or not.  If the performance must be in baroque tuning, set aside practice time with this tuning.  Practice d-minor scales in it -- they'd sound like c-sharp minor to you or me.  Have your teacher help you through the tough spots.  Let us know how it works out.

September 4, 2011 at 07:16 PM ·

 BTW, musicians who accompany opera singers have to be able to transpose on the fly.  You never know when the lead baritone might say: "I'm not in good enough voice tonight to make the top G, but I know I can hit F-sharp.  Could we take the aria in A this time instead of B-flat?"

In all the years I've been playing operas, I've never once seen this.


How long have you been practicing the Chaconne? I like the idea of simply playing it at 440, but it may depend on the violin, which may not like the extra pressure on the top, and it may make it harder to speak with a baroque bow.

September 4, 2011 at 08:20 PM ·

"In all the years I've been playing operas, I've never once seen this."

Scott, I'll take your word for it that you haven't; but from discussions I've heard -- e.g., during Met intermission broadcasts -- it does happen.  I'm an ear-witness myself to a few of these live, real-time transpositions.

September 5, 2011 at 10:56 AM ·

Perfect pitch has advantages -- and drawbacks -- as I know from firsthand experience.  Far more important to good playing is strong relative pitch.

Jim, absolutey correct!!

BUT, having played for 7 years permanently, plus many more as a free lance in opera orchestras I have also never experienced having to transpose. If the singer can't hack it, too bad!! Most of us can't transpose anyway!!

September 5, 2011 at 11:53 AM ·

Peter, as with Scott, I will take you at your word, regarding your personal experience in playing for opera.

But I stand by my words.  Again, I am an ear-witness to some of these ad hoc transpositions -- infrequent though they may be -- in performances by major companies like the Met (Metropolitan Opera).  And I'm not referring to arias traditionally transposed down or up -- e.g., some of those in Barber of Seville.  That's another discussion.

"On the fly" was a poor choice of words in my original reply.  "On short notice" or "same-day notice" is more like it.  Again, from discussions I've heard among professionals, more of this has happened than what I've witnessed.

It isn't that the singer can't hack it -- that is, on a good day; but even the best performers have their off days.  Most audience members wouldn't detect the transpositions anyway, the exceptions being those who have so-called perfect pitch and have studied the whole score -- as opposed to having heard only the well-known arias.

September 5, 2011 at 12:58 PM ·

I do think rehearsal pianists may have to do this a lot, transpose that is. But a whole orchestra? I don't think it woud work unless the parts were re-written.

Of course in light music many of the players are used to such things and a singer might request a different key. (And in Jazz too of course).

September 5, 2011 at 01:28 PM ·

A friend with perfect pitch, the extreme sort where he can name all the notes under an arm pressed on a keyboard, or call the difference correctly ("That's an A-438"), great if limited parlor trick :), taught himself to "turn it off" so he could play in groups. Don't know how, but a concept worth thinking about for you?? Sue  

September 5, 2011 at 05:35 PM ·

I have students with perfect pitch who tell me they are extremely aggravated by the variance in pitch center in the ensembles with which they play.

I tell them to stop worrying about the tuning of individual notes and to concentrate on the sound of the *intervals* that are created instead.

Being in tune is not just about hitting a specific frequency...but about hitting a specific frequency that is the correct interval distance from the other pitches of reference. So, when that cello player starts off in the Mozart Dissonant quartet and comes in way sharp or flat, watch out!

September 5, 2011 at 05:36 PM ·

"... a whole orchestra?  I don't think it would work unless the parts were re-written."

See 1995 LA Times article on Luciano Pavarotti's 1995 aria transposition at the Met for Donizetti's La Fille du Regiment (Daughter of the Regiment).  This is just one of the vast numbers of operatic transpositions documented on the Net.  See also page 332 of Phillip Gossett's Divas and Scholars, which cites the same performance -- and doesn't stop there.

Regarding whether the orchestra players would need to re-write the transposed parts: My guess is that the Met orchestra, of all ensembles, could transpose an aria without re-writing, based on my personal experience of transposing for musical shows in high school.  I did five shows, playing lead violin, two of them after I'd already graduated -- no need to re-write.

Then, too, the amount of advance notice the players have could well be a factor.  It can take more time to write out a part than simply to re-read the existing score and re-think the part a half-step down or up.

Knowing the look and sound of the original material very well -- this helps a lot.  Fortunately, the Met players don't have to learn the standard repertoire; it's already old hat to them.

September 6, 2011 at 04:33 AM ·


I was requested to play in baroque pitch (415, not 425, sorry for my typo). I will be playing it in some few hundred year old church, and evidently the person organising this gig wants "an authentic sounding Bach". I don't see why 440Hz won't sound authentic, but I can't argue with the person paying me. 

As for chaconne, I've been playing it for 11 years, so that's more than half my life. If it was just a year or two, I suppose I can adjust, but since I've been playing it for over a decade, every note is stuck in my head. I'm not sure if I can pull off the switch-off switch-on tactic in 2 months. I've tried playing it by thinking semitone lower, but it almost feels like someone repainted Van Gogh with dark grey mixed into every single hue on the palette. Or like ice cream without sugar. It is a very surreal feeling, and by the time I hit the arpeggios I find myself shifting a semitone up when I can, making the whole piece disintegrate. It is very disturbing and distressing. 

Does anyone know how to dissociate colour and notes? I think if I can do that, it might get better. 

September 6, 2011 at 07:33 AM ·

gene: So, when that cello player starts off in the Mozart Dissonant quartet and comes in way sharp or flat, watch out!

Yes - all of a sudden the piece is ruined as it sounds in perfect harmony.  Oh yeuch... :) :p

September 6, 2011 at 07:36 AM ·

Momoko: I suggest you spend a LOT of time listening to a recording of the piece played on baroque violin (I'm talking ipods while you eat, walk, live).  There are a lot out there (I'm sure you know them all).  Once you get the sound of the piece in your head at the right pitch I think you will find it much eaiser to play.

September 6, 2011 at 04:20 PM ·

I played a Bach Double church gig with my teacher when I was a kid.  Winter had taken the organ down a half step, so the A sounded like an A-Flat.

"Surreal" is the correct word.  Fingers were in the proper spot, but the piece was D-Flat Minor, not D Minor.  Bleh. 

The Ciaconna is a much more formidable challenge!  Two months might be enough time to make the adjustment bearable.  You could try practicing the arpeggios and chords with a drone.  Or get used to living inside a Dali painting...


Or, if the contractor doesn't have perfect pitch, he/she wouldn't ever know the difference.  (Smile)

Best of luck to you.  I'm glad that is not my gig!

September 6, 2011 at 04:42 PM ·

"In all the years I've been playing operas, I've never once seen this."

I had four seasons at Central City Opera, and it happened once. We were told just before downbeat.

September 6, 2011 at 06:52 PM ·

I struggled with my perfect pitch when starting to play the violin as an adult.  Coming from playing piano and pop instruments for 30 years I found that trying to learn Pythagorean intonation seemed impossible.  My ear kept my fingers going to incorrectly tuned notes.  I fought it and was frustrated for many months.  I resigned to play in a 'calculated' way (tight half steps, wide whole steps, comparing to open strings) and thought I would never adjust to it and feel at home.

I expressed my frustrations to my teacher saying that my body just *wants* to go to equal temperament pitches.  I felt like I had to get rid of, or forget those pitches (was it even possible?).  She promptly said, no don't get rid of it, just add to it.  And listen very deeply.

With that I went home and read as much as possible about intonation and decided to soak my ears in Pythagorean tuning.  I listened to specific recordings that I felt gave me a solid sense of pitch (Szeryng solo Bach, etc.).  I used my DAW to construct a G scale with the correct pitch proportions and played along to it daily.  I listened very carefully when I practiced, and used my etudes as a vehicle for working on my intonation.  I looped sections of my lessons with my teacher (on video) where I could hear her intonation and played along.  Everything I did helped build up my confidence in how to correct my pitch on my own.  Of course, there is no 'perfect' intonation and pitch also plays a role in expression, so there is no right or wrong, but I have conquered what seemed impossible at first.  And I don't feel like I've forgotten or lost anything.  Now I have two intonation systems to draw from.

So my suggestion is to listen, listen, listen.  If you have perfect pitch or relative pitch it means you have a great memory.  So take good care of your brain (eat well, exercise and get proper sleep) and trust it!  Listen on many levels: recordings, your own playing, etc.  Make a game of it.  Before you know it you'll have the new tuning in your body, but you have to put in the time to get there.

Good luck.


September 7, 2011 at 02:59 AM ·

Momomko - you have perfect pitch. Does the person hiring you who wants so-called "authenticity" also have perfect pich? If not, he won't know the difference! If he does have perfect pitch, then you have a problem. Maybe, as I think has been suggested, if you tune the violin down exactly half a tone rather than in some vague no-man's-land, you can look at it as a transposition to C# minor, rather than a low D minor. But if that doesn't work and the whole thing is making you sick, you have to ask yourself - is it worth it? You might consider passing on this project, or first trying to explain to this person what you have to us. There will be other opportunities.

One of the many problems I have with the period movement (-if anyone wants a lot of detail ask me, and I'll e-mail it to you, including debates from a few years ago on this site-) regards pitch. It was NEVER standardized in the Baroque period, and doing so now to 415 is a sham. Some unrestored organs from that era are HIGHER than 440! An early treatise by one Simpson on division viols advocates tuning the string just up to the breaking point! I just came across another reference to a violinist from the period who had to change his pitch by a third just going from one church to another in the same town!

Anyway, good luck, and let us know what happens.

September 7, 2011 at 04:39 AM ·

Yes, we have an urge to standardize everything these days - violins are set up to millimetre tolerances and pitches are standardized to a few Hertz.  This just wouldn't have been so in the past.  

Which raises the question of how people dealt with perfect pitch at that time?  It must have been quite a different experience to now, where we hear only small differences in standard pitch.

September 7, 2011 at 11:30 AM ·

If you have played the chaconne for 11 years and that represents more than half your life, that means you were playing the chaconne when you were 9 or 10.  You must be very gifted.
But to answer your question, perhaps you should have this discussion with the person that hired you.  If he insists on baroque tuning then it is reasonable for you to ask for more money.  After all it will greatly increase your preparation time.  Perhaps if you increase the price for baroque tuning he might change his mind and settle for standard 440

September 7, 2011 at 12:15 PM ·

Martin - I was wondering the same thing! It would be an interesting study to find the earliest mention of perfect pitch and how indeed, people dealt with it in an era of such wide pitch vagrancies.

September 7, 2011 at 08:26 PM ·

Hi Momoko,

I'm a fellow sufferer. But I have got used to playing in a lower tuning. Here's how.

Apart from their frequency, tones on a violin are distinct from one another by their timbre, which is determined by the instrument's resonances. And they, in turn, depend in a large part on the open strings. So, if you play an A on a violin that is tuned to A 415, you get an A flat that sounds like an A as regards timbre.

By listening to records of Baroque violinists and concentrating on the timbre brought about by the resonances of the open strings, it has become easier for me to reset my absolute pitch.

Hope this helps,


September 7, 2011 at 08:53 PM ·

Momoko, here's another suggestion – copy a performance of the Chaconne onto your computer as a WAV file (it could even be a recording of you playing it at A440),  play it back with software that will drop the pitch a half-tone to A415 without altering the speed, and play along with it with your violin tuned to that lower pitch. 

Software – most audio editors today can do the pitch-changing trick without altering the speed. Nero's WaveEdit, for example, has a Transpose Tool, which I suggest is exactly what you would need. WaveEdit also has a control that can alter the speed if you want, so this might be useful for an initial slow play-through to get used to it.

Initially, as an exercise, I suggest recording yourself playing, at A440, scales and arpeggios occuring in the Chaconne, dropping the pitch of the recording to A415 and then playing along with it on your violin now at A415.  This might be better than jumping straight into the Chaconne itself. 

September 8, 2011 at 03:53 PM ·

Momoko - I sympathize with your problem, particularly since "evidently the person organizing this gig wants 'an authentic sounding Bach'." 

I am with Nate on this.  Many in the A-415 crowd would have you believe that there is only one "authentic" way that Bach would have been played in his time.  Other than using a baroque bow and gut strings on a baroqued violin, I think there is a certain amount of leeway, and tuning in particular is an area where there does not seem to have been a consensus during the baroque period.  Would Bach have played the Chaconne using any vibrato?  Would he have added trills not specified in the manuscript?  IF so, where?  Would he have emphasized the use of open strings?  Since he only put one fingering in his manuscript version, no one really knows for sure.  So, I would press the organizer and tell him/her that while you can be authentic in certain ways that are indisputable (bow, violin, gut strings), certain other aspects of authenticity are really subject to debate and left to the performer, and one of these is tuning, particularly given your issue.  Indeed, one thing I remember reading (not sure where) is that A-415 was used because the harpsichord sounded best at that pitch.  Indeed, when Bach rewrote some of his violin concertos for harpsichord, he wrote them down a semitone.  So, if you are playing solo violin, the issue of how the harpsichord sounds is not a concern.

Interestingly, I started a thread several years ago asking whether folks on the site with perfect pitch had problems with period performance tuning, and got a mix of answers.  Some did, some did not.

Good luck!

September 13, 2011 at 04:42 AM ·


Thank you very much for all the replies. It's starting to feel like pieces of a large puzzle are starting to make a picture. I'm hoping I can make the picture somewhat recognisable in the next month or so.

Since I am playing in an orchestra (which is another tale of woe for another time) and a quartet, I've decided to tune my brighter sounding violin to a random pitch every day and try playing with that for the "gig" practice. Since my mother knows the piece very well (after all, she had to listen to a very bad rendition of it every single day a decade ago) but does not have perfect pitch, I figured if she hears it and won't say anything, it probably sounds fine (relative pitch wise). I'm probably going to wear out the strings much faster than the usual pace, but it can't be helped. 

The gig master does not have perfect pitch (or so he told me), but it's been advertised locally as "authentic sounding Bach with the baroque tuning" blah blah blah, and I don't want someone with perfect pitch listening to it and then calling someone a liar. So that's a no-go :(. I figured if my A falls anywhere between 392 and 465 but is not the 440~444, I can say with confidence that it's a "freakin' baroque tuning, so sod off". 

The performance is in November, so we shall see how it goes. 

September 13, 2011 at 03:32 PM ·

>I figured if my A falls anywhere between 392 and 465 but is not the 440~444, I can say with confidence that it's a "freakin' baroque tuning, so sod off".


January 31, 2012 at 10:37 PM · I searched "A-415" on and came upon this thread. I found this discussion particularly interesting because for the past several months, I've been working on the Chaconne. Two days ago, I tuned my violin to A-415 for the first time in my life, and I was able to play the Chaconne with no problems (I do have perfect pitch as well)...

Momoko -- I'm curious to know how your performance went!

February 1, 2012 at 02:26 AM · Poor you.

I have perfect pitch also, a majority of Vietnamese and tonal language speakers have perfect pitch.

I was raised in a tonal world and can tell precisely the sound of each note no matter what herz it's set to.

My only advice is that you just 'reset' your pitch. It shouldn't take long, just record the 425h. and went to sleep hearing it, I did that when I first start training with my pitch. I hope it work for you cuz w/ this way, I can start listening to a simple piece and say out the note in about 2 weeks.

Beside, if you truly have perfect pitch. Wouldn't you be able to tell the note no matter what it set to? Maybe I just have a really well trained relative pitch that can pass as perfect.

February 1, 2012 at 04:43 AM · Momoko,

When you ask about turning off the color association with sound, I wonder if you are someone that has that link at a much stronger level than most.

This is known as synesthesia, and although some of the web pages I find on the subject list it as a 'condition', I prefer to think of it as a perception. I do not have this condition, however I do know that I perceive the world a bit different than most; I enjoy the difference, even when it makes life harder for me to understand.

If this is the case, then the best answer may be to simply go with it! When you are playing a piece in 442, and you feel the color and texture, try and picture what it would be on a cloudy day, or at night; see what the light does to the color.

Hope this helps.

February 2, 2012 at 04:11 PM · Pitch was not standardized during the baroque period but was all over the map subject to the whims of local instrument makers, and the pitch of local organs. There is no authentic standard. Bruce Haynes (originally a fine oboist) did his dissertation on this subject (sorry I don't have a link). You can legitimately claim any A between 390 and 460 as authentic.

February 4, 2012 at 01:01 AM · Vocalists and string players who have an advanced sense of relative interval pitch are much more inclined to play in a more individual and personal tuning system.

They apply the intervals in the "Just" tuning of scales and chords. "Just" intervals depend on the voice leading of melodies. Usually downward voice leading lowers the pitch and upward voice leading raises the pitch. Leading tones are usually very close to the tonic, etc. Vocalists are very adept in this beautiful "Just" system of tuning.

The "Tempered" or perfect or absolute system is a practical method of tuning tied to the physical construction of keyboard or fretted type instruments.

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