'Perfect pitch'. That's how each prodigy is described as if this is the elite natural gift. Its meaning is a bit obscure: to the uninitiated its someone who automatically plays every note in tune without any struggle to learn. However, its more commonly used amongst musicians as someone who can recognize the name of a note after hearing a tone. A violin teacher once surprized me by saying that 'people with perfect pitch often have lousy intonation'. Go figure. However, these people often are gifted and get 'in tune' rapidly - but this topic is about 'the rest' of us.
Plenty of violinists (and other musicians of course) play 'in tune' (which here is defined solely as 'with tones that are pleasant to the average listener's ear). They (me included)are described as having the alternative to perfect pitch - 'relative pitch'. The meaning of this is that on hearing one note they can match another note to remain 'in tune'. Thus, given a C they can form a minds-eye sound of an F# by relative position. least that's the theory.
A 'relative pitch' violinist studies intervals, harmonies (e.g. drone notes), scales - and cheats with an electronic tuner to find the note and hopefully memorize it. After a lot of practise and just time intonation gradually improves - and many relative pitch people end up with better ears for, say, chamber music than their perfect pitch colleagues (least that's how it seems to me).
But why all these methods of learning intonation? Is it possible that 'relative pitch' is just a grab-bag. Perhaps there are sub-categories and if you could identify what kind of intonation you have you could learn 'playing in tune' far more rapidly?
Well, I'm throwing that out there. But I'm writing this topic so I get the first shot:
1. Harmonizing intonation. People who pick up pitch from playing two notes at the same time - open string with chordal notes on the next one. Ricci goes on at length about this so I guess it worked for him.
2. Pattern intonation. This really is relative pitch - you learn best by running scales and arpeggios and by learning intervals.
3. 'Contextural' intonation. And this is my favorite - since its me I think. Basically you only learn the correct pitch when the note is in the context of the music you are to play. If you practise scales until they are near perfect - and then try to play a piece of music in the same key but its still out of tune (just look at your teachers perplexed face), then this might be you too.
What I've found is that for many notes I will play them in tune for one phrase - but then they will be totally out the next. If I focus really hard I can hear the note from the previous phrase and while this can help, it is not a cure-all (sometimes I haven't played it for a while). As I see it, the trouble is that for me a note sounds different in each musical phrase and my mind will make it sharper or flatter to suit. Great for me - but awful for the listener that does not have my ear. The solution (I think, early days yet) is to tune each phrase separately. Thus, I play a phrase and check all the notes in it and then learn it as one, a tonal-word if you like. The good news is that once learned 'in context' the notes stay learned.
I think (hope) that this is the reason that almost every teacher I've worked with has remarked on my awful intonation with a new piece - and later wondered why they thought it so bad. Only to rediscover with the next piece!
If I am right we might learn this critical aspect of playing much, much faster if we first identify each person's intonation mechanism, or combination.
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