Aaron Copland said that if you ask a literary person to say two words about music, one of them will be wrong. Now that writers have seemingly abandoned any association with music, save rock, we can update this statement: when a writer says two words about music, both will be wrong. I can even tell you what the two words will be: perfect pitch. Anyone who follows literature and especially poetry will have noticed a trend. Writers have gone mad on the subject of perfect pitch. Seamus Heaney, for example, in his memoir Stepping Stones, refers to Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘perfect pitch.’ No endorsement of a writer is complete without mention of this attribute. I want to ask what writers mean by it – if they mean anything.
First, a dictionary definition: ‘the ability to recognize the pitch of a note or to produce any given note; a sense of absolute pitch’. The second part of this is description, not definition. It is about as useful as saying that being able to recognize a colour is the same as having absolute colour. Nor is the first part quite right, for the pitch must be recognized or sung without help from an instrument or tuning fork. The musician with perfect pitch, in other words, has an in-built tuning fork. Perfect pitch is a physiological attribute of the ear or brain.
The difficulty that dictionaries have in offering a comprehensive and accurate definition should be a warning. But for writers, the dictionary definition is clearly a remote matter. They think they know what the term means, and no one can be bothered to check.
The cell is mutating. A poet (or poem: this confusion is endemic) will, for example, be described as ‘perfectly pitched.’ This is as ludicrous as calling a painter 20-20-ed. Google the term ‘perfectly pitched’ and you will get a few million headings on the subject of the perfectly pitched film script. This is the only legitimate use of ‘perfectly pitched’ that I know of. Julian Barnes, in another ridiculous mutation, calls The Catcher in the Rye a ‘pitch perfect’ novel. The inversion here seems to be an attempt to form an adjective from the compound noun, though I am guessing. To repeat: perfect pitch (always a noun among musicians; they never call Beethoven ‘perfectly pitched’) is an intrinsic attribute of the ear that enables a musician to name or sing a note without reference to an instrument or tuning fork.
The gift of perfect pitch is rare: one in ten thousand of the population has it. Among musicians, while still comparatively rare, it is much more common. Is the attribute supposed to make the musician a better musician? No one seems to know, or care. I mention this because writers use the term as an intrinsic compliment – or think they do. It is probably getting in too deep to point out that perfect pitch, like 20-20 vision, is a perceptual gift and not a creative one. For the deaf Beethoven, it would clearly have been difficult to write down all that music without perfect pitch. The ‘inner ear’ was the only one he had. But this remains a mechanical consideration that does little to explain the imaginative genius of the music. Does a composer need to have perfect pitch? Mozart did, Stravinsky didn’t. Take your pick.
To return to writers: the best advice one can give is to avoid the term completely. If you mean to say that a writer has an unfailing ear for West Indian speech-rhythm, say so. Don’t try to impress us by saying that he is ‘perfectly pitched’ or any other such fudge. Is this fussing? So be it. Those whose profession it is to fuss over words are being lazy, so musicians must fuss for them.
Enough of the nonsense. Writers, leave perfect pitch alone.