Help me Handel my sometimes useful but currently maddening sense of pitch
October 12, 2011 9:25 PM   Subscribe

How can I learn to override my absolute pitch to cope with singing at Baroque pitch?

I'm singing in a period performance ensemble, and I'm having trouble with singing at A=415 instead of modern pitch (A=440 or 442 or thereabouts).

My absolute pitch isn't flawlessly trained, but it's strong enough that I can't seem to turn it off. I probably couldn't sing you a precise A=440 vs. an A=442, but I can sure as hell hear how far away A=415 sounds. And it's really disorienting. (I saw this question, and the answer is yes.)
Not that Baroque pitch is "imperfect," just that it's a semitone lower than what I'm used to, and my brain and my ears are all tangled up.
I've looked on various music forums as well, but the only advice I found was for string players rather than singers.

My musical background: I started playing piano when I was about 4 or 5, and that's still my main instrument. So I hear piano notes most clearly – and fortunately, there won't be any piano in the performance (just in rehearsals). I also sang in choirs for years, but always at modern pitch. It's been a long time since I've sung classical music, so I figured I'd feel rusty anyway. But this Baroque pitch thing is driving me nuts.

So I've been transposing in my head, which is an awful lot of thinking for each note. Or I try to ignore my mental pitch ticker and just sing intervals, but I can't seem to sustain that. Or I try re-imagining the key signature, so that I read a piece in A-flat instead of A major; but then all the accidentals are wrong. And that also ends up being an awful lot of thinking for each note.

Has anyone else here had this problem? What are some strategies that have helped you cope? Hell, what strategies are worth trying, even if they were useless for you? Ideas for learning to relax my sense of what key is which, or to ignore it altogether?
posted by bassjump to Media & Arts (12 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Pay less attention to what you are singing and more attention of how you sound with other people. You should be able to hear the beats that happen when you are out of tune with other people and adjust yourself so that you're in tune with THEM and not with what you are used to hearing in your head. Hopefully they're singing the Baroque pitch pretty accurately and you should be able to match their pitches.
posted by astapasta24 at 9:34 PM on October 12, 2011

is there any chance you can think of it as a different distinct pitch? Give it a different internal label so instead of being 'that god awful flat A' it's 'that suboptimal H#'?
posted by mce at 9:48 PM on October 12, 2011

Can you transpose your music and print out a new score for yourself in A-flat (or whatever)? A quick search turns up a bunch of music transposing software, which I have no experience with and thus can't recommend anything in particular, but it might be easier than trying to fight your sense of pitch. (I don't have perfect pitch, but I have learned to pick my battles.)
posted by Quietgal at 9:50 PM on October 12, 2011

Practice with the ensemble a lot.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:09 PM on October 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Also, buy a chromatic tuner that allows you to set A to 415. They exist. Then sing to that, watching yourself hit the notes.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:10 PM on October 12, 2011 [3 favorites]

I have several friends with various degrees of this problem (and also, in reverse, with some English cathedrals where the organ is considerably sharp). I don't have it myself - although I get significantly less accurate if no-one tells me a piece has been transposed (if I know, I transpose at sight and it's all OK again). The problem with transposing is that it's not exactly a semitone, so you may find yourself still having to adjust pitch - and if you can come up with another method, it's more adaptable; 415 isn't the only available alternative pitch.

My understanding is that you're not going to be able to turn this off. A former teacher of mine seemed to cope pretty well with a variant of mce's suggestion - but rather than a different name, he just knew what each not sounded like when playing at standard pitch and at 415. At least two more do what astapasta24 does. Another just whinges a lot. The only way you're going to train that, though, is exactly the same way you trained (without realising it) your standard pitch memory - lots of repetition. It would probably help not just to immerse yourself in the new pitch, but to practice switching between them.

Some more bad news for you - people's pitch memories tend to go flat as they get older (60s - 70s); so you're likely to need this skill more in later life.
posted by monkey closet at 1:29 AM on October 13, 2011

Memorise your music. That way you're not looking at a score, so your brain doesn't have to deal with the disconnect between what you're reading and what you're seeing.

Pitch is absolute, but note names are an arbitrary thing. Once you're off copy, in your head, strip the notes of their names. Listen to the rest of the ensemble and, in that pitch-world, sing nameless notes.
posted by Pallas Athena at 3:59 AM on October 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

You sound exactly like me. There is lots of good advice in this thread already; I can tell you that the two things that have worked for me are lots and lots of practice in A415 - i.e. with the group - and, occasionally, printing a transposed score. This is particularly true in the quartet I sing with where, for various reasons, we occasionally need to do things up (or down) a semitone/tone/minor third, for example, and my brain starts to leak out my ears as I try to transpose on the run. It's nice to know I'm not alone, at least!
posted by impluvium at 4:42 AM on October 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I have the same issues, although thankfully I don't have to perform at A415. One thing you might try doing is listening to A415 performances of various pieces of baroque music while following the scores (which you can download from a place like IMSLP if you don't have them already), just to get used to it. This sort of thing helps me somewhat with reading odd clefs and transposing instruments.
posted by dfan at 8:24 AM on October 13, 2011

Extra thought: I'd guess that a lot of ensembles playing at A415 aren't using modern temperament, either - so the notes won't be exactly a consistent amount below what you expect. All the more reason to develop the aural approach...
posted by monkey closet at 9:01 AM on October 13, 2011

I have perfect pitch. I am a pianist, but with much previous experience with baroque recorder. When I was playing baroque frequently, I found that my pitch knowledge became almost... fluid. I could identify notes accurately in context, but when asked to sing a note I would give either at random. This came about at the time when I was playing both styles at almost equal frequency, so I'm going to hypothesize that it was related to my level of immersion.

This isn't really any different from previous answers, just anecdotal evidence to back them up. Listen to lots of baroque music, recognise that note names are simply arbitrary labels, sing the nameless notes. When you need to revert, immerse yourself back in the other world.
posted by fearnothing at 2:18 PM on October 13, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone. I definitely need more time and practice to get used to this. I listen to enough early music that I'm unfazed by hearing alternate tunings. But when I look at the page and need to translate what I see into where I place that note in my voice: that's where it gets muddled. Since my time with the ensemble is limited, I like dfan's idea of listening to performances at 415 or wherever with the score, so I can work on making those visual/intellectual/aural connections.

Fearnothing: that fluidity in thinking about pitch is exactly what I'd love to achieve.

Ironmouth: your idea about the tuner is aweome, even if my brain hurts just thinking about it.
posted by bassjump at 8:19 AM on October 14, 2011

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