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Is there any evidence that JS Bach, A Vivaldi and J Handel had perfect ear pitch? Perhaps, if one can spend so much time and energy to music he would develop some abilities.

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    Hehe "suffered". I'm reminded of the story of a person with perfect pitch who experienced my he downside as he aged. As our basilar membranes stiffen with age our detection of absolute frequency shifts. This man's favorite sounding keys (and pieces in those keys) turned into his least favorite as he aged. – Todd Wilcox Feb 7 '16 at 20:43
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    I had a friend who was listening to a choir rehearsal, having been given the score. He had to go outside to read it, he couldn't read it against what the choir were actually singing ;-) – Tetsujin Feb 8 '16 at 13:15
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    In what way would it matter? – guidot Feb 8 '16 at 16:02
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    Have you done any research? The amount of evidence in general on these composers is vast. For one thing, there were multiple pitch levels in use just in Bach's church alone. – musarithmia Feb 9 '16 at 14:26
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Today we have digital tuners and we agree that all instruments are tuned to A = 440 cycles per second. There were no such standards in those days.

I doubt any of them would have perfect pitch in the modern sense of the term, because every church they went into would have a pipe organ tuned to a different reference pitch. Furthermore in that time, pipe organs and vocal choirs and brass instruments all had different reference pitches. And reference pitches, to the extent that they existed, would be different depending on what nation or region you were in at the moment. So to have perfect pitch in the modern sense would be very confusing to a musician in their time.

  • Yes, A = 440 is a late 1800’s American thing, standardized as ISO 16 in 1975. – Simon White Feb 9 '16 at 15:27
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As Laurence alludes to, when discussing "perfect" pitch, there is a difference between relative pitch and absolute pitch.

Relative pitch -- knowing where a pitch falls within the context of a scale, and hearing the purity of intervals (rather than individual pitches) -- can be learned relatively easily, through exposure to music, and most musicians probably end up developing it to some extent, even if only instinctively. In fact, for vocalists, string players, and trombonists, relative pitch is an extremely important aspect of performance. The composers you listed above certainly would have had a strong sense of relative pitch, if for no reason other than all of them were violinists.

As for absolute pitch -- recognizing individual pitches without the need for a reference pitch -- your question seems to revolve around whether or not this ability can be "developed" by spending so much time and effort on music. To my knowledge, there is differing opinions about how well it can be trained -- especially after childhood -- and how useful such hypothetical training actually is in practice. See: Is there a way to develop "Perfect Pitch"?

I am not aware of any evidence that any of these three musicians had perfect pitch (though it wouldn't necessarily surprise me, either). What is more interesting to me, is asking how the phenomenon of perfect pitch would have even manifested in the Baroque Era. This was a time before any standardized reference pitch (A=415 is just a modern compromise, not an actual period standard), so pitches could vary wildly (as much as a minor third!) from region to region, or even between two church organs in the same town. IIRC, I think Bach is known to have written organ parts in a different key from that for the choir and orchestra.

How could someone with perfect absolute pitch even perceive pitch names in such an environment? Edit: By which I mean, any attempt by the mind to create some sort of mapping between letter names to specific frequencies would have been foiled by the widespread fluidity of such pitch assignments.

  • Pitch is very important to a singer. Whether the singer had absolute pitch or not, she would quickly learn which towns to avoid because of the difficulty of reaching the high notes. – Mark Lutton Feb 8 '16 at 2:41
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    As an interesting sidenote, I knew a cellist with perfect pitch who took up Baroque 'cello. She said that, over time, her sense of perfect pitch shifted to A 415 rather than A440. – TangledUpInBlue Feb 8 '16 at 15:51
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    I think it may be easier to have absolute pitch within the range of the instrument you play. I'm a flutist and for any pitch between middle C and three octaves and a fifth above I get a "finger feel" of where the pitch is fingered on my instrument, and that's how I decode the pitch. And all the musicians I've known who have unlimited absolute pitch have been piano players, who play all the notes. – Robusto Feb 8 '16 at 21:08
  • When people say “perfect pitch” they are talking about absolute pitch, not relative pitch. They are talking about the ability to avoid hitting a note on the piano at the top of a session, as though that matters. – Simon White Feb 9 '16 at 15:24

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