Whether or not someone has “perfect pitch” (sometimes called “absolute pitch”) is a debatable issue as this talent has to be tested in a number of ways. By definition, perfect pitch means being able to recognize a tone instantaneously simply by hearing it (without any reference such as a pitch pipe or a particular note on a piano or other instrument). In other words, if you play a note on the piano, someone with perfect pitch will be able to identify that note (be it an F, G#, Bb, etc.) without being told it’s name. Further, they should be able to identify that note without hearing (or knowing the name of) any other note. It is also assumed that someone with perfect pitch also has the ability to recognize the tone (note in music) of door bells, the ringing of a telephone, or the beeping of a microwave. Other ways someone can display perfect pitch are naming the key of a certain piece of music or identifying a particular chord and all the notes in that chord.
Studies of this phenomena are still being carried out but most feel that perfect pitch comes from both musical training and a genetic predisposition as it seems to run in families (though not as prominently as facial features or height and weight).
There are those that profess the ability to teach perfect pitch to anyone but the prevailing opinion is this is not true. Further, there is debate about the purpose and importance of having (and applying) the skill. Even for a working musician, perfect pitch is not a great aid to their performance.
Relative pitch is the difference between two notes (pitches) with one note (the first note played) being the reference. With a certain amount of musical training, some will be able to accurately sing a note compared to a reference note. For example, the note E is a whole step above the note D. If one is told the note being played is a D, they may be able to sing an E (the note one “step” above a D).
Some that show this skill admit to thinking of relative pitch as based on the mathematics of music. In other words, as above, the note E is one step above D, where F# is one step above E (making F# two steps above D). Using an octave as a reference point is also thought as part of the mathematics of music and can help find a pitch.
Relative pitch is very important when it comes to forming chords. The notes in a chord are relative to each other (as intervals) and its this relation that gives the chord its unique sound. For example, if the musician hears the root (note) of a chord, they can play or sing the other notes in the chord.
Sight reading can also be aided by understanding relative pitches. Many musicians, when seeing a group (or series) of notes on sheet music can (in their head) sing or play the notes. A good sight reader typically learns a piece much faster than some without the skill.
Archive for February, 2009
It may be hard to imagine, but the piano wasn’t always accepted into country and western music. There were many pianists who persevered and brought an entirely new dimension to the music. These musicians brought other playing styles into a very rigid musical genre, allowing it to expand into the force it is today.
Pianists in country and western music were originally borrowed from other genres of music. The first pianist in Western swing was a jazz player named Fred “Papa” Calhoun. Calhoun’s deft playing complemented the rest of the band, which consisted of stand-up bass, tenor banjo and twin fiddles. Other groups followed suit, searching for the right players for their lineup.
John “Smokey” Wood is one of the most famous of these pianists. Known as a bit of an outlaw in his days, Smokey got his name from the enormous amount of marijuana he was known to smoke. He often lit up right in the middle of a set, in full view of the audience and bar owner. Smokey was a teenager when the Houston music scene blew up, and he decided to get caught in the wave.
Though he never became a household name, the swagger of his playing affected country and western music forever. He is credited with bringing blues into hillbilly music and living like a character in one of his songs. Before he died in 1975, he wrote music to be played at his funeral. His wife, who was an accomplished church organist, couldn’t perform it in the swing style, so she convinced an organ salesman to play it. The salesman just happened to be passing by at the right time.
One of the creators of the Nashville sound was a gentleman named Floyd Cramer. After spending his youth playing for the Louisiana Hayride Radio Show, Cramer moved to Nashville to further his musical career. The piano was just beginning to become popular in country music, and Cramer arrived at just the right moment. In a short amount of time he would play with legendary acts like Patsy Cline, Don Gibson and The Everly Brothers.
Cramer’s playing is most notably heard on Elvis Presley’s first big hit, Heartbreak Hotel. Without his legendary fingers, the Nashville music scene wouldn’t be what it is today. Cramer went on to play with guitar legend Chet Atkins and saxophonist Boots Randolph in the Million Dollar Band.
Aubrey Wilson Mullican, otherwise known as Moon Mullican, was one of the first singer-pianists to become a major commercial force. In the 1930s he earned his moniker by performing all night, developing his style from the blues artists of the day. Later in the decade he began playing with the Texas Wanderers, bringing his wild command of the instrument to hillbilly music.
Though he played country music, his style was a precursor to the rock and roll of the 1950s. Jerry Lee Lewis pointed to Mullican as a huge influence. His ability to transcend genres gave his recordings a sound all their own. Mullican became a member of the Grand Old Opry and was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame posthumously.
Most piano players are aware that the piano's modern name is actually a shortened version of its original name, "pianoforte," which is a compound of the Italian words for "soft" and "loud." This name was given to the new instrument in order to differentiate it from its forbear instrument, the harpsichord, whose volume range is far less flexible than that of the piano.
While earlier instruments such as the harpsichord generate sound by plucking strings, the piano was the first instrument to successfully generate sound by striking strings. Invented around 1700 by the Paduan instrument-maker Bartolomeo Cristofori, the revolutionary mechanism of the piano, with hammers that return to the rest position immediately after striking, made possible a far greater degree of control and nuance than previous instruments.
An orchestra, traditionally, is made up of the following: strings (violins, violas, cellos, bass), brass (trumpets, trombones, french horns), woodwinds (clarinet, oboe, bassoon, flutes, piccolos), and percussion (snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, misc. percussion instruments). Although there are exceptions, an orchestra plays mostly symphonic music (Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, etc.) and most often performs in a concert setting. Most orchestras are seated the same way with the violins and violas on the conductor’s left, cellos to his right, woodwinds behind the strings, brass in back to the conductor’s right, and percussion, back center. It’s quite common that a piano is included to the conductor’s immediate left. A soloist usually takes this position as well. The average size of an orchestra is 75 to 100 players. Smaller groups of 50 or less are often called chamber orchestras.
The word orchestra is sometimes used in a less informal way such as the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain. The Boston Pops orchestra is known for playing popular songs of the day.
A concert band, unlike an orchestra, has no stringed instruments such as violin or cello. And where an orchestra usually has three trumpets, a band can have as many as twelve (as well as that many trombones and clarinets). Although concert band music can range from symphonic to popular to Jazz, many bands are known for playing marches such as The Stars and Stripes Forever and The Washington Post March. Some bands play both in a concert setting and perform as a marching band (such as in parades or as part of the entertainment at a football game).
The word band, of course, can also be used to describe a rock band, Dixieland band, or hip hop band. Personnel and instrumentation varies widely in these kind of groups as well as does the music being played.
A choir is made up entirely of singers (and often a piano accompanist) and most often takes the form of male and female vocalists divided into five voices (vocal ranges): soprano and alto (women) and tenor, baritone, and bass (men). Music written for choirs utilizes the five voices to create the parts that might otherwise be played by musical instruments. Choirs can be all male or female and there are many specialty choirs such as singers that perform only certain styles of music. Jazz choirs are quite common as are barbershop quartets.
An ensemble is a “catch all” phrase for a group of musicians. The term is mostly used to describe string ensembles. The term is sometimes used when describing a group of singers (e.g., a vocal ensemble). Typically, an ensemble contains four to twenty members. It is derived from the word “assembly.”
The word combo (from the word “combination”) is sometimes used when describing an ensemble, but for the most part, it means a four-or five-piece group, typically with guitar, bass and drums. You’ll see the term most often when describing jazz musicians (i.e., a jazz combo).
Percussion instruments include the snare drum (and all drums in general), cymbals, tympanis (sometimes called “kettle drums” as they are shaped as such), and exotic instruments such as the guiro, claves, and maracas. These instruments, and the way they are played, go a long way in determining the feel and style of the music. Where a rock band might have a set of drums (snare drum, bass drum, cymbals), Latin musicians used a number of different instruments to create music.
Though most don’t think of it in this way, the piano is a percussion instrument. The tones are made by hammers striking strings, causing them to vibrate. Seeing the inner workings of a piano, and how forcefully the hammers hit the strings, shows why it is considered a percussion instrument.
Music written for a percussionist is quite different than for the pianist. Percussion notation is divided into two types: pitched and non-pitched, the difference being the instruments used. For example, drums (which can be tuned) and cymbals (which cannot).
The notation for pitched percussion is similar to piano music in that notes are placed on the various places on a staff. And similar symbols are used to show volume and attack.
The notation for non-pitched percussion instruments is less formal. A clef with two vertical lines is often used and it appears on a five-line staff similar to piano music. But some percussionist use their own way of noting which instrument is played and when.
Drum tablature (drum tab), used for a drum set (bass drum, snare, hi hat, cymbals, toms) uses the following symbols: CC: Crash Cymbal, HH: Hi-Hat, Rd: Ride-Cymbal, SN: Snare-drum, LT: Low-Tom, HT: High-Tom, FT: Floor-Tom, B: Bass-Drum, Hf: Hi-Hat-w/foot. This tablature can become quite complex as four or more instruments are often played at the same time.
Outside of orchestral and band music, most percussionists do not use any kind of tablature or notation. What they play is entirely up to them and at their discretion (and drawing entirely on their own techniques). However, most strive to create a style and sound that works well with the music, and the musicians they are playing with. And there are definite rules as to when certain percussion instruments are used. A rock drummer may play with a lot of force and intensity, where a jazz drummer plays with more touch and finesse. The best percussionists (drummers) can play a wide variety of music and styles.
For the pianist to play effectively with a percussionist, they have to be able to break down each measure into quarter note (beats), eighth notes, sixteenth notes, even thirty-second beats to be able to communicate with the percussionist. The pianist also needs to understand how and when different percussion instruments are used and for what style of music.
The biggest challenge, of course, is for the pianist to play accurately and precisely. Some pianists may have never worked with a percussionist and may not be capable of playing with the precision required. That being said, working with a percussionist can be a great training tool.