In honor of World Voice Day, we present two singer myths associated with what it takes to become a professional singer: perfect pitch and the complicated relationship between music theory and creativity.
by Ashley Eady
Myth #1: Perfect pitch is important for becoming a professional singer.
Alternatively known as “absolute pitch,” perfect pitch is the ability to instantly identify a musical note without an external reference. A person with perfect pitch can “pull a note out of the air”—meaning they can sing a pitch without having to hear it first—and/or correctly name any pitch they hear.
Perfect pitch is extremely rare. According to the journal Psychological Science, only one in 10,000 people has it. Some noteworthy singers who have/had it are Frank Sinatra, Stevie Wonder, and Mariah Carey.
But does a singer need to have perfect pitch to be successful? Many experts say “no.”
Dr. Michael Hanawalt, Director of Choral Activities at Wichita State University, believes that although having perfect pitch is helpful, it’s not essential.
“Absolute pitch is, in most cases, a real asset to a singer,” he says. “But, it is not in any way necessary for a singer to have absolute pitch to be successful.”
Perfect pitch may seem foolproof, but it’s not. Singers with the ability sometimes struggle in areas their peers do not. For example, “If a piece is transposed to a different key than is written on a page, [singers with perfect pitch] may struggle to adapt to the new key, their brains being in conflict with what they see and what they hear,” Hanawalt explains.
According to Dr. Rachel Copeland, associate director of the School of Music at East Carolina University, “Having perfect pitch definitely makes ear training easier, however it is the ‘easy way out.’ Singers who practice and work really hard end up developing an excellent ‘relative’ pitch (or ear). That means the muscles used when singing automatically go to the right place to produce the right pitch.”
So how can a singer learn relative pitch?
Copeland and Hanawalt note that knowledge and a good musical foundation are vital components to developing the skill.
“Having a solid musical foundation in sight-reading, theory and history is essential to being a successful singer,” says Hanawalt. “One must be able to learn music in an expedient amount of time, be sensitive to intonation, and, ultimately, have an instrument that people want to hear.”
As with any art form, singing requires hard work and practice. And with some effort, relative pitch is something singers can learn.
Myth #2: Music theory will stifle creativity.
Some singers believe learning the rules and parameters of music theory will stifle their creativity.
Copeland disagrees. “Learning all components of how music works helps create a better, well-rounded musician, which can only increase one’s creativity,” she says. “My assumption is that those who believe that music theory stunts creativity are only looking at theory through the standard Western European structure, which is not the totality of music theory. I think music theory needs to include the way that jazz and improvisation work to establish such creativity.”
Hanawalt also disagrees with the thought that theory drains singers’ creative impetus. He adds that how music theory is taught is equally important. “The best theory teachers I had taught me music theory as being the building blocks of musical language, not necessarily rules that had to be followed at all costs. I’m a firm believer that one must know these essential elements of what music is and what they are called. If taught in the right way, knowing this information opens up creative possibilities rather than restricting musical options.”
Ashley Eady is a music journalist based in Los Angeles. She studied Clarinet Performance at Blair School of Music at Vanderbilt University and Arts Journalism at University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.
I have been a professional singer and singing teacher for over 30 years–and have perfect pitch–of which I am very glad! However, I did learn fairly early on that it was going to be essential for me to also acquire the skill of relative pitch, especially since the bulk of my performing career was as an ensemble singer. I quite often worked with ensemble directors who would make snap decisions–at times, even in the middle of a performance or recording session–to transpose a piece up or down from the indicated pitch! Had I not had good training (based on use of the solfege system) in sight-singing, those moments would have been terrifying! As it was, they would induce just a little angst, until I told myself to just ‘switch off’ the perfect pitch and go with my relative pitch. I certainly advocate sight-singing training for all students who come to me wanting to train their voices and especially if they want to sing in groups or ensembles!