Above: VIU Music Department Faculty member James Mark, author of the talk Perfect Pitch: Gift or Curse? ???? James Mark

By contributor Gordon Hak

“Technically,” says James Mark, “perfect pitch is called absolute pitch, and it is considered a musical gift. Statistically 1 in 10,000 people have it and, not surprisingly, it is more common in musicians. Roughly 22 in 10,000 musicians have perfect pitch, but it seems all musicians want it.”

Pitch is the topic of Mark’s upcoming presentation, part of the popular Arts & Humanities Colloquium Series. Mark is a VIU faculty member from the Music Department and his talk, entitled Perfect Pitch: Gift or Curse? will take place on January 27 in the Malaspina Theatre beginning at 10 am.

Mark himself is very aware of the good and bad of perfect pitch because he has it. Why can it be a curse for those who have it?

“Those with perfect pitch can recall pitches out of thin air and can identify audible frequencies and label them with conventional musical names,” says Mark. “Much like how our eyes can identify wavelengths in the visual spectrum and label them as colours. The problem in music is we are not always dealing with the same tuning system.”

Tuning systems in music are vast. In the Western world, we have adopted a tuning system called Equal Temperament. Equal Temperament is rooted in Pythagorean tuning, a 12-note tuning system developed by Pythagoras in Greek antiquity. Another common tuning system is called ‘Just Intonation’, a tuning system based on the harmonic series. In any given situation, musicians may find themselves using one or more tuning systems in the same piece of music or phrase.

“This is where the curse of perfect pitch rears its ugly head,” says Mark. “Perfect pitch nowadays is commonly developed in an equal tempered system, but musicians with perfect pitch must play in other tuning systems. This means instincts must be ignored; to play ‘in tune’ with others, we must play ‘out of tune’ with ourselves.”

He goes on, “There are other problems too. Our reference pitch is based on A440. A440 is the tuning note of the orchestra and vibrates at 440Hz. Some Baroque ensembles, to recreate music more precisely, play at A415, which is almost a semitone flatter than our current convention. Some modern orchestras are pushing A towards 442Hz, making it sound slightly sharper or brighter. Either way, a musician with perfect pitch will find it quite unbearable as they try to ignore their instincts.”

In the presentation Mark will talk about the perfect pitch phenomenon in general and his own experience. He will discuss his childhood, different tuning systems in the world, and the contribution of Johann Sebastian Bach. He will also consider the possibility of learning perfect pitch and offer reflections on his coping mechanisms, how he deals with ‘out of tune’ situations, as well as the connections between perfect pitch and dyslexia.

James Mark was born and raised in western Canada and completed his undergraduate degree in music at York University. He earned his Masters degree in violin performance and composition at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) where he went on to become a faculty member teaching theory and musicianship.

Currently Mark is the Music Department chair at Vancouver Island University and teaches courses in digital music notation and studio recording. He also teaches violin performance at VIU and at the Nanaimo Conservatory of Music. He is a core member of the Vancouver Island Symphony and is continually working as an arranger and composer. Since 2007 Mark has been the arranger, musical director, and violinist for the Yellowpoint Christmas Spectacular, a project that recently celebrated its tenth year with sold out performances on its island tour.

The free Colloquium presentation is open to all, and students are especially welcome. There will be refreshments.