Before we dive further into this burning question that has generously scattered itself across many internet forums, it may be of interest to understand a little more about perfect pitch. There have been many musical artists credited with having perfect pitch including WA Mozart. What it means in essence, is that you have the ability to recognise any pitch played on any instrument or sung by any voice. In other words, if an E flat (or D#) for example, were to be played on the piano, you would instantly recognise it as that pitch without reference to any other device, instrument, or chart.
This facility contrasts with what is termed relative pitch which means the person can have a very good ‘guess’ at naming or singing a certain pitch, but usually in relation to another pitch or chord. Often it is felt that relative pitch can be learned whereas perfect pitch is something you are born with. Many singers, in my experience, and string players have a relative pitch that may have something to do with their choice of instrument (or voice). It is also according to a 2013 study highly probable that early musical training makes a considerable contribution to having perfect pitch. What I find interesting is that the perfect pitch can be altered. If a person with perfect pitch is subjected to a gradual detuning process their sense of pitch changes with this process rendering their pitch quite different.
Did Mozart Have Perfect Pitch
Back to the question about WA Mozart’s apparent perfect pitch. One of the major challenges when examining the validity of a claim is trying to collate sufficient evidence to support or refute the claim. WA Mozart sadly dies in 1791 which, to say the least, is a significant time ago. What this means is relying on largely anecdotal evidence which can be notoriously unreliable. One such story tells of a very young Wolfgang insisting that his father Leopold’s violin was out of tune with the neighbour’s violin. Leopold, as you might imagine, was quite sure his violin was in perfect tune, but one visiting the neighbour, it turns out that Wolfgang was indeed correct.
Keeping in mind that Wolfgang and his sister Nannerl (Maria Anna Walburga Ignatia Mozart to give her her full name), were touring from a young age with their father, being able to demonstrate such an incredible gift as perfect pitch would have only added to their appeal. A further account from an anonymous letter reports how the seven-year-old Wolfgang was sent to an adjoining room and asked to correctly name the pitches played on a range of instruments. As the letter reveals Wolfgang was easily able to name every pitch whether high, low, or in the middle of the range of the instrument much to the amazement of the assembled company.
At the age of fourteen, WA Mozart was invited by Pope Clement the Fourteenth to visit the Sistine Chapel and hear a performance of a piece that was surrounded by secrecy. There were only three copies of the piece that ever left the Vatican. This piece that we now have come to know and love was composed in 1638 by Gregorio Allegri and is a setting of Psalm 50.
If the accounts are to be believed the fourteen-year-old Mozart heard the piece a single time, but on returning home was able to write the entire work down perfectly, note by note. This adds a lovely if questionable dimension to Wolfgang Mozart’s legacy. If it is true this is an impressive feat and points to the strong likelihood that he did indeed have perfect pitch. The task, whilst not impossible, would be considerably more challenging without that facility.
A further contributing factor to the claim of Mozart’s perfect pitch is that so many of his six hundred or more scores are seldom with errors. What makes this all the more outstanding is that Mozart did not simply sit down and compose a single work at a time. Frequently, Mozart would be working on several different scores simultaneously. It is one thing to perhaps be writing a relatively simple couple of pieces at once but quite another to be composing concertos, operas, symphonies, and sonatas together without mistakes in the notation. This is not to claim that there were no errors, although this is a musicologist’s domain, the fact that there were very few may be a testament to Mozart’s perfect pitch.
If you compose using an instrument to check your melodies, chords, and rhythms then you can still make errors but even though reports are that Mozart may have composed at the piano, he did not need to. One story details how Mozart was working on a demanding score and needed to complete it. His devoted wife Constanza tried in vain to keep the composer awake and he allegedly slept at his table for hours. When he awoke, he feverishly completed the score in a matter of hours and met the deadline.
Apart from supposedly being afraid of the sound of trumpets, even as a young child Mozart would tell his father he felt very unwell if he heard music playing out of tune. What we can be certain of is that from a tender age WA Mozart received a rigorous musical education. Leopold by many accounts was tyrannical towards his children knowing only too well how lucrative child prodigies could be. Whilst there remains no doubt that Mozart was immensely talented whether he did or did not have perfect pitch doesn’t actually matter. He left us a phenomenal collection of astounding music that has delighted and inspired generations of people over centuries. I feel it is highly likely that Mozart did possess perfect pitch, probably his sister too and that many of the stories have their basis in truth.
Finally, you may be interested to discover how good your own sense of pitch is. Do you have a perfect pitch? Here is a link to try your luck.