Having watched Luc Besson’s new film Lucy, where Scarlett Johannson’s character has the ability to use an increasing amount of her brain, I left the cinema pondering the fact that I have Perfect (or Absolute) Pitch and it opens up music in a deeper cognitive way for me. I don’t know why or how it works but if I did do a PhD in Music, this is a contender. Perhaps this is the beginning!
Apparently, 1 in 10,000 have this ability. How and why can I perceive or transcribe an orchestral or film score in real time in my mind’s eye or perform it back as it happens or later in the correct key? How can I join in with pop songs that I’ve never heard before? What is the balance between nature and nurture?
What are your own experiences about pitch, hearing music in everyday sounds and how does it impact on your enjoyment or understanding of music? For once, I’ll leave a comments box on this page to start a dialogue. Friends on Facebook have already raised interesting points and I will share some of those where possible, if that’s ok.
In the beginning
I started playing piano when I was about 5 years old, on an old honkytonk left to us by neighbours (my childhood neighbour happened to be future author Josie Lloyd) and I could pick out tunes that I heard by ear. I was taken to the local church organist to ask about piano lessons. I was considered a bit young but we tried 15 mins every weekend. Daphne Hilliar was (and still is) an excellent teacher and she allowed me to play any piece of music as long as I learned it correctly – the classics, The Beatles, jazz, Paul Simon, etc. My piano lessons included learning with a colour system, now called Lisa Childs Piano 1 (more of this next time) and short bursts of theory and aural which I believed made the three elements join together. By the end of primary school I was playing chart hit requests on the piano at breaktime with a crowd of friends around me. It felt good to be accepted. I enjoyed concerts but not the pressure of the local music competitive festival (which I have since adjudicated!). My music lessons helped me understand music more technically yet I already had this indescribable connection through my acute musical hearing. I stayed with my teacher for 13 years and only missed one lesson as a child on purpose! I couldn’t get enough.
Pros (for me):
- I can name notes (or identify pitches and assign letters) and chords instantly without reference. The note-name game was a fun activity in my teaching career to keep the pupils amused!
- I can name a key of a piece and understand the role of each note I play both aurally and theoretically e.g. how important the 3rd is (major/minor), the rise and fall of suspensions and the impact of dissonance and chord extensions. I remember that the Eroica symphony is in Eb and Eine Kleine is in G but that is a by-product of memory and experience.
- I can sing in tune and am a good singer according to my friend’s relations at a recent wedding! I’d never profess to being a great professionally trained singer but it helps me train my choir (Ipswich G&S) and record parts and demos etc.
- I can identify pitch errors or dodgy intonation and quickly tune my double bass or guitar and would easily get the school orchestra tuned without reference notes.
- Transcription of music is a natural process and is only limited to my ability to write out or play in music at a finite rate on paper or using software. (Sibelius is my current score-writing package). If only I could plug a USB cable into my brain and download the entire score!
- I think Auditory imagery is the ability to see sound in one’s mind. This I will talk more about in blog number 2 but I made the above picture to show my concept of notes flying around me – I don’t actually see or feel this but I will try and convey this idea of tonal streams with some graphical work and film references.
- When asked by my friend and musician/teacher Andrew, about the balance of Visual, Auditory and Kinaesthetic learning styles, I more see the notation as an extension of the conceptualisation of the sound, whereas Andrew says he is better visually with sight reading and not learning things by ear. For him, the notes make the sound whereas for me (when listening to music) the sounds make the notes. When teaching at Shenfield High School in the 2000s, within a few minutes in their first music lessons, I could get Year 7 students to play 8 bar rhythms from notation flashcards because of firstly associating Tea and Coffee with the notes and making the syllables into movement. This is not a new teaching technique but it highlights the importance of the sound of music rather than traditional (initial) barriers of staff notation. (cf. Julie Andrews in Salzburg!)
Perfect Makes Practice
This made it easy for me to succeed in music lessons, GCSE and A-level Music and ABRSM exams. I had Grade 5 Piano by end of primary school and played guitar and recorder and took up classical and jazz double bass thanks to my class teacher David Leveridge and also Martin Hathaway, then a sixth former at Chelmer Valley High School. On my 16th birthday I had my ALCM diploma (post Grade 8) and then on my 17th birthday I failed (yes, failed!) my LLCM (Teaching Diploma). A good ear doesn’t mean that you’re experienced and academically brilliant. I passed the 3 hour theory test but not the 3 hour history paper due to a lack of knowledge and experience for my years. The practical piano performance was stressful due to a bomb-scare in London and no trains. However, it’s worth knowing I chose my path through academia using my strengths and avoided the weaknesses. My good ear and passion for hard work (and increasing OCD) made my BA Hons enjoyable with some easy-to-do modules. I came top of the year with a First Class degree and went off to study MSc Music Tech at York. But enough self-congratulation!
Double Edged Sword / Cons:
I’m often distracted by the array of pitches of bubbles in a can of Diet Coke, the whir of machinery, a cat’s miaow or the regional dialect of Wood Pigeons. Currently I can hear a child playing (Eb E F Eb E F), a baby crying (Ab), a regularly pitched hammer (several overtones), a number of motorbikes and a plane descending through a number of semitones. Common pitches are trains (G Eb), facebook alerts (C A), oh, and those wood pigeons (5/4 Db C… B, Db C… B, Db C… B, Db).
Former degree pupil and now a Head of Music, Rob, reminded me of the time when I harmonised the plane passing over during a lecture “Classic!” he says.
I use my ear to reduce or distract myself from stress. The more notes I have to process, the less my brain works on other things e.g. listening to the constant stream of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells or trying to transcribe enjoyable and/or complex music is a welcome tool. I also enjoy the “intelligent” analysis of music such as finding the three note motifs in Back to the Future (G C F#) or Wicked (F E C). I’m a musical sci-fi geek with OCD so I enjoy that!
- However, I find it hard to play in Baroque pitch or to listen to out of tune instruments. I suppose it’s because I have learned the Western scale of tempered tuning at A=440 Hz. (See Dollhouse reference below).
- Whilst sight reading and remembering music is easy (a practised skill though), transposing on the fly can, ahem, have its ups and downs! It’s easier for me to play it in a new key rather than using the transpose button on a keyboard as my hands follow the sound and when I jump to a G chord (in sound) and play those GBD keys, the resulting notes would be transposed – ouch!
- I only play concert pitch instruments although I have dabbled with a Bb Clarinet and Eb Alto Sax. As many of you know these are built to be in different transpositions so that they are “easier” to play certain scales (in a nutshell). That is hard for me to do as a player but a bit of maths and knowledge lets me adjust. How do wind players with perfect pitch cope with naming notes for transposed instruments or concert pitch? What do you say when you hear 440Hz? A or B for example?
- Poor intonation, choirs that sink over time and different tuning systems (such as Mean or Pythagorean) can make me feel odd but I wouldn’t say unwell. Listen to this track from the soundtrack to Dollhouse by Mychael Danna and Rob Simonsen. The alternate tuning of percussive/gamelan instruments symbolise the disjointed world of brainwashed “Actives” where their minds are not quite their own. I understand it and enjoy it but it does raise the hairs at the back of my neck!
Silence Isn’t Golden
I suppose John Cage was right with his infamous piece 4’33” – there is no such thing as silence. I believe that 4’33” which equals 273 seconds relates to 273 degrees Kelvin. This equals zero degrees Celsius i.e. “nothing” but it’s not Absolute Zero; When you perform this music which has each of the three movements as Tacet (don’t play), sound is still happening all around us and that is the music of that unique performance.
I often try to test myself to think: can we actually process more than a single line of sound at once – but in effect, do we flit (almost) vertically between notes, parts, notes of chords – in the way that animated cells are the persistence of vision in a flick book or movie? When I hear a soundtrack I perceive the instruments (I suppose most of us do) and then the concept of that note with the length of timbre as it’s played. However, I can then process that into an imaginary score. Perhaps I do jump back and forth or concentrate on certain parts (e.g. a repeated rhythm or ostinato in Back to the Future, knowing that it repeats (like a plate spinning)) and then analyse the other parts around it… This is rather like peripheral vision unlike the Cocktail Party effect where we focus on one conversation across the room and filter out the rest.
Can you learn Perfect Pitch?
Should this be “can you develop your auditory memory?” – Yes, I believe you can. Rob, the music teacher, says “I often get the urge to harmonise the hand dryers in public toilets or sing modal runs over the hoover. I don’t have perfect pitch but through practice and constant work as a music teacher (particularly A level) and gigging, I can hear something and then transcribe it pretty well the next day.”
Another contributing friend, Jason, to whom I always looked up, back in the day of our local musical pit bands and his impressive transcription skills, says he decided to learn perfect pitch and has around a 70% success rate. He’s a talented chap and is currently playing on tour with Portishead. Nicely done, sir!
There are many a small ad or website, such as www.perfectpitch.com where you can pay for a set of lessons on CDs. I’m not saying these are the only way to do it but it’s worth investigating (no sponsorship though!). For me, I’m going to delve deeper into Neuroscience with some tips from Jeanne and Gabi and look at the following:
In the next blog post: Auditory Imagery, Music and Colour, OCD, Dyslexia, Autistic Spectrum Disorder and Synesthesia – and a response to any comments.
Thanks for reading!
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