Perfect Pitch Blog 02

Welcome back to my brain. My first Perfect Pitch blog was over 2000 words which was cathartic but rather a long ramble, so this blog will be mostly video and image based. These two documentaries are a useful summary of Blog 01:

Having Perfect Pitch:

Gene Research: 

Music and Colour Perception: Synesthesia, (the ability to mix one’s senses e.g. to taste words or see music in colour), is covered in this research by Ian C. Firth (2012), where colour charts are related to pitch, intervals and keys. There is an interesting video of Bach’s Prelude I in C using coloured lines. A colleague of mine at Colchester Institute combined her music and art skills in her MA to interpret musical compositions using colour palettes.

At the Digital Archive in the Beethoven-Haus in Bonn, there is an interactive performance of “Fidelio, 21st century” the “first classical opera to be performed interactively in a 3D virtual reality or virtual environment. The opera’s characters are depicted as abstract figures consisting of small particles (particle systems) [of coloured light]. By following musical and dramaturgical directions, the figures express the music’s flow in dance­like movements. In addition, visitors can influence the performance through interactive devices.” Click here for pictures and a flyer.

Db or C# major – Enharmonic Equivalents: However, I don’t see music in the way described above but I do feel that certain keys (e.g. keys using sharps in the key signatures) are brighter than flat keys. But, I hear you say, is Chaminade’s Concert Etude Op 35-2. “Autumn” in Db major with a dark and brooding Eb minor middle section – more rich and lush than Granados’ Allegro de Concierto in C# major, which is vibrant and bright. (It heads off to G# minor, B major then G major which are all sharp keys but also to F major which isn’t but only has one flat). They both use the same notes on the piano (at the beginning) but is this perception heightened because of our knowledge and preconception of the alternate key signature or were they just written to evoke these feelings? I must dig these pieces out again and do some practice!

(Warning this second piano is slightly out of tune – Is this where the Jaws theme is taken from – or Happy Birthday?!)

Knowing Colour & Knowing Pitch: I was trying to find a parallel about the everyday identification of colours which is usually (but not always) taken as read (pardon the pun). When we see an object, we know the colour as it has been taught to us at an early age. We don’t see the word BLUE but instinctively know BLUE. This is how it seems to work for me owing to being taught which letter names / key presses corresponded with which sounds (aged 5). I have now learned to accept and know that a certain note is a G or a D# etc. I may then choose to visualise the notes on the stave, a pitch shape or an instrument performing this (perhaps in detail, if I know how the notes are made but sometimes at a distance e.g. if on a stage or on TV). The only variance is that for non-pianists, sharp notes can be higher in pitch than flat notes e.g. D# can be nearer to E whereas Eb is nearer to D. (That’s another blog!)

Another concept, mentioned last time, was peripheral vision. Look, for example, at something out of the window. Your eyes fix on one object (or a number of nearby features very quickly scanning) but you have peripheral vision detecting colour, shape and other features. This is what I think it is like for me when listening to a busy score, you may focus (albeit very briefly) on one note or line but you can still identify patterns, phrases, keys, chords and timbre all around it, hence being able to perceive or transcribe (in one’s mind) a whole score. It’s just impossible to write it out at that speed, which is frustrating!

Colours and Chords: I was trying to find a parallel for knowing the sound of a chord and I think the closest I can get to this is to demonstrate that we can look at a series of flags which have individual features but it is the organisation of these coloured shapes that tell us it’s a Union Flag, American, Norwegian or others. In this picture, there are many red, white and blue flags – some we’ll know and others we won’t. I believe that is similar to chord perception. We can hear the number of notes or what they might be. Some flags are related. Some chord types you might be able to recognise e.g. Major, Minor, Diminished and Augmented but there are other arrangements such as extended jazz chords which are more complicated. Then you throw in the pitch concept and try to learn that this chord is C major or G minor or E7 (#9) over a C in the bass.


Lisa Childs – Piano Book 1 (aka Childs’ Play): I learnt with this method / tutor book aged 5 and I believe it drastically increased my understanding of pitch and music reading as there were coloured notes on the stave and a fun set of coloured stickers and a keyboard template, which fitted behind the keys. Middle C is a gold star. I still have this book and its resources. The series has been re-printed over the years and is available here. I recommend Book 1 for younger learners. You don’t have to stick the colours on the actual piano. That’s where the template fits in.

Lisa Childs 1

Perfect Pitch and Autistic Spectrum Disorder: This research by Anders Dohn et al (2012) is a revealing comparison between people with Perfect (or Absolute) Pitch (APs), non-APs and non-musicians. They “found a significantly higher degree of autism traits in APs than in non-APs and non-musicians, and autism scores were significantly correlated with pitch identification scores. However, [their] results showed that APs did not differ from non-APs on diagnostically crucial social and communicative domain scores and their total AQ scores were well below clinical thresholds for autism. Group differences emerged on the imagination and attention switching subscales of the AQ. Thus, whilst these findings do link AP with autism, they also show that AP ability is most strongly associated with personality traits that vary widely within the normal population.”

Another link to the Autistic Spectrum Disorder is the ability to recognise patterns. I’m very good at word games, logic puzzles, Sudoku etc. but also listening to patterns in sound e.g. rhythms and intervals. The dialects of Wood Pigeons seem to have various call and answer conversations and Suffolk birds seem to communicate differently to ones from Essex. My own Golden Labrador Summer has the following barking code, which I’ve (thankfully) deciphered over the past few years, including:

1 bark – needs to go outside to use the facilities

2 barks – emergency / notification of cat entry, washing machine, gas-leak etc.

3 barks – seeking attention

“Music of the Left Hemisphere: Exploring the Neurobiology of Absolute Pitch”: This research by Zachary D. Goldberger (2001) states that “one study reported that 95 percent of AP musicians began their training before the age of seven. Another study confirmed that AP musicians began musical training at 5.4 +/- 2.8 years compared to non-AP musicians who began training at 7.9 +/- 3.2 years of age.” I started just after my fifth birthday so that fits the model. Goldberger concludes that a key finding is “an exaggerated leftward asymmetry of the physiologically lateralized PT” [!] (planum temporal – a triangular area of the superior temporal plane located behind the primary auditory field). A link to the heightened ability to understand and speak different languages is linked to this.

Take the Toms Test: Here’s a short test I made to test yourself on note recognition but also on melodic and timbre perception. How do you perceive a melodic shape? Do you perceive timbre of different instruments differently or do you just think “It’s a clarinet”? Please set the video quality to HD. Click here for the answers (PDF).

Thank you for your comments so far on the blogs and on my facebook page. Perfect Pitch is a double edged sword but generally very useful. However, it can be annoying and distracting in everyday life and the party trick soon wears off in public. I thought I might start categorising supermarkets on the choices of the beeps and how pleasing they are. Imagine what fun Steve Reich must have in Wallmart!

Next week: Dyslexia and Music and other thoughts.

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