Pitch, imperfect with age

One morning, I heard about a study at the University of California which was investigating the genetics of absolute pitch.

This was of interest to me, so my ears perked up. (I know. Cheap one.) I’ve got pretty good ears – really good ears, when I’m “in shape”. I think the debate I’ve had with myself over the years is whether I have absolute pitch or just really really good relative pitch.

Time was, I was able to sing an A 440 out of thin air, and be spot on. (Still can – just did it. Ha ha.) That would be proof of absolute pitch.

On the other hand, I experienced an ear training class at Berklee where the prof played a whole example, and I was able to take the dictation and notate it in C. Meanwhile, my pal David was over in the corner cringing – he could tell that the example was actually being played in the key of B, and it was like nails on the chalkboard to him. That would argue the case for my having relative pitch.

I got to a point in my pedagogy where my teacher Charlie would play tone clusters on the piano, and I could pick out which of the 12 tones were not in the cluster. But this took a lot of practice and training – another argument in favor of relative pitch. I can’t do that one anymore. But I bet I could if I worked on it. For a year.

So anyway, I took the test on the U-Cal San Francisco site and did miserably. The tones came too fast for me, and they were sine wave tones, which contain no harmonics. It was like trying to read a book with vaseline smudged in your eyes, that’s what it felt like. I got really frustrated and bailed after a few missed notes. I felt embarrassed.

But I’m over it, a little. And I also found that I share some interesting traits with the survey results.

For example, my perception is going sharp, as they put it. In other words, if you play me an E, I am more likely to identify it as an F. This appears to be associated with age.

That’s a relief. I thought I was losing it. Last few years, when I’d restring a guitar, I’d tune it by ear and discover I’ve “Alice In Chains”-ed it – i.e. tuned it perfectly down a half step flat. Thank my stars for electronic tuners to keep me honest.

The other trait has to do with confusing A with G-sharp. The theory behind this has to do with the fact that “concert A” sort of floats around, depending on which orchestra or consort you consort with.

One other interesting side effect I experience often is synesthesia, or the phenomenon of having sound trigger a visual response in terms of color perception. Not only do I tend to think of pitches as having colors associated with them, when I am deep in listening concentration, I see these colors. This was especially true during the days when I tuned pianos for a little side cash.

Maybe I’ll bone up, and take the test again. Or maybe I’ll just grow up and get over myself, and get on with things.

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