Absolute Pitch research, ear training and more
I wondered when I was going to hear from a truly skeptical reader, and I finally have; this person thinks that I'm wasting my time trying to find a method that will actually work for every adult who tries it. Not all adults will be able to learn perfect pitch, this person suggests. Leave ETC v2.1 where it is and focus on the children.
Of course, in theory I must disagree. With the exception of people who suffer from neural abnormalities, I don't see any reason to expect that one person couldn't learn as well as another... theoretically. It's still theory, all theory, so I can't unequivocally say this person is wrong and I'm right-- but in preparing my response, I realized that what I really need to do now is to begin those first steps away from theory and into reality, and begin testing new exercises.
Just to make a point, I cobbled together a tiny little program (Windows only, for now). The program has five buttons.
The buttons play different sound combinations, three of which feature an identical root. The fourth combination has a different root sound. When you click Test, you hear one of two tones-- either the root shared by the three buttons, or the unique root played by the one button. You have two seconds to decide which one it is before the program tells you "Three" or "One", respectively, and then you can click the other four buttons and try again.
Surely this task could be learned by any normal person! Tasks like these should make it possible for anyone to follow the material, regardless of existing musical ability; it treats the problem as a perceptual and a linguistic task rather than a musical one. This little example follows some of Gibson's principles of perceptual learning, and I got the idea for this presentation from an existing game created by a reading-education company. I don't expect this little program to teach anything substantial, but I offer it in support of my assertion that anyone should be able to learn what I want to teach.
If it weren't already clear from the rest of this website, I love typing. Kind of an odd thing to say, isn't it? Not I love writing-- I love typing. When I retyped Taneda's book, it wasn't a dreary chore, but a kind of delightful meditation; along the same lines, I was almost disappointed to discover that PaperPort's optical character recognition software was so error-free, because then I didn't get to retype all of The Fletcher Music Method. Part of the fun, of course, is the speed (90-120 wpm); but even without that, I just find it a relaxing way to spend time. When I am composing-- an e-mail, or an academic assignment, or one of these entries-- of course I enjoy the creative process, but I still find great joy in the soothing mechanical exercise of tapping the keys, of translating each word into text. I know that this goes all the way back to at least third grade; that year, just for fun, I reproduced The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins on my mother's manual typewriter.
When I retype something, I'm not required to make any new interpretation of the work; in fact, my skill as a typist is measured by my ability to reproduce it without variation. This touches, in a sense, on the same aspect of musical performance that Fletcher complains about, which is also skewered at the beginning of Mark Twain's essay English as She Is Taught-- how can the musician be considered to be truly proficient when they are merely repeating others' ideas? How can the student be truly learning when the process by which they are being taught requires no actual comprehension of the material they are able to mechanically reproduce? And why, then, is the Suzuki method so successful, when its entire strategy is listen-repeat, listen-repeat?
The success of the Suzuki method is, I think, explained by the fact that the student is expected to internalize the composer's musical ideas. The student is not expected to compose at a high level of proficiency; in fact, as far as I am aware, the student is not expected to compose at all. Rather, Suzuki says that his method mimics the way in which a child learns its mother tongue-- by listening to and reproducing sophisticated examples of the language, the very young child will naturally infer and internalize the rules and structures of music. This will naturally lead to an ability to compose, and to improvise, and to feel music. I think the situation is well illustrated by this excerpt from English as She is Taught, which I'll copy in here to save you the trouble of searching for it. This is a classical poem, followed by a young student's attempt to interpret the poem.
Alone, but with unbated zeal,
The horseman plied with scourge and steel;
For jaded now and spent with toil,
Embossed with foam and dark with soil,
While every gasp with sobs he drew,
The laboring stag strained full in view.
The man who rode on the horse performed the whip and an instrument made of steel alone with strong ardor not diminishing, for, being tired from the time passed with hard labor overworked with anger and ignorant with weariness, while every breath for labor he drew with cries full or sorrow, the young deer made imperfect who worked hard filtered in sight.
I suspect that this is, more or less, what would happen if a tiny student attempted to create variations on, say, Bela Bartok's master works. The result would be a terrible mish-mash, when compared to the original idea. But even though Twain included this example to gently mock the young student's mangling of the poet's ideas, it should not be overlooked that the student's literary improvisation does, nonetheless, demonstrate a rudimentary comprehension of spelling and grammatical structure. And some of the individual word-ideas have clearly been understood, as the student writes "deer" for "stag", among other substitutions. Furthermore, you may notice that the student has even picked up on the fact that the original poem is a single sentence, and has imitated that structure (if clumsily) in response. I might argue that it's a deficiency of the Suzuki method that it does not encourage the student to recreate pieces "in their own words"-- but the Suzuki method of listen-and-repeat should make it possible for them to do so, all the same.
The missing link, which Fletcher, Taneda, and Suzuki warn against, is when the student does not attempt to recreate the idea. This, again, is how I learned "Suzuki method"-- the wrong way, with no listening. My reproduction was entirely mechanical. I pressed the keys in the correct order, and out came the sound. As long as all the sounds were correct, I had done well. But what was the meaning inherent in the sound? What was the composer trying to express? I couldn't even offer a poor reinterpretation of the work, then or now, because I wasn't being trained to absorb and reproduce ideas. I was being trained to move my fingers around. I was being taught the result, not the cause. The effect is the same whether you're studying musical ideas or linguistic ones.
I've soured somewhat on the Tonal Harmony book for this reason. Although it is a splendid compilation of necessary concepts in music theory, it is also rife with what Fletcher calls "vicious little tricks" which create the impression of knowledge. One simple example is the major and minor scale, for which the book instructed me to memorize sequences of half-steps, to build a scale note by note (from bottom to top). A couple weeks ago, though, while I was playing Interval Loader, the way I was using my fingers made me realize-- the difference between the major and minor scales is that the minor scale substitutes the minor for the major intervals! m3, m6, and m7 instead of M3, M6, and M7. I mean, duh! Why memorize various combinations of half-steps at all? Knowing this about the intervals, I instantly have a mental picture of the entire scale, and there's no way I'll forget this information, as I would a random sequence of ones and twos.
This helps to illustrate why internal representation of the idea is important. I suggested not too long ago that Interval Loader would provide the same results as Bruce Arnold's training, but that's not entirely true. Substituting visual labels for verbal ones allows the listener to accept the sound of the interval, rather than the sound of its label; and the piano-keyboard mapping allows the user to hold the sound in their mind while they produce the unique physical response to that sound. Although I still don't know why I can do this while my mind thinks about other things (perhaps this is why people can play piano and sing at the same time), this one-two punch of grapheme and key assignment means that the process will not be mindlessly reflexive. The sound is not merely a stimulus, but an entity with identity. As such, through listening and reproducing the sounds that I hear-- without any further interpretation-- I am receiving structural knowledge of music.
This is why I love typing, and is probably why playing musical pieces is effective as a training exercise. It is true that I can "turn off" my mind if I want to achieve a burst of speed, but the difference is palpable; I get to the end of the line and I haven't the slightest idea what I've typed. Normally, my typing is mindful; I experience the writer's sound as I recreate it, and I learn from it. Not only do I learn the ideas themselves, in the content of the material, but I also learn how the ideas are composed, through my sense of touch! Spelling, grammar, and structure are all transmitted to me through my fingers, just as Interval Loader impressed on me the tactile sensation of a major or minor scale. As I look into Fletcher's insistence that the sense of touch should be fully incorporated into musical training, and as I remember Taneda's guidance to impress musicianship into the child's body, I'll want to remember that it's all with a prior awareness. The sense of touch is used in purposeful expression, not as mechanical response.
I had a different topic in mind-- something a tad less philosophical-- but this takes precedence. I just finished watching the first disc of Penn & Teller's Bullshit! series. I lazily scanned through the first four episodes; their targets were easy and obvious and, to someone who has read the entire commentary archive on James Randi's website, nothing I hadn't already heard. (And, since I don't like to see ordinary people made fools of, I confess I didn't much enjoy their visit to the UFO convention.) Irritated, I asked the screen to show me something I didn't know... and the final segment delivered. "Baby bullshit."
The title of the segment doesn't represent bullshit in its nascent form. Rather, it talked about bullshit baby products. It made the statement that new parents are so out of their mind with love for their child, and their desire to be a "good parent", that they'll buy all kinds of useless, pointless garbage if it promises a better life for their child. Seeing this, I finally have an answer to a question that had plagued me-- why wouldn't a parent jump at the chance to teach their child perfect pitch? If this television show is any indication, it's very probably because new parents are being subjected to so much kid-boosting bullshit that perfect pitch training is, to them, just another steaming lump in the putrid horde.
This may not be the reason, but it's got to be a factor. It's especially relevant because the Bullshit! segment reminded me of something that I had quite forgotten-- that the materials designed to teach young children are often designed to teach young children. But you don't teach preschoolers, for goodness' sake! You play with them! Here are a couple of passages, one short and one long, from Keith Johnstone's Impro (a book I recommend unreservedly to anyone who has the slightest interest in their own creative life).
One astounding thing was the way cowed and dead-looking children would suddenly brighten up and look intelligent when they weren't being asked to learn. When they were cleaning out the fish tank, they looked fine. When writing a sentence, they looked numb and defeated.
[Our teacher] made us mix up a thick "jammy" black paint and asked us to imagine a clown on a one-wheeled bicycle who pedals through the paint, and onto our sheets of paper. "Don't paint the clown," he said, "paint the mark he leaves on your paper!"
I was wanting to demonstrate my skill, because I'd always been "good at art," and I wanted him to know that I was a worthy student. This exercise annoyed me because how could I demonstrate my skill? I could paint the clown, but who cared about the tire marks?
"He cycles on and off your paper," said [the teacher], "and he does all sorts of tricks, so the lines he leaves on your paper are very interesting..."
Everyone's paper was covered with a mess of black lines-- except mine, since I'd tried to be original by mixing up a blue...
Then he asked us to put colors in all the shapes the clown had made.
"What kind of colors?"
"Yeah... but... er... we don't know what colors to choose."
"Nice colors, nasty colors, whatever you like."
We decided to humor him. When my paper was colored I found out that the blue had disappeared, so I repainted the outlines black.
...I could see that everyone's paper was getting into a soggy mess, and that mine was no worse than anybody else's-- but no better.
"Put patterns on all the colors," said [the teacher]. The man seemed to be an idiot. Was he teasing us?
"What sort of patterns?"
We couldn't seem to start. There were about ten of us, all strangers to each other, and in the hands of this madman.
"We don't know what to do."
"Surely it's easy to think of patterns."
We wanted to get it right. "What sort of patterns do you want?"
"It's up to you." He had to explain patiently to us that it really was our choice. I remember him asking us to think of our shapes as fields seen from the air if that helped, which it didn't. Somehow we finished the exercises, and wandered around looking at our daubs rather glumly, but [the teacher] seemed quite unperturbed. He went to a cupboard and took out armfuls of paintings and spread them around on the floor, and it was the same exercise done by other students. The colors were so beautiful, and the patterns were so inventive-- clearly they had been done by some advanced class. "What a great idea," I thought, "making us screw up in this way, and then letting us realize that there was something that we could learn, since the advanced students were so much better!" Maybe I exaggerate when I remember how beautiful the paintings were, but I was seeing them immediately after my failure. Then I noticed that these little masterpieces were signed in very scrawly writing. "Wait a minute," I said, "these are by young children!" They were all by eight-year-olds! It was just an exercise to encourage them to use the whole area of the paper, but they'd done it with such love and taste and care and sensitivity. I was speechless. Something happened to me in that moment from which I have never recovered. It was the final confirmation that my education had been a destructive process.
If you've ever tried to teach (a performance class, especially) you'll recognize this situation as frustratingly, tragically, true. Asking my students merely to stand up and walk around the room was just as difficult for them as painting a clown-tire picture. Students are beaten back into their desks, bombarded with "right answers" they're forced to repeat, punished for "wrong answers" that don't mean a damn thing, made to feel terrified and humiliated by honest mistakes...
What I'm saying to you now is probably nothing new. We've all allowed ourselves to be complicit in this fraud by accepting the educational system as it is, knowing that it's the best thing we've got-- or, less generously (but easier on our conscience), that it's the least expensive and most publicly accessible form of education, and that even if we dislike it, this system has such a stranglehold of inertia that it's not likely to change substantially in our lifetime. But, knowing this, it would be truly monstrous to attempt to impose this system on a younger child! To begin murdering the child's creativity and intellectual freedom before it even has a chance to appear!
The high point of the Bullshit! segment was their treatment of Your Baby Can Read-- a set of videos (videos!) which claim to teach young children to read. Not only did they interview the creator of the system, a fellow named Titzer, but they invited Titzer to demonstrate the results of the program with two 3-year-old twins who had been watching his videos since they were 6 months old. Two and a half years; five-sixths of their entire lifetime. All I can say is that this Titzer guy must have signed his release form well in advance of the taping-- because the failure of these two children to read was so abysmal, and so ludicrous, that it could not have been the result of hostile editing (for example, one child was shown the word shoe and "read" it as flower). Your Baby Can Read is a joke. Based on the limited amount of explanation provided in the segment, I could begin to list at least half a dozen reasons why I would have expected it to fail as a reading tool, but its technical failure is, in my view, entirely overshadowed by the two girls' feeling for the test. They were bored and distracted; they had to be coaxed into responding at all; and one of the girls was shown half-out the doorway, hiding behind its frame, whining "I wanna go now!"
But if the opposing voice they chose to interview is their voice of response, this program drew the wrong conclusion. Read out loud to your children, the sensible psychologist told us, and don't worry if they can't read themselves before they're six years old. My reply to that statement: Bullshit! As I've probably said too many times already, I was reading The Billy Goats Gruff at age two (we have a tape recording-- although as I read it, it was "the Biwwy Goats Gwuff"). The benefit of that early start wasn't to make me some kind of academic superstar; that was never the point. I was given the gift of a fascination with language. Only last week, I mentioned the First Folio Shakespeare company to my mother; when she noticed their home city, she remembered it as the place where, shortly before my second birthday, I got lost in the mall. After the requisite frantic search, I was found in the hardware section at Sears, pointing at the wooden letters and numbers and saying each one out loud. Nobody knows exactly how long I had busied myself there, but I can promise you that I certainly was much more involved in my "reading" than were the two girls in the Bullshit! video segment. And since then, I've developed such a love of language that I even enjoy typing, for crying out loud! How is this different from the musician who plays his scales and sheet music? The keyboard is my instrument, and I like to play it. If I don't have words of my own to play with, I'll borrow yours. And I play.
That's why I advocate perfect pitch training for children, and why I'm so eager to get the Taneda method on its feet outside of the German-speaking world. Not because the children can "learn music" or-- heaven forbid!-- they can be taught music, but because they can be given the gift of a lifelong relationship to musical language and musical sound; they can become able to feel the joy of its free expression and to feel the power of its full impression. That's what it's all about, folks. It's not just a neat thing to teach, or a clever thing to learn. It's the gateway to a universe of meaning and feeling that would otherwise be inaccessible and dead. No less than that.
The question which I'm immediately faced with is whether to attempt to train one pitch or multiple pitches. This question can be interpreted in at least two ways. One: are we to learn pitch sensation as a discrete and independent sound event, or as a gradation along a continuous spectrum? Two: if, as I suggested waaay back on August 5, 2002, an essential aspect of understanding D is as not C, what would be the use of attempting to teach a single pitch-- why would learning one pitch be useful if the goal is to be able to tell the pitches apart? Finally, as a supplement to the same question, haven't people been trying for decades to teach themselves perfect pitch, unsuccessfully, by memorizing a single "reference tone"?
The more I think about it, the more I'm inclined to answer that the goal will be to train one pitch-- that is, one pitch at a time. Although Taneda's training method is exclusively for children, here again are his levels of perfect pitch:
1. Absolute hearing of a single sound
2. Absolute hearing of several sounds
3. Absolute hearing of C-major sounds in narrow area
4. Absolute hearing of all C-major sounds
5. Absolute hearing of all sounds in limited circumference
6. Condition-contingent absolute hearing (dependent on how you feel that day)
7. Timbre-contingent absolute hearing (dependent on your instrument)
8. Composition-contingent absolute hearing (related to certain songs)
9. Complete absolute pitch (able to identify notes)
10. Active complete absolute pitch (able to recall and reproduce notes)
Although he uses this list to illustrate his expectation of how a child's hearing will develop, I can look at it and see (roughly) Chapters 1-10 in a training manual for adults. Learn one pitch, then add more, and more, until the full range is accomplished. Cosmetically, at first glance, this doesn't seem any different from existing training methods; those others start you off with one or two sounds and then add others. You learn the difference between the sounds by comparing them to each other, which is right in line with Gibson's theories of perceptual identification. But I think it will be important to learn each pitch in isolation.
I don't mean a pitch should be isolated from music-- I mean a pitch should be isolated from other sound characteristics. The new idea here, as I see it, is the goal of learning pitch characteristic instead of tonal sound. In comparing tone objects to each other, such as C versus D, your mind learns to recognize the unique features of each tone object. That's features, as in "relationships between characteristics." By comparing a pitch to itself, using different container objects, the characteristic should be learned.
This logic may seem a bit simple, and counterintuitive-- how can we learn a pitch if we can't tell it apart from another pitch? But I'm inclined to think that, in recognizing one pitch absolutely, we'll automatically be able to distinguish it from another pitch, because, well, the other pitch sounds different. (This is how Interval Loader has been working for me-- I'll get to that in a moment.) Rather than attempt to comprehend the spectrum of musical sound, and struggle to pinpoint absolute positions along that spectrum, I think the goal will be to identify each pitch sound with near-total disregard for any spectrum. Why shouldn't it be? When we consider color, the fact that red is "higher" than yellow-- which it is-- is merely an irrelevant afterthought. Although we can be trained to remember and recognize the spectral relationship between all the different colors, the fact is that to our senses all the colors are simply different. By parallel, it seems probable that being able to perceive the musical spectrum, and to articulate the distinction between the marks along that spectrum, would occur as a result of learning the absolute sensations; the absolute sensations would not occur as a result of learning the spectrum.
On the other hand, I could be wrong in at least one vital aspect: how can I be sure that isolating a pitch characteristic will lead to its absolute identification? If sensory distinction represents "mere otherness", being able to recognize a pitch characteristic might still be just that-- recognizing a pitch instead of the pitch. I was considering this while playing Interval Loader.
I said in a previous entry that Interval Loader didn't actually teach me the different interval sounds, but in reflection, that's not entirely correct. It is true that, when playing in fixed-do, I was able to speed up the process by using each harmonic sound to trigger an associated melody; and once I'd done that, Interval Loader merely reinforced what I had invented for myself. But in two-note movable-do, those same harmonic tricks don't work, and I find that Interval Loader is, indeed, teaching me the intervals-- and I remembered (sheepishly) that this was according to the theory from which I constructed the game. The unique identity of an interval object is defined by its primary feature, which is a relationship between scale degrees. By comparing the intervals to each other, we learn to recognize this as its defining feature. When I first began movable-do, I could barely tell apart the octave from the tritone; I kept confusing the pitch quality of certain accidentals for the tritone signature. Gradually, though, that confusion evaporated, and I began to be able to identify the intervals. Now I can run up to level 8 in each game I play, and my high scores show I'm getting better with each attempt.
What's happened is this. I began by merely comparing the two intervals (octave and tritone). I learned from these how to distinguish between intervals. Once I could do that, the program introduced a third interval, and comparing the three taught me how to recognize the unique sound of an interval. Now, as each new interval is introduced, I recognize it as the "new sound", even though I haven't yet learned to identify it. Interestingly, this "new sound" is what makes the game effective, because it simplifies what the mind has to do. Some people have written me to suggest that the game automatically start them off at the last level they had reached; I haven't made it automatic because it's much better to start each new game at Level One. That way, by the time you reach the higher levels, the new sounds will be most distinctive as "new sounds" (because you've already heard those other ones so many times!). I can reach Level 8 now because I've learned the P8, TT, M3, M2, M6, and M7, but I haven't learned the P4 and m7. When I start at Level 1, I reinforce all the familiar sounds, right up to Level 6. Then, at level 6, suddenly the P4 appears as the "new sound". I recognize it easily, because it's not any of the familiar sounds; but, since it's merely a "new" sound, it could be any unknown interval. It has no specific identity. Nonetheless, the new/old distinction is enough to get me to Level 7-- and now I've got the new sound of the m7, too. So at this point, my mind is given an efficient task: rather than trying to make eight separate comparisons, it's only making two. The interval is either "known" or "unknown", and if it's unknown, it's either P4 (flower) or m7 (mushroom)-- but even then, the P4 is the more familiar of the two, because I started at Level 1. This means I can hit level 8, but it also means that gradually, by the P4's existence as "new" but "not the m7", the P4 gains a fixed identity. And so on with each new interval. It just takes practice.
This demonstrates a need for comparisons in order to create fixed identity. And, if this is an appropriate model, perhaps it will be necessary to compare pitch sensations to each other-- as another example, I can think of how it's necessary to compare the phonemic sounds b and v if you're having trouble recognizing them. But, again, an interval (or a phoneme) is an object. It may be an object with only one feature, but it is an object, not a characteristic. I'm going to move ahead with the idea that it will be enough to compare a pitch sensation to itself, and learn them one at a time; but if the absolute identity of the first pitch fails to materialize, I may need to try a different tack.
It's about now that I wouldn't mind having a magic wand. I've got the theory, the strategy, the tools-- can't I just wave the wand and have everything all ready to go? It would certainly make life easier. As I gain a greater appreciation for the complexity of the task, the more overwhelming it seems-- but, hearteningly, I also see that each step can be taken individually. The first task will simply be to see if one pitch can be made recognizable absolutely.
I thought that by now it should be clear that I think "relative pitch" and "absolute pitch" are bogus concepts. Certainly, they have their use as terminology-- if I'm talking about intervals, that's "relative", and if I'm talking about individual tones, that's "absolute." But a conversation with a reader this week left me wondering why a person, having read my research, would still think that there is some need to "turn off" relative pitch? Most simply, structural knowledge makes it possible to infer components, making "relative pitch" indispensable. Chordsweeper and the phoneme-literacy experiments demonstrate this.
However, there is the other issue-- how do you hear pitch sensation when the relative sound interferes? This fellow explained that his mind prefers to listen to "distance" and excludes the pitch sound. His complaint reminded me of my own total confusion when I first attempted to name tones played in thirds. My explanation for this is not to strike against relative pitch, but to suggest that this is a flaw in the note-naming method of learning absolute pitch. If we are recognizing tones (objects), not pitches (characteristics), then it seems logical that our mind would be satisfied to identify the tone using its interval sound. Perhaps our minds are, as my correspondent describes, rejecting the tone sound in favor of a more meaningful relationship. After all, the tone object itself is musically unimportant; Ron Gorow will tell you that.
Music is made with relative structures, not absolute tones. If someone is using absolute tones to make music, they need more training. Someone in the Yahoo discussion group recently claimed that absolute listeners mentally process music "backwards"; this person (who does not have perfect pitch) said an absolute listener hears relative constructs (like chords) by building them out of the pitches they hear. My research disagrees-- I would have to modify his statement to say that untrained or badly trained people hear the pitch "first". Miyazaki's research shows that absolute pitch is indeed a musical handicap when it is "used for relative tasks", but according to my interviews, professional musicians with absolute pitch don't do that. They've learned to perform "relatively", using their absolute knowledge, instead of relying on their absolute-pitch skills alone. Starting with absolute pitch is a handicap. Here's an example in language: I recently met a person, here in the acting program, who had learned to read using phonics. She told me that she has trouble with words like subtle. "Even though I know the word, and I know the b is silent," she told me, "when I read 'subtle' I always hear the b. I can't not hear it." Whenever she hits a word like this, it trips her up. In any word, the letters you choose are unimportant-- the sound of the word is what matters, or else I wouldn't be able to write "squirrel", "skwirl", "squirryl", and "sqwuril". If you grow up learning that each letter is important, your learning is contrary to how language actually works (especially if you learn French!). Similarly, if you are allowed to listen and decipher music using "absolute strategies", your learning is contrary to how music actually works.
I've just described hearing musical sounds; don't forget that when a person is writing, they must write note by note; for this, absolute pitch is an extraordinary advantage. If you weren't familiar with any of the letters, you would be just as happy with "skwirl" as "squirrel".
Although tone objects are musically insignificant, pitch characteristics are essential. By playing around with MIDI microtones, I have satisfied myself that the Just Intonation Network people have a point; equal temperament does make each key signature sound less unique. I didn't find the JIN website's examples very convincing; to me, those intervals and chords sound exactly the same as each other. But I figured out how to convert MIDI integers, and I wrote a small program to play the justly-intoned overtone series in a user-selected key. I was startled at how each key suddenly sounded more... well, like itself, and less like the other keys. But even when muddied in equal temperament, each key clearly has its own unique feeling.
I've also been using those microtones as Mathieu instructs, to hum harmonically along with a drone sound. I was amazed at the difference such a small adjustment could make; singing the equally tempered fifth was like taking sandpaper to the justly intoned fifth. I discovered, too, that as I varied my voice between the different harmonic states, the drone I was singing with seemed to change pitch. That is, when its relationship to my singing changed, the drone seemed to become higher or lower, although I could tell that the pitch itself hadn't actually changed. Noting this has made me reasonably certain that it will be beneficial to include voice input as yet another variation in pitch training.
Ron Gorow says that absolute pitch is a useless skill because "pitch is variable". Although my reflex is to disagree with that statement on a number of levels, he's not the only person to say that. Marguerite Nering quotes Arthur Mendel, from his published studies of musical pitch (between 1945 and 1965):
It is clear that absolute pitch could have had relatively little importance to the musician before the 18th century... [t]o musicians before 1750, the notes on the staff, and the names by which they were referred to, represented degrees in a gamut that had no permanent anchor at a standard pitch level, but was freely movable up and down, according to the nature of the voices or instruments involved on any given occasion.
Here, Mendel says that pitch was variable before 1750, but Gorow says that pitch is variable now. By this meaning of "pitch is variable", I have to agree with Gorow. You've probably witnessed this yourself-- a singer has trouble with a high (or low) note, so the song is transposed down (or up) to accommodate the voice. It may no longer be 1750, but the notes on the staff have no more "permanent anchor" now as they did then. Once you recognize this, it is clear that the importance of absolute pitch in music must be exactly the same now as it was back then, and the same now as it has ever been. The difference is this: when pitch became fixed, suddenly there was a class of people who could name those notes. Perfect pitch ability was the same; its application to music was the same. Absolute pitch had simply found a unique form of expression in this new fixed-labeling scheme. There was finally something that only absolute listeners could do, and non-absolute listeners couldn't. Fixed pitch didn't make absolute pitch important-- it made absolute pitch visible.
And fairly recently, too. As I understand it, Americans have a very different view of history than just about any other culture on the planet. I think it's a relatively well-known observation: to an American, anything that doesn't have a 19 or 20 in front of the date is already ancient history. By contrast, to a European, ancient history is actually ancient, and a date from the 1700s is understood to be comparatively contemporary. Speaking just from my own knowledge, I'd say that Americans have very little connection to the past, as well-- even the educated young Americans who can tell you that their Civil War was fought in the 1860s will be surprised and astonished when you remind them that their grandparents may have personally known some Civil War veterans. I'm no exception. I've been vaguely aware that all the dates on my research were from the 20th century, but it's only in the past few weeks that I've started to understand why perfect pitch has remained such a mystery for such a long time: because we've only known about it for a very short time.
Fixed pitch itself is a startlingly recent invention. "Concert A" has varied throughout history, and various temperaments have gone in and out of style-- I knew that, but it never occurred to me that this was because pitch couldn't be measured. Although the tuning fork was invented in 1711, its purpose was to overcome "the impossibility of being certain of the same sound in two places at the same time," not to fix a universal pitch standard. The ability to measure sound in cycles per second didn't even exist until 1834. Only after measurement was possible could pitch sounds be communicated precisely; only then could fixed pitch standards be shared; only then could absolute pitch be scientifically recognized. And thusly, according to Nering's report, the ability of absolute pitch was "discovered" by Karl Stumpf in the mid-1880s-- about the same time as the Marx Brothers were born. (And their children are still alive.)
A very brief timeline, then.
1750 - Introduction of equal temperament
1834 - Pitch first measured in cycles per second
1878 - Edison invents the phonograph recording
1890 - "Absolute pitch" identified as musical skill.
1897 - Fletcher Music Method
1939 - A440 established as international standard
1943 - Kodaly Method (solfege)
1945 - Suzuki Method (music as language)
1949 - Leila Fletcher method (piano for children - no relation to Evelyn)
1968 - Cuddy method (tone recognition)
1993 - Taneda method (absolute pitch)
1999 - Arnold method (harmonic relative pitch)
Modern musical instruction is very modern indeed. It's only been three generations since we've known, scientifically, that perfect pitch exists-- and, despite Fletcher's work, it's only been two generations since Suzuki demonstrated to an unbelieving public that musical ability is not genetic. The entire musical education industry is in its infancy; nobody knows how the musical mind really works, so everyone's taken their best guess at it. Ultimately, the strongest method will surely be a synthesis of solfege, linguistic hearing, absolute literacy, and harmonic perception. Whether or not this synthesis occurs in my lifetime, it seems entirely likely that in another 50 years, if not sooner, people will find it strange to think that anyone ever believed that perfect pitch was genetic.
This leaves me wondering how long it may be before everyone learns musical language and literacy as part of their normal schooling. Looking at Ron Gorow's biography, it dawned on me-- the man has worked as a scribe. A musical scribe! I don't know when the profession of language scribe fell out of service, but I believe that as recently as the late 1800s, literacy was still the exception, not the norm. As far as I know, it's only in the past couple hundred years that illiteracy in language has become an abnormal thing. It shouldn't be surprising that musical illiteracy is still the norm. But I'm bound to wonder how long it might take for that to become reversed. How long will it be until people marvel at the fact that their ancestors could neither read nor write music? It seems inevitable that such a thing will happen-- someday.
I've gotten a lot of flak from my friends, over the years, because I firmly believe that anyone can do anything. What one normal human body is capable of, so too is another. Whether you have an innate gift or innate handicap, in my opinion, does not decide whether you can or cannot accomplish a thing-- it determines how hard you have to work at it to succeed.
But there are two aspects of effort in learning. The most obvious is how much time and energy you expend towards the learning task; the other is the quality of instruction. The instruction has to be appropriate to the student's current level of ability, yes, but more importantly, it has to be presented in a way that allows the student to access the material meaningfully. If your effort, as a student, is being channeled into inappropriate tasks, you can work extremely hard and still achieve an inferior result. For a musical example: Fletcher complains about "vicious little tricks" to teach musical concepts, such as using F-A-C-E to learn the spaces on the staff. Fletcher points out that learning a trick like F-A-C-E is not learning the desired knowledge, but is learning the trick. The trick becomes a heavy obstacle; before the student can identify the staff position, they must go through the conduit of F-A-C-E. Although it may take a little longer to learn the knowledge directly, says Fletcher, it is a far more effective strategy. And this is why she teaches using games.
Traditional forms of instruction (lectures and instruction books, usually) place the student squarely on the finish line. The students receive answers first, and explanations follow, and it's all in a single lump. Any correct answer is a good answer, no matter how you reach it, so there's no reason to go back to start and run the entire track. If you tell me that I can find the lowest common denominator of two fractions by cross-multiplication, then I'll do it, and it will spit out the correct results, even though I have no idea what I'm actually doing. If you tell me that each key signature has x number of sharps, then I can name any grouping of sharps, even though I have no idea what they sound like or how they function in music.
The purpose of game playing isn't merely to make the student "active" and "involved". Educational game-playing, well accomplished, forces the student to think and discover in order to achieve the learning goal. They aren't plopped on the finish line and told some lazy fiction about how they got there; they're guided to where the track begins, and the only way they will reach the goal is by learning how to proceed. Here is a rather lengthy example from How Children Fail, a book I still recommend to anyone who has any interest in their own or their children's education. The Dr. Gattegno mentioned here is the same fellow who introduced the Cuisenaire rods to the world, and in this story he plays a very simple but powerful game with the rods.
Not long ago Dr. Gattegno taught a demonstration class at Lesley-Ellis School. I don't believe I will ever forget it. It was one of the most extraordinary and moving spectacles I have seen in all my life.
The subjects chosen for this particular demonstration were a group of severely retarded children. There were about five or six fourteen- or fifteen-year-olds. Some of them, except for unusually expressionless faces, looked quite normal; the one who caught my eye was a boy at the end of the table. He was tall, pale, with black hair. I have rarely seen on a human face such anxiety and tension as showed on his. He kept darting looks around the room like a bird, as if enemies might come from any quarter left unguarded for more than a second. His tongue worked continuously in his mouth, bulging out first one cheek and then the other. Under the table, he scratched-- or rather clawed-- at his leg with one hand. He was a terrifying and pitiful sight to see.
With no formalities or preliminaries, no icebreaking or jollying up, Gattegno went to work. It will help you see more vividly what was going on if, providing you have rods in hand, you actually do the operations I will describe. First he took two blue (9) rods, and between them put a dark green (6), so that between the two blue rods and above the dark green there was an empty space 3 cm. long. He said to the group, "Make one like this." They did. Then he said, "Now find the rod that will just fill up that space." I don't know how the other children worked on the problem; I was watching the dark-haired boy. His movements were spasmodic, feverish. When he had picked a rod out of the pile in the center of the table, he could hardly stuff it in between his blue rods. After several trials, he and the others found that a light green (3) rod would fill the space.
Then Gattegno, holding his blue rods at the upper end, shook them, so that after a bit the dark green rod fell out. Then he turned the rods over, so that now there was a 6 cm space where the dark green rod had formerly been. He asked the class to do the same. They did. Then he asked them to find the rod that would fill that space. Did they pick out the pile the dark green rod that had just come out of the space? Not one did. Instead, more trial and error. Eventually, they all found that the dark green rod was needed.
Then Gattegno shook his rods so that the light green fell out, leaving the original empty 3 cm. space, and turned them again so that the empty space was uppermost. Again he asked the children to fill the space, and again, by trial and error, they found the needed light green rod. As before, it took the dark-haired boy several trials to find the right rod.. These trials seemed to be completely haphazard.
Hard as it may be to believe, Gattegno went through this cycle at least four or five times before anyone was able to pick the needed rod without hesitation and without trial and error. As I watched, I thought, "What must it be like to have so little idea of the way the world works, so little feeling for the regularity, the orderliness, the sensibleness of things?" It takes a great effort of the imagination to push oneself back, back, back to the place where we knew as little as these children. It is not just a matter of not knowing this fact or that fact; it is a matter of living in a universe like the one lived in by very young children, a universe which is utterly whimsical and unpredictable, where nothing has anything to do with anything else-- with this difference, that these children had come to feel, as most very young children do not, that this universe is an enemy.
Then, as I watched, the dark-haired boy saw! Something went "click" inside his head, and for the first time, his hand visibly shaking with excitement, he reached without trial and error for the right rod. He could hardly stuff it into the empty space. It worked! The tongue going round in the mouth, and the hand clawing away at the leg under the table doubled their pace. When the time came to turn the rods over and fill the other empty space, he was almost too excited to pick up the rod he wanted; but he got it in. "It fits! It fits!" he said, and held up the rods for all of us to see. Many of us were moved to tears, by his excitement and joy, and by our realization of the great leap of the mind he had just taken.
After a while, Gattegno did the same problem, this time using a crimson (4) and yellow (5) rod between the blue rods. This time the black-haired boy needed only one cycle to convince himself that these were the rods he needed. This time he was calmer, surer; he knew.
Again, using the rods, Gattegno showed them what we mean when we say that one thing is half of another. He used the white (1) and red (2), and the red and the crimson (4) to demonstrate the meaning of "half." Then he asked them to find half of some of the other rods, which the dark-haired boy was able to do. Just before the end of the demonstration Gattegno showed them a brown (8) rod and asked them to find half of half of it, and this too the dark-haired boy was able to do.
I could not but feel then, as I do now, that whatever his IQ may be considered to have been, and however he may have reacted to life as he usually experienced it, this boy, during that class, had played the part of a person of high intelligence and had done intellectual work of very high quality. When we think of where he started, and where he finished, and the immense amount of mathematical territory that he covered in forty minutes or less, it is hard not to feel that there is an extraordinary capacity locked up inside that boy.
It is the tragedy of his life that he will probably never again find himself with a man like Gattegno, who knows, as few teachers do, that it is his business to put himself into contact with the intelligence of his students, wherever and whatever that may be, and who has enough intuition and imagination to do it. He has not done much work with retarded children, but he saw in a moment what I might have taken days or weeks to find out, or might never have found out: that to get in touch with the intelligence of these children, he had to go way, way back, to the very beginning of learning and understanding. Nor was this all he brought to the session. Equally important was a kind of respect for these children, a conviction that under the right circumstances they could and would do first-class thinking. There was no condescension or pity in his manner, nor even any noticeable sympathy. For the duration of the class he and these children were no less than colleagues, trying to work out a tough problem-- and working it out. (p 124-126)
In games like this-- in education like this-- the student learns how to construct reality. The magnificence of the mathematics rods is that they provide a clear, objective, concrete answer to the abstract question why is 2 + 2? and a student can apply the same principle to new situations. The students don't achieve disconnected memorized answers to be fearfully handed in for "correction"-- they gain the ability to think critically and evaluate their own work. Fletcher's musical games have the same effect. One game is called "Living Scales", in which students each represent different tones of the chromatic scale, and each "Major" calls forth the soldiers he needs. Since the children have not been told this information abstractly, but have created a living version of it, this is what happens afterward.
If our teaching of the first seven scales has been clear and interesting, the children will discover for themselves that they can build on the "Tone-ladder" a scale from any white or black key-- also that at the keyboard they can play a scale from any white or black key. If they are encouraged (after the scale-drill game) ...to try and write all the majors they can construct and play-- they will find they cannot write them. Take, for example, D Major; the child can write it easily; then she constructs a scale on D Sharp just as easily, and begins to write it. As no word has every been said to her in regard to flats, she does not connect these signs with the scales at all, and will probably write this scale thus:
and then begin examining it with great curiosity. It certainly does look odd-- first there are letters left out, and others having two chances to sing; and then, again, it looks as though there were another scale besides Major A who has three sharps. Now very simply and clearly can come the explanation and proof of the necessity of scales with flats.
I wonder about existing musical methods for children, and whether or not they teach with games. I know that Taneda's work is based on game-playing; I recall that the Suzuki method is not; what about Musikgarten? Harmony Road? The Dalcroze method? Do they start at the beginning or at the finish line? Do they play games or spew information? Do they train the child with the same depth and sophistication that Fletcher's games seem to promise? How does the child succeed if they don't play games? Games don't just make education fun. Games are what make education work.
I'm using mostly other people's words today because my own typing has been (and will be, in the immediate future) applied to programming. Those of you using the Macintosh version of ETC, please write to me for your upgrade to v3.1, because Interval Loader now has singing games to improve your aural recall! I don't know why I'm so amused to see it, but I get a kick out of watching the little boxes fly around the screen in response to what I sing. I'm very pleased to have made it work, too, because after playing it just a few times I'm impressed by the tremendous difference between hearing the tones and producing them. I still have to figure out how to get the microphone working in Windows, but for now it works perfectly well on the Mac, so I'm releasing it. I've also started programming the mechanics of the pitch-training game, and when I come up for air again I'll tell you a little about that.
In addition to John Holt's How Children Fail, I've recently been reading his How Children Learn and another author's Dumbing Us Down. Although I'd strongly recommend the last of these three, I don't recommend buying it; find it at your local library and read it. Its points are so intensely clear that you probably won't need to read it more than once. As I've been reading the first two, I've been so tempted to quote so much of those books that I finally gave up and just added them to my library page. Find them. Read them. You won't be disappointed. Both of them contain many fascinating observations, bluntly and clearly spoken, such as this withering comment about why art programs often fail in elementary education, regardless of how many "resources" are designated for artistic instruction.
[Children] are also very sensitive to what adults value. They show a parent or teacher a picture, and the adult says, in a perfunctory voice, "How nice, dear." Then they take home some idiot workbook, whose blanks they have already dutifully filled in, and their parents show real joy and excitement. Soon the pictures get shoved aside by the workbooks, even though there is more real learning in a good picture than in twenty workbooks.
This week I've started to make some decent progress on programming the pitch component of ETC v3. I also have been trying diligently to get some answers about making the microphone input work on a Windows computer-- I know it's possible, and I even know which commands will do it, but I can't find documentation anywhere which actually explains how to use those commands in Realbasic. It's frustrating, but I will be patient; persistence will win out. And it will win out, because being able to play Interval Loader by singing is just too important. And it's fun, too.
Speaking of Interval Loader... you know how, when you're out walking, you can walk and walk and it doesn't seem like you're going anywhere, but then you turn around and suddenly see how much ground you've covered? Interval Loader is affecting me the same way. I know, as a solid fact, that when I began playing I could barely tell the difference between an octave and a tritone. I know with utter certainty that as I have added each new sound, each one has been equally unfamiliar and puzzling. But I know with equal certainty that these same intervals that confused me before are now totally familiar. I couldn't make a mistake if I tried-- I simply know these sounds now. It's bizarre. A few weeks ago I was asking myself, how could I possibly have mistaken the octave for a major third?, even as I mixed up the minor third and perfect fourth; today I'm asking myself how could I possibly have mistaken the minor third for a perfect fourth?, even as I mix up the minor sixth and tritone. I have no obvious sensation of "progress", but my high scores just keep getting higher, and I keep on advancing to new levels.
The familiar sounds are so familiar to me that the question is honest: the difference between the octave and major third is so clear that I begin to sincerely doubt that I ever really had trouble distinguishing the two-- or that anyone could have trouble. (It's the same with Chordsweeper.) Because I had played the games for a while before writing the benchmarking functions, I don't have the raw data to show me my initial ability. Fortunately, tonight I had the opportunity to show the games to a friend of mine, who is somewhat musical but not well-trained. She immediately understood how to play the games, and enjoyed listening to the sounds and clicking the tiles. I was gratified to see that she did confuse the octave and third sounds. I'm not misremembering. I did have the same trouble.
I was, additionally, pleased to see that it's not just my own experience which validates the theory behind using soundless pictures for each of the intervals. She began a second game of Interval Loader, and on level 2 the computer played a major third. She first pointed at the diamond (octave), but then frowned and moved the pointer to the light bulb (M3) instead. Now pointing at the light bulb, she smiled, nodded, and clicked. We talked about this, and it became evident that even with just a few minutes' exposure, her mind had already begun to accept the little pictures as the "letters" (graphemes) for the interval sounds. Looking at the diamond created the wrong mental sound; looking at the light bulb created the right one.
The theory behind the pitch game in v3 is still developing. What I'm building now has the singular goal of enabling a person to find the sensory identity of a pitch characteristic. Theoretically, this should be possible, and theoretically, it should accomplish what I intend. But, as I look at Taneda's, Fletcher's, and Suzuki's work, I find particular meaning in this passage from How Children Learn.
Bill Hull once said to me, "If we taught children to speak, they'd never learn." I thought at first he was joking. By now I realize that it was a very important truth. Suppose we decided that we had to "teach" children to speak. how would we go about it? First, some committee of experts would analyze speech and break it down into a number of separate "speech skills". We would probably say that, since speech is made up of sounds, a child must be taught to make all the sounds of this language before he can be taught to speak the language itself. Doubtless we would list these sounds, easiest and commonest ones first, harder and rarer ones next. Then we would begin to teach infants these sounds, working our way down the list. Perhaps, in order not to "confuse" the child-- "confuse" is an evil word to many educators-- we would not let the child hear much ordinary speech, but would only expose him to the sounds we were trying to teach.
Along with our sound list, we would have a syllable and a word list. When the child had learned to make all the sounds on the sound list, we would begin to teach him to combine the sounds into syllables. When he could say all the syllables on the syllable list, we would begin to teach him the words on our word list. At the same time, we would teach the rules of grammar, by means of which he could combine these newly-learned words into sentences. Everything would be planned with nothing left to chance; there would be plenty of drill, review, and tests, to make sure that he had not forgotten anything.
Suppose we tried to do this; what would happen? What would happen, quite simply, is that most children, before they got very far, would become baffled, discouraged, humiliated, and fearful, and would quit trying to do what we asked them. If, outside of our classes, they lived a normal infant's life, many of them would probably ignore our "teaching" and learn to speak on their own. If not, if our control of their lives was complete (the dream of too many educators), they would take refuge in deliberate failure and silence, as so many of them do when the subject is reading.
Before I relate this to music (perhaps you've already found its relevance to your own experience), I must mention that this passage has thrown into perspective something that I never, ever considered before this very moment: spelling lists. All throughout elementary school, of course, we were given spelling lists and spelling tests. And, oddly, it was only when I read this passage, this week, that it hit me-- my relationship to these spelling lists was totally different from the other students'. I, an avid reader, had already encountered all the words on these lists, many times over; I always assumed that the spelling lists were just an entertaining thing to do. I usually wrote down all the words in all three groups, because it was fun; eventually my teacher noticed this and, instead of the standard word lists, challenged me with Readers' Digest "It Pays to Enrich Your Word Power" lists. But even then, because of quizlike nature of the "Word Power" feature, where they gave you the definition of each unusual word, my "spelling tests" were not normal. There was a direct connection between each unusual new word and the unusual new idea that it represented. After leaving elementary school, I never had any reason to think about spelling lists, so it was only this week, seeing this passage in How Children Learn, that I understood the more insidious nature of the ordinary spelling test. For the first time I wondered: what if I hadn't already known these words from my reading? I imagined the other students, sitting there in their desks, being bombarded with these random jumbles of sound, completely out of a context that would at least make sense of those jumbles, being expected to somehow not only recognize and memorize the random linguistic sounds, but to decode them into random graphemic symbols which represented those random sounds-- into the correct random symbols, at that-- and then having to hand in their guesses and be told how badly they messed it up... There's no context. There's no meaning. There's no learning. It's rote memorization of peculiar abstractions which, as far as these children are concerned, have no connection to their existing knowledge or experience. What a horrible thing to go through! Of course, I'm describing the worst aspect of the scenario, but the fact is that, ultimately, this is what must happen in this style of "teaching".
Although I have no formal training in advanced-level music theory, I flip through the Tonal Harmony music-theory textbook and I see clear echoes of what Holt is referring to-- a highly intellectualized deconstruction of musical grammar and spelling, presented from simplest to most complex. Is he describing the way music theory is normally taught?
This passage clarifies what has been bouncing around in my mind for some time. What I'm building now as the pitch game in v3 should continue to be valuable and relevant, because it will definitely be necessary to teach an adult to extract a pitch characteristic, but integrating that knowledge with musical language should, I suspect, be more of a holistic approach. I never had to learn to spell. I have never owned a dictionary. I have never owned a grammar book. I absorbed it all through reading. I'll borrow another concept from John Holt: he points out that because I came to my linguistic knowledge through exploration and discovery (rather than schooling), it became a part of my understanding of how the world works. I could no more forget this information than I could "forget" that when I drop a shoe it will fall down instead of up. I may not know how, I may not know why, but I know.
So now, for example, I think about hideously expensive relative-pitch courses which teach you to "spell intervals". What does that mean? Why should you learn to spell an interval, any more than I ever had to learn to spell words? Why memorize dozens of different individual facts, when one principle would explain them all? And why try to teach the principle as an abstract, external concept, when the student can discover it through their own listening and composition? Or, to put it another way: if musicianship is the grammatical representation of musical ideas, then the focus of training should clearly, essentially, necessarily be on the reception and expression of those ideas. Taneda does this. Fletcher does this. Suzuki does this (when it's done correctly). You learn the musical grammar, not because you've memorized all of its rules, but because you have something to say, and you want to say it properly.
I take a look at the software I've written, and what it's able to accomplish. Thanks to Interval Loader I know a major third as surely as I know my left foot. Now, how do I learn something about those major thirds? How do I learn what to do with them, or what has been done with them? It seems evident that the best kind of approach is precisely what Ron Gorow says (repeatedly), reflecting what I've already said about my literary experience: just do it. Listen to music, but not passively; decode and reproduce what you hear. Do it with your voice, with your instrument, and with pen and paper (or computer sequencer). Get ideas. Express ideas. Find out how it's done by doing it. To an extent, this takes some burden off of me, because no software I write can possibly do this, any more than my teacher's spelling lists made me read books. Nonetheless, I want to remain constantly aware of how my work, and the curricula I create, fit within this perspective and this strategy. The musical idea is what's important.
If the musical idea is important, why should the pitch be important? I was re-reading Phase 7 again recently, and came across something which I must correct. I mentioned this in an earlier entry, but I need to explore it a little further in this context. It's this parallel between language and music.
The corrections I've made are not insignificant. The parallels which, before, seemed merely suggestive, now become definitive. A phoneme is a combination of two pitch frequencies. So is an interval. A morpheme is the smallest collection of interval sounds which carries a complete idea. So is a chord. A word is a rhythmic arrangement of morphemes. So is a progression. A sentence is a collection of words arranged into a complete statement. So is a phrase. These structures are not analogous. They are not similar. They are identical.
Recognizing this, I take a look at the language side, and I notice something very important. Phoneme is as small as it gets. Every idea you could possibly express in language can be expressed using sound components no less complex than the phoneme-- leaving no place for pitch. I'll restate that, just for emphasis: any and every linguistic idea can be fully expressed and understood with total disregard for pitch sensation. And because the sound structures are physically identical, I feel confident in making the identical statement: any and every musical idea can be fully expressed and understood with total disregard for pitch sensation.
Isn't this what Ron Gorow has been saying all along? Isn't this why musicians can be perfectly competent, even dazzlingly proficient, and have no concept whatsoever of absolute pitch sensation? The most sophisticated, complex ideas in language can be expressed with no explicit reliance on any individual pitch sensation. If music is a language, then it surely follows that this is equally true in music. Pitch is variable, says Ron Gorow, because pitch is totally unnecessary in expressing the idea that is to be communicated.
The question which demands to be asked, of course: why then do we use pitch when we speak? A quick and obvious answer is that, when we speak to each other, the language sounds carry the linguistic idea and the pitch sound carries the emotion. But in that case, if you think about it, it becomes clear that the emotional music of our voice is itself a complete musical idea, and thus no more dependent on fixed pitch than any other. It must be admitted that in our speech, we actually don't use pitch.
But let me pry open the can of worms by changing the emphasis of that sentence. In our speech, we actually don't use pitch. Diana Deutsch has done the study: there is such a thing as a tonal language, and in those tonal languages, its speakers often have absolute pitch. Not always, but often. If you've heard about her study, you might have wondered (as I have) why they don't all have perfect pitch, if they need it to understand their own language; I think this perspective explains much. A tonal language isn't simply a language which has somehow incorporated musical tones. Rather, it is a form of language which goes one step higher on this list I've made. In their language, there's something in this list above "phoneme", something parallel to a single musical pitch frequency, which they use to convey linguistic meaning. In ours, in yours, there isn't. This leads me to the conclusion that there are ways of using pitch sensation to convey meaning, and ideas, which are totally outside of our experience-- and which are entirely imperceptible except to those who are trained to make these distinctions. We hear the same sounds; but I think I'm hearing the same idea twice, while they hear two separate and distinct meanings.
Is a transposed song the same song? You've heard this question before. You've probably even debated it yourself somewhere, online or off. But the question presupposes a shared definition of "song", and between relative and absolute listeners this definition is not shared. To a relative listener, to whom absolute pitch sensation is imperceptible, the musical ideas in each are thoroughly identical. But to an absolute listener, there is something different. There is something more. I can't tell you what it is that's different; I couldn't tell you precisely how it affects the music. To me, the same song in the key of C or F# is the same. They might "feel different", but I couldn't tell you how, and I could not say why. My brain has not been trained to interpret meaning from individual pitch frequencies. It's not how I understand language.
I was contemplating this the other day when I was playing Banjo-Tooie. Yes, the folks at Project 64 did an update that plays the sequel (and it only took me a year and a half to find out about it), so now I have two games for my emulator. In this new game, there are five different kinds of eggs: normal, fire, grenade, ice, and clockwork. And they're all color-coded. In this game, there is a "world" that features a cave with multiple exits-- and, to help you orient yourself to which exit leads where, the exits are all color-coded. The red exit leads to the red platform; the blue exit to the blue platform; et cetera. As I noticed this, I thought about color-coding. The reason you color-code objects is because, if you didn't color-code them, they would all seem exactly the same. They would all convey the same idea (where the idea is the object itself-- "cave exit", "egg", et al). But the purpose of color-coding isn't to make the objects "feel different". Color-coding exists so that you can use the same objects to convey more complex ideas. A coffeepot has coffee in it, but a red coffeepot has decaffeinated coffee. It's still the same basic idea ("coffeepot"); but if you ignore or cannot perceive the color information, you will fail to receive the additional meaning that is conveyed only through its color.
I've been asked, what is the value of absolute pitch? Do we really need it? Why should we learn it? Here, now, is my answer to this question: It is impossible to know the value of absolute pitch unless you have absolute pitch. It seems to me that having absolute pitch perception must add an additional level of meaning and complexity to music which does not exist for relative listeners. The same musical objects are used to convey different musical ideas. Language functions perfectly well without pitch, yes, and musical ideas can be expressed and understood with complete disregard for pitch sensation. If you don't have absolute pitch, you don't need it, and you won't miss it. This simply brings me to ask you to ask yourself: what if there were something more?
Moving from the abstract and theoretical into the concrete, writing my previous entry about the Cuisinaire rods gave me an interesting frame of mind when I was re-reading Fletcher's work. One of her musical toys is "Time Sticks", and when I read about them again I noticed that their function is the same as the math rods. Where the math rods provide a concrete answer to Why is 2+2?, her time sticks give a similar answer for Why are four quarter notes? She describes games that the children can play using these sticks-- bouncing things on top of them, perhaps, or drawing them along in a train-- and again I'm impressed that this woman was at least fifty years ahead of her time (the math rods were new in 1958). If only I could understand this modulation board of hers! Because of the sophistication of modulation board, I had felt somewhat panicky a couple of weeks ago that the Fletcher method might actually be above my head, musically, but the more I read, the more I relaxed. With the exception of the modulation board, the purposes of her games are crystal clear; the difficulty isn't in understanding what they are supposed to accomplish, nor how to play them with the children, but making sure that the teacher's knowledge of music theory is strong enough to understand what the children are learning.
And, lastly, back to John Holt, I found out yesterday that he also wrote a book about learning to play cello as a middle-aged adult. It's titled Never Too Late. Out of curiosity, I borrowed this book from the school's music library, and a first glance makes me think that it will remain a mere curiosity; unlike his observations of children learning, his own musical experience seems rather unremarkable, and (oddly) the book doesn't seem to talk much about his experience of musicianship as it does his experience of music. It may be that the book is essentially a product of its time or of its generation-- it was written in 1978, and he's apparently addressing the people who were 40 or older in that year. The rationale for his book is distilled, I think, in one particular statement he makes. I've mentioned how, in the 1950s, Suzuki demonstrated that musical ability was not genetic, but could be learned by anyone. Holt points out a twist I hadn't considered: he says that Suzuki demonstrated that anyone could develop musical ability if they started playing as a toddler. The implicit message of Suzuki's method is that once you get older, it's too late. Thus the title of the book. The specific reason why I don't think I'll find too much in it, though, is that his initial descriptions of knowing how to play an instrument seem to make no distinction between the competency of professional musicians and his own. In one particular instance, he mentions how it takes him an hour to "figure out" how to play a musical piece that more practiced musicians could play in minutes-- but he seems to be assuming that he and they perceive printed music in the same way, and that they're just more practiced at it. So I'm not expecting big things of it, but it might be relevant, and if you're curious you could probably find it at your library too (or have it interlibrary loaned).
All right, all right, that's probably enough for now. I really will be going on vacation shortly, and I'll be gone for a while, so I wanted to get out pretty much everything that's on my mind right now about ear training and such like (well, this still isn't everything I've been thinking about, but it's the major stuff). If you find something interesting in it I'm always glad to hear from you. Thanks again for reading.
In Ann Arbor, I went to lunch with my brother and his co-workers. When the conversation revealed that I'm an actor, one fellow named Tim mentioned that his fourteen-year-old daughter was spending her summer days at a youth drama camp. "And she loves it," he said. "When I pick her up, she can't stop talking about it! Yak, yak, yak, about everything they did." Tim followed this with a derisive comparison to when she's in school-- she comes home sullen and quiet, and when he does ask about her day she invariably answers "nothing". If he makes the effort to remind her of her own routine, period by period, he can usually drag it out of her ("...and how about math... and social studies... and English class...?"), but such a conversation is a chore for both of them.
The curious thing was that, as he described it, it seemed that he was convinced that his daughter was fickle. He talked about his daughter as though her behavior changed on a whim, and that she could talk about her school as easily as the drama club, if she chose. He apparently hadn't considered the possibility that, when she answers "nothing" and struggles to remember anything of consequence, she is not rebelliously shutting him out, but is being truthful and genuine. As far as she is concerned, nothing did happen-- and if something interesting had started it would've been shut down when the school bell tore her from it. I told Tim that what he was describing was exactly why I am so interested in homeschooling, as her indifferent attitude was precisely what Dumbing Us Down had warned against. The conversation didn't go much further, because I wasn't seriously expecting him to pull his daughter out of school, but I continued to think about what he'd said.
John Gatto, Maria Montessori, John Holt, and Evelyn Fletcher would have predicted this situation. They say it is more natural for a child to spend time with children of all different ages, not just those who are exactly their own age. They say that children will learn best when they are allowed to physically discover and explore, not made to sit immobile and passive at a cramped desk. They say that primary learning is most effective when it involves multiple sensory inputs-- not just watching and listening to a lecturer, but participating with movement and touch. With at least these changes, they say, children will want to learn. They will be eager to learn. The youth drama camp does these things, and more. It should not be surprising that Tim's daughter loves it so much!
How much of what we fail to learn, how much of what we fail to become interested in, is a result of how we are taught? You might remember the lengthy quote I used on June 21, in which Dr Gattegno demonstrated teaching math to mentally deficient children. Maria Montessori, in Discovery of the Child, provides an example from the beginning of her career.
I succeeded in teaching some of the defective children from the asylum how to read and write so well that I could present them for an examination that was conducted in the public schools for normal children. And they passed it successfully. These results were so extraordinary that they seemed almost miraculous to those who saw them. My own opinion was, however, that the boys from the asylum had been able to compete with the normal children simply because they had been taught in a different way... While everyone else was admiring the progress made by my defective charges, I was trying to discover the reasons which could have reduced the healthy, happy pupils of the ordinary schools to such a low state that in the intelligence tests they were on a level with my own unfortunate pupils.
At risk of oversimplifying the issue, it seems that the "reasons" boil down to this: we don't teach the way we learn. On the one hand, it seems only reasonable that in order to teach something, we should provide our students with the information that we've discovered, and thus save them the trouble of having to figure it out-- but I know that everything I've ever truly learned has been due to my having "figured it out" to achieve some practical and desirable goal. When I was discussing this with David over e-mail, he provided an elegant summary of the problem.
So in a sense, we learn through experience (just doing it) and analysis (thoughtful consideration of the whole into parts) of that experience, and then try to teach via abstraction (reading about it) and synthesis (combining tiny parts of experience)! Sounds pretty darned backwards!
What amazes me is that by asking two simple questions-- what is being learned? and how do people learn it?-- what to do can be guided largely by good observation and common sense. Earlier this month I was at my 15th high school reunion, and one of my former classmates (also named Chris) described his frustration in attempting to teach himself piano. He told me how he could often follow a simple melody with his right hand, matching his movements to the dots on the page, but using his left hand he became thoroughly confused and often had to count up lines to the note. He was spinning his wheels, getting nowhere-- because he had the wrong answer to both questions. If you understand that music is a language to be learned, then it should be clear that you can't learn it by matching notes to keys. I mean, imagine trying to learn Russian, Japanese, or Arabic by looking at a short story and finding the same characters on a keyboard. You might learn to recognize the individual characters, and you might become proficient in matching the characters to the keyboard, but common sense would suggest that this activity won't teach you a language.
But what will? Approaching the other question-- how do people learn it?-- has been interesting. How do we learn language?
Maria Montessori's book The Absorbent Mind devotes two chapters to her observations of language acquisition. [The book's title refers to the mysterious, mystical, and inexplicable way in which a child's mind acquires knowledge. Although she, John Holt, and The Scientist in the Crib offer many illustrations of how children test and explore and discover, why children do this (and the mere fact that they can) is still a fascinating miracle.] My observations essentially mirror hers, so I'll let her tell you. She acknowledges that infants have a tendency to imitate the sounds they hear around them, and then unfolds her narrative.
...at ten months, the child has made another discovery. This is that the music coming from a person's mouth has a purpose. It is not merely music. When we talk to him fondly, the baby realizes that these words are meant for him, and he begins to grasp that we are saying them intentionally. So, two things have happened by the end of the first year: in the depths of his unconscious he has understood and at the level he has reached of consciousness, he has created speech-- even though, for the moment, this is nothing but babbling, a simple repeating and combining of sounds.
At one year of age the child says his first intentional word. He babbles as before, but his babbling has purpose, and this intention is a proof of conscious intelligence... He becomes ever more aware that language refers to his surroundings, and his wish to master it consciously becomes also greater... Let me use my own experiences to illustrate what happens. I am a person with many ideas to express, and I want-- as often happens in a foreign land-- to convey them in a language not my own, so as to reach the heart of my audience. But, in a foreign tongue, my words are a useless babbling. I know my audience to be intelligent, and my wish is to exchange views with them, but this privilege is denied me because I lack the means of expression.
The time in which the mind has many ideas which it would like to communicate to others, but cannot express them for lack of language, is a very dramatic one in the child's life, and brings him his first disappointments. Subconsciously and unaided, he strains himself to learn, and this effort makes his success all the more astonishing.
A person trying to express himself is badly in need of a teacher to enunciate the words for him very distinctly. Why cannot the home do this? Our usual habit, instead, is to do nothing. We just imitate the child's babbling ourselves and, were it not that he has an inner teacher of his own, he would be unable to learn. It is this teacher who makes him listen to grownups talking to one another, even when they are not thinking about him. It urges him to master his language with that exactness which we make no effort to give him.
Montessori says that childhood is the best time to learn a language because it becomes "fixed" in adulthood. It is true that The Language Instinct shows how the brain "fixes" itself as the person grows, thus demonstrating the neurology that Montessori surmised. But in this passage, Montessori intuitively sees the child's struggle to communicate-- the motivation which compels him to learn-- as identical to the adult's. Why, if the goal is the same, should an adult be any less capable of learning a language to perfect fluency? Our knowledge of the brain is still vague and uncertain; isn't it possible that this "fixed" mental construct isn't a neural template of the native language, but a dynamic mechanism designed to facilitate linguistic expression? If so, a new language should actually be easier to learn than the native one!
My mother learned Spanish when she was 29. "It's a good thing nobody told me it was difficult," she said when I was visiting her last week, "because otherwise I wouldn't have believed it could be so easy." She had started working for the Centro de Informacion, but she spoke no Spanish and its clients spoke no English. She learned by listening to what they said, imitating what she heard, and using the new sounds to express the ideas she wanted to communicate-- the same process a child would use. She learned Spanish so well that she can pass for a native speaker. This made me ask her about pronunciation; when I took high school French, I was baffled that one of my classmates persisted in saying the simple word "il" as an Americanized "ill" rather than "eel" (using the European "i" sound), and years later I discovered that "speaking with an accent" meant saying English words as though I were reading them in the other language. My mother confirmed that she learned to read Spanish some time after she learned to speak it. "I remember being surprised," she reflected, "when I saw todo and realized what it was. If I had seen it first, I'm sure I would've said it to-do with a hard D, instead of to-tho which is how it's actually sounded." [She now also speaks German, French, Italian, Portuguese, and Hausa.]
At the reunion, my classmate Carl described a similar experience. He had been stationed in Korea while in his mid-20s; he eventually became frustrated with his inability to communicate with the native population. He began listening to their speech-- initially it was all just weird musical babble, but gradually he began to detect patterns and individual words, and soon he was able to comprehend meaning and to make himself understood. Later, he began connecting the syllables to the printed characters. Carl recalled his astonishment at how easy the overall process had been.
[Neither of these examples explains why an illiterate would speak a second language with an accent. I am curious about that, and I have some theories about it, but that's too much of a tangent, even for this entry.]
These two people were motivated to learn a language because they had a need to communicate their ideas. Not just a desire, or an interest, but a need. Aside from methods of teaching which are essentially backwards, I suspect that is the key difference which makes learning a language "more difficult" as an adult: an adult doesn't need to. A child must. Children do have an advantage of undifferentiated neurological material, which doesn't distinguish between "my language" and "foreign language" and hasn't yet formed perceptual categories to exclude sounds from other languages. But adults have an advantage in knowing how language is used. Adults are already thoroughly familiar with the process of expressing linguistic ideas. The ideas are universal; the process is the same. An adult merely has to match the ideas with new sounds.
Returning, then, to the question what is being learned? I think this gives a better answer than "a language". In acquiring a new language, the student is learning sounds which will allow them to receive and communicate ideas.
And this will bring us back to music.
I had a peculiar perceptual experience a couple of days ago. At my mother's recommendation, I had been re-reading the Taneda handbook in its original German. As I was plodding through it, I had to keep reminding myself that this letter that looked like a capital B was actually a double-S sound. Stopped at one of these letters, I suddenly noticed something I hadn't noticed before: a small fletching on the left side of the letter.
I stared at this for a few seconds and found my perception wrenched to a new recognition. I had seen this letter before-- in English! I've known for a long time that English texts of the 17th and 18th centuries used lower case f for s, as in this example from the "wicked bible" of 1631 (look for the missing "not"):
I also knew that, in the case of a double S, the old texts usually had the first letter as f and the repeated letter as s-- and they usually connected the two letters with a loop at the top. They looked just like this ß! I'd seen many examples of it on old posters for Shakespeare plays. I can't seem to find any images of those posters on-line right now (if someone has a link please let me know) but you can see the f-s usage on no less significant a document than the American Bill of Rights.
So now, in reading German, I was no longer perceiving the ß as a "B", but as an "fs"-- and since I'd fpent years being aware of the subftitution of this letter, and being patient with people mifhearing my laft name as "Arusso", it was very easy for me to see this as a double-S sound. In fact, it was now harder for me to read it as a "B" sound. Now that my mind had connected the visual symbol to a different idea, it triggered different sounds in my head. And I was surprised to discover that, in looking at the ß in different fonts, some of them made the f-s pretty darn obvious (these three are Book Antiqua, Bookman, and Palatino).
This isn't the only example of stuck-together letters that I've encountered recently. A fellow wrote to me and identified himself as a kind of synesthete-- he found it difficult to learn musical sounds, he said, because the names of the letters always triggered colors in his head. The sound of the letter C, for example, was distinctly yellow. After some back-and-forth, I realized there was something odd about this. I asked him, what happens when you hear S or E? Do you also hear yellow for these sounds? Because the sound of the letter C doesn't actually exist; it's S and E mashed together. His reply:
Hmm, very interesting stuff Chris, you know it is entirely conceptual in that the "sssseee" sound of one variation of C does indeed produce the color yellow, but so does the word cat, so it is entirely based on the letter, and not on the sound. I guess I have never really thought of there being more then one C sound since kindergarten; it's just something that is so ingrained deep down in memory and has never actually been needed as information that I guess it just didn't click. So that's very strange indeed... "S, E, or K" do not produce the same colors.. I can tell you E is always Red..., S and K I would have to repeat it a few times, as the colors I am most accustomed to recalling are indeed the ones of the musical alphabet.
Although there must be further implications of this phenomenon (my thoughts mirror his closing comment, "I feel like I am onto something but I don't know what"), its immediate relevance is as further direct evidence of how letters are themselves linguistic ideas which are separate from the sounds used to express them. The statement that "a letter is the sound it makes" is not true.
For some reason, I attract dogs and small children. I'm not sure why this is-- I don't beckon, I don't encourage, I don't offer to play; most of the time, I just leave them be and do my own thing, only speaking when spoken to. Yet if I happen to be in some space with a dog or a child, invariably, inevitably, they will "adopt" me. Today, this meant that my roommate's two children (one aged 4, the other 10) were following me around like ducklings. When what I was doing wasn't too involved, and they could get my attention, they showed me things they liked, asked me questions, told me about their trip to get here. When I was more focused, the older one watched me closely and wondered how he could help, and the smaller one explored my room, where every new object he found was a fascinating artifact.
The little one, JT, found my electronic scale. This is the type of scale where you tap it with your foot to turn it on, wait for it to show "0", and then step on for your weight. JT asked loudly, "What is this?" and, receiving no answer, stood on it. Nothing happened, so he got off-- but this was the "tap" that the scale had been waiting for, so it began to flash. Eagerly, JT stepped back on... too soon. He hadn't waited for the "0", so the scale briefly showed "E" (for error) and turned itself off. He stepped off the scale with a look of perplexed frustration.
My first impulse-- surely anyone's first impulse-- was to stop JT right there. I wanted to help him out of his frustration by explaining what the scale was for and how to turn it on properly. But before I could say anything, I remembered an example from Maria Montessori's book The Discovery of the Child, in which a well-meaning teacher had interrupted a preschooler who was working on a problem. That adult, by negating the child's efforts and imposing her "help", had made the child feel helpless. I saw that JT had not yet finished with the scale, so I held back and remained silent. I was surprised at how difficult it was to avoid saying anything, watching JT continue to stomp ineffectively on the scale. I had the answer he seemed to want so badly! Why couldn't I just give it to him? But still I waited. He had not given up yet.
He finally figured out how to make it work. When he saw what he had done, he shouted "I won!" with great delight to no one in particular. "Look! I won! I won 47!"
It was immediately obvious that no assistance or explanation of mine could possibly have given JT this same sense of exultation. I also remembered one of John Holt's observations from How Children Learn. Holt said that, when using educational toys, he achieved stunningly improved results if the children were allowed to play freely with the objects before being instructed in how the toys were supposed to be used. In reading Holt's example, I had accepted his implicit conclusion: that in their free play, the children had developed an internal relationship with the toy driven by their desire to understand it. The adult's external imposition of rules and tasks kills their enthusiasm and interest, making the toy into something that has been forced upon them.
After witnessing JT's triumph, I see there's another side to this. An adult's instructions about an educational toy are verbal and necessarily abstract; therefore, ironically, a child's approach to the toy is not an attempt to figure out the toy but an attempt to figure out the instructions. Additionally, their ability to perceive the toy and its capabilities is limited to what the adult tells them (Ellen Langer's research shows what a powerful effect this is). If I had told JT that this was a "scale" for "measuring weight", he probably wouldn't have known either of those concepts, and the thing would instantly have been rendered incomprehensible. But JT is familiar with electronic games that require certain sequences of button presses, so that's what he tried-- and, for his figuring out the correct sequence, this electronic game obligingly rewarded him with 47 points.
It logically follows that instructions are unnecessary. If an object, through its normal use, illustrates certain principles, then a child who uses the toy normally must learn those principles (and, not being mentally restricted to "normal" use, could invent something wholly unexpected). Without my intervention, even before he knew what the toy was, JT recognized that he had received a bad response in that "E"-- and he would not be satisfied until he got it right.
I think this provides a decent argument for allowing a child to play freely on an instrument. Evelyn Fletcher and Mark Twain have illustrated how it's perfectly reasonable to expect that a child's attempts at expression will be clumsy, meaningless, and even random-- but a musical instrument, by its nature, has certain sounds that go together better than others. A child who bangs with seeming carelessness at the keyboard will, in time, make their own musical discoveries. Here is what the Tanedas have to say about it from their experience (using my English):
We think that a child should be allowed to touch the piano whenever it is possible. This gives the child the opportunity to discover the instrument by themselves. At the beginning of their musical education, there will be a great difference between playing with We Hear and Play and free play. This difference is obvious, and presents no danger to the child's hearing or playing abilities. On the contrary-- the more the child plays with the piano, the better the result.
It does not follow that guidance is useless. Our perception of an object will also be limited by our experience and imagination. Everything I've ever learned about computers, for example, has been either because I've had some specific task which prompted me to seek the instructions I needed-- or because I've seen someone do a thing I didn't know was possible, that I would not have discovered on my own, which opened my awareness of what I could accomplish. What if I had shown JT one way to score more points with his new game, by giving him an object to hold? In his free play, surely he would now be inspired to conduct experiments with different objects, and he would find out that certain objects were worth more than others, and infer that it had something to do with the way they felt in his hands (or arms).
This seems both to contradict and supplement something I'd said before-- that we learn a language (such as music) by having something to express. A child isn't necessarily "expressing" anything by banging on a piano or stepping on a scale. I'll explore that a bit further... next time.
I was reminded yesterday that there are probably plenty of topics that I could now revisit and shed some new light on. For example, there's the old chestnut about a musician who has absolute pitch and thinks of it as either "useless" or "a burden", and who becomes crazed when an instrument is not perfectly in tune. I encountered this supposed "curse" of perfect pitch as early as Phase 1, but at the time I had heard only one alternative explanation: that these musicians were pretending to have problems, and were thereby showing off to those who were incapable of having the same problem. Of course, this explanation is totally speculative and-- now that I've spoken to enough people who have absolute pitch-- manifestly untrue. Yes, it is true that there are musicians with absolute pitch who complain about having it, but you don't have to speculate about why. It should be obvious: they've never been trained to integrate their absolute pitch skills with their musicianship.
Evelyn Fletcher, in 1916, wrote about how other musical training methods were completely unsuited for people who have "Positive Pitch" (as she called it). It's still true. Despite the advances that have occurred, music is still being taught as a relative phenomenon. Musicians with absolute pitch are not taught how to use their absolute pitch to the benefit of their musicianship. Miyazaki, in Japan, offers experimental proof that musicians with absolute pitch "use absolute skills for relative tasks" and-- after having great difficulty doing something that should be simple-- fail. Because musical instruction assumes that the student will have relative pitch, there are no training systems which teach the difference between an absolute strategy and a relative one, nor are there any which explicitly instruct the student how to develop their relative skills in conjunction with absolute perception. The student with absolute pitch must either somehow figure it out on their own, or struggle with the persistent conflict between what they're being told to do and what their minds actually hear. As far as they're concerned, their absolute pitch is the cause; they can look around and see how people without perfect pitch have it so easy! But their absolute pitch isn't the problem-- it's the fact that the training they're being given fails to accommodate or take advantage of (and often contradicts) how they actually perceive music. If those with absolute pitch were in the majority, it would rapidly become obvious that the training was insufficient. Because they are in the minority, they naturally come to believe that the problem is themselves, not the training.
To put it simply: There are musicians even at the professional level who complain that absolute pitch has been damaging or detrimental to their musical life, but there is no reason to believe that these people are lying to "show off" (or for any other reason). The evidence strongly suggests that it is not absolute pitch at fault, but a lifetime of inappropriate training. It is a fact that musicians who have absolute pitch, but who have also developed their relative skills, can transpose easily and can handle instruments that are somewhat out of tune-- and, as Taneda says, "will be able to play in the new key more confidently with benefit of their absolute skills." A musician who has never developed effective relative perception will continue to believe that a melody presented a quarter-tone flat is wrong.
Update: Patrick alerted me to an interview with Steve Morse. In it, he says that "Oftentimes I know a song, but I won't know what key it's in, or I will have forgotten what key it's in; all I remember is the relationships of the chords and notes." He explains how this is beneficial to his performance on the guitar, because this way "it doesn't matter where on the guitar it is, or what key it's in," he can still play it back again. And he's right. But consider: what if he did know the key it's in, and didn't forget, and had the ability to remember the relationships of the chords and notes? I'll say it again: nobody needs absolute pitch to make music-- but I suspect that those who claim it has no value are those who don't know how to use it.
The core of my philosophy of acting is the conviction that ideas and words are separate. The actor's job is not to speak words, but to communicate ideas; words are simply a tool with which to accomplish this. Without ideas, words are merely meaningless gobbledygook; with ideas, even gobbledygook can make sense.
As an actor, I've been developing my understanding of this concept since about 1992 when I first encountered Sanford Meisner's book. Meisner only talks about "freeing impulses" but, as I explored it, the rest logically followed. The implications for performance and technique are profound. At the most basic level, one perspective becomes obvious: acting starts backwards. When a person speaks normally, they get an idea and then chooses words to express that idea. When a person receives a script, the words are already chosen. As a person reads or speaks a script, they are receiving ideas from the author, not expressing ideas to the audience. The most typical "bad acting", then, is when the actor competently repeats the meaningless word-sounds without having received the author's ideas in the first place; bad acting which can fool an audience is when the actor conveys how they received the author's ideas, right down to the last inflection (you can usually see this in the leading roles played at community theaters). But even the least sophisticated audience member will recognize the difference between that and good acting, which is when an actor uses the author's words as a tool to express their own ideas.
This is a mystical, mysterious thing. When I demonstrate to my students or to my classmates how to apply this, it's like a magic trick-- made all the more amazing because we all understand exactly what is happening, even though none of us could ever explain how this works. But it illustrates two essential points: first, that there is such a thing as a linguistic idea, which has its own cognitive identity separate from any form of communication which expresses it. Second, when human intention is applied to otherwise random sensation, the random sensation gains meaning. This process is so inexplicable that I can only call it genuine natural magic. And when I say random, I mean random-- Diana Deutsch's "phantom words" show it. These sounds are acoustical garbage, but I have found that if I tell my friends to listen for certain meaningful words in the noise, my friends will hear those words. And remember the "green, green" of the coffee grinder? Here's another example I can give you in this sentence: I swung the bat and hit the plengu into my friend's glove. Now you may not know exactly what I mean by "plengu"-- but you get the idea.
The inverse is equally important: if we do not know what ideas are being communicated, the sound becomes nonsense. Gabe wrote to me a couple days ago about his experience with letters.
...[Y]our July 30th comment reminded me of a conversation I had with my roommate a while back. You said "a letter is the sound it makes" isn't necessarily true. Well for me it definitely wasn't. I knew what the letters were, and I knew what phonetic sound they meant, but they were completely separate. I never realized until maybe a couple months ago that the phonetic sound was in the letter name... Yeah, so the letter B starts with a "buh" sound, D with a "duh", etc. My roommate was flabbergasted that I had never noticed that before, and I was kind of surprised, too. I'd always see "dog" and known that it starts with a D and that D's go "duh." Come to think of it... that reminds me a bit about the Portuguese illiterates who couldn't do the phoneme switch. I was never conscious of the 'duh' phoneme at the beginning of the "D" name. I suppose that might be because the letter 'd' was never, uh, spelled out for me. I could have thought about it, and sounded it out -- "hm... the letter 'd' sounds like 'dee.' but that would be relying on skills that the illiterates wouldn't have. Wow! That just reminded me of when I was little and I asked my dad how to spell D. And he said, "well, it's just D. That's all." I was never really satisfied with that, and went on to press him -- "it's not like 'dee' or anything?", but forgot about it until just now. I guess that makes the alphabet the only English words represented entirely by characters... like Chinese. Interesting.
Gabe brings new insight to the Portuguese experiment, which had demonstrated that we hear syllables as single chunks and can infer phonemes from them only because we know how to read. The scientists' conclusion was that an illiterate person, unable to imagine how a sound cluster is spelled on a page, is incapable of decoding a syllable into phonemes. However, starting from Gabe's example, and adding the experiment Steven Pinker mentioned in his book-- how literate adults failed to recognize an unfamiliar phoneme spoken inside a foreign word, even after years of training-- it leads you to the probability that even if the illiterates had decoded the individual sounds and had heard the phonemes, they would not have been able to recognize, identify, or manipulate the phonemes like the experimenters asked, because their minds had never been acquainted with the linguistic idea that each phoneme represented. You might test this by asking illiterates to do the same manipulations on groups of letters that were spoken individually; if the letter sounds were meaningless noise, their memory would be easily jarred. Without an idea to mentally "fix" the sound, one random sound is essentially the same as another.
I was thinking about this while reading Montessori's books. She kept mentioning the "Wild Boy of Aveyron" who, raised by wolves, never learned to speak. It began to seem possible that, whatever other factors must be at work, the boy had never learned what it meant to formulate or receive a linguistic idea. His perception of the world was one which excluded human ideas, and therefore it seemed probable that any attempt to teach him language would fail. That is (even if you set aside the potential flaws that John Holt foresaw), the boy would never comprehend that people were trying to teach him something about spoken sound, because he was incapable of comprehending a human idea. Without these ideas, spoken sounds are meaningless noise. One observer, speaking of the wolf-children in his care, commented that "it was if they had the minds of wolves." I wonder if, during the Wild Boy's language "lessons", he received the instructor's body language and vocal quality in ways which communicated wolf-like ideas to his mind, and it never occurred to him that the other sounds could have meaning. Perhaps in order for him to learn human language, he would first have to learn to receive and formulate human ideas.
The critical period hypothesis for learning language has been suggested (sounds sort of familiar, doesn't it?), but could it be that in this period the children have not "failed to learn language", but have instead learned to receive and express ideas in a non-human way? Steven Pinker, in Language Acquisition, notices that the ability to formulate ideas seems to precede language acquisition: "[Toddlers'] two- and three-word utterances look like samples drawn from longer potential sentences expressing a complete and more complicated idea." Patrick also alerted me to a system which teaches babies a kind of sign language. This system enables babies to express their ideas before they have developed competent verbal skills-- and, according to the studies on the site, these babies learn to use verbal language more quickly and fully than non-signing babies. I suspect this is because, through the signing, babies become more aware that they have ideas, and that these ideas can be expressed; therefore, when applying the more sophisticated skill of verbal speech, they already basically know what they're doing.
I would suggest that it is idea formation, and the subsequent expression and reception of ideas, which drives language acquisition. The nature of the idea dictates the nature of the language acquired.
Last month I wondered how I might begin learning German. My mother told me that aside from spending hours of social time with a native speaker, the best option, without a doubt, was to tune in to German-language radio stations or, better still, television programs. Just by listening, she said, the language would begin to come into focus, as it had with Carl in Korea. When I expressed skepticism about finding German channels in Gainesville (for some reason, at that moment I didn't think of the obvious), she said that the next best choice was to begin reading some German-language book whose English counterpart I was already thoroughly familiar with. So I returned to the Taneda handbook.
This seemed like it would be an effective strategy. My knowledge of the book, I thought, would enable me to mentally translate into familiar English as I read it in German. But only a few pages into it I was already frustrated. Attempting to decode each sentence was an unpleasant effort. Even though I could usually recognize key words, I had to translate those words, fit them into an incomplete imaginary English sentence, look again at the German, try to infer a few more words, compare those to the English sentence I was building, see if I could get more words, compare them... blah! The back-and-forth was tiresome. I finally gave up and just began scanning the pages... and that's when it began to work. I remember particularly reading the phrase "Bekanntlich hat sich schon im 19. Jahrhundert..." because I already understood the entire phrase before I noticed that "Jahrhundert" sounded like the English words "year hundred." Oh, I laughed, then this word must translate as century. But then I paused, realizing that I already knew what it meant before I brought up the English word. I had received the idea, and the English word was an afterthought; no translation was necessary.
This changed my perspective of what I was doing in reading the German book. The advantage of reading a familiar book wasn't that I could translate its words; rather, I knew its ideas. Plus, I've learned, when we read something our minds actually create and hear the sounds. Therefore, reading this book was essentially the same experience as listening to a native speaker talking out loud to me. The words were thereby infused with human intent, and were thus able to communicate their ideas to me, even though the actual sounds I was hearing-- like all language sounds-- were nonsense.
One of the most immediate implications of this is that the best way to learn a language is through "immersion", with virtually no reliance on one's original language. Drilling vocabulary words and (especially) translating from one language to another on a test sheet is an inefficient approach. These activities are non-communication; they rely instead on rote memory, making a different kind of connection between the sounds and their ideas-- a connection which must later be abandoned. I initially resisted this conclusion, thinking that one's original language must be useful as a first step, to clarify the ideas being presented in the new language; but it dawned on me that if the idea is communicated from the speaker's intention, not from the sounds, using a first language to learn a second language will function as one of Fletcher's "vicious little tricks". Translations to and from the native language will act as a barrier between an idea and its expression in (or reception from) the target language.
What is a musical idea?
I've been playing with this question for the past few weeks. I doubt that I'll be successful at defining "idea", any more than science has been able to define "attention", but I've found that the question can still be meaningfully explored..
At the very least, it's become evident that a musical idea is something quite distinct from a language idea. Between Fletcher and Taneda, I knew that it was possible to "think in music" as a language, but last month I read Aaron Copland's What to Listen For In Music (written in 1939) which emphasized that a musical idea exists in its own right, separate from linguistic thoughts. A composer, says Copland, begins their process with "...a musical idea. Not a linguistic idea, or an extramusical idea... but a musical idea." Seeing this reminded me of the conversation I'd had with Carl the week before, at the reunion; Carl had specifically remarked that before learning music, "I never understood instrumental pieces-- how could something with no words have a title?" The answer is clear: an instrumental piece is the expression of a purely musical idea.
It is helpful, although obviously not entirely adequate, to think of linguistic ideas as intellectual concepts and musical ideas as emotional concepts. The composition referred to in Fletcher's article represented "the thought of a 13-year old boy after studying a picture called 'The Last Outpost,' in which an Indian who has been driven from the ancestral hunting-ground of his tribe contemplates the waters of the Pacific with the thought that if he is again forced by the white man to move, it can only be into the ocean." This boy could have used language ideas to write that the picture seemed "sad" or "lonely" or "despairing", but these are intellectualized concepts that represent the symbolic idea of an emotion; they do not communicate the actual emotion itself. By contrast, when you listen to the composition, it may not cause you to feel as he does, but you know how he felt. You get the idea. In this respect, it does make sense to imagine that a musical piece is the expression of a specific emotional concept. Just as linguistic expression allows me to take these intellectual thoughts in my head and put them into yours, a musical idea allows someone to take the sensory "thoughts" in their body and put them into yours.
But even if a musical idea is an "emotional concept", it doesn't necessarily represent a specific motive, any more than a letter of the alphabet represents a specific intellectual conclusion. It simply is. I've been observing this as I play Interval Loader. In playing "Two Notes Advanced"-- identifying harmonic intervals in movable-do-- I no longer have to "feel" or "judge" the intervals in order to decide which one I'm listening to. I just hear it, recognize it, and press the appropriate button. However, I had to wonder a couple of days ago, as I began to consistently reach Level 11: how could I still be stuck on Two Notes Advanced? The only interval I wasn't so sure about was the minor sixth; if I was judging these intervals by their individual identity, rather than the quality of their sound, why wasn't my mind immediately recognizing the minor sixth as "the one I don't recognize"? I listened for the answer as I continued to play, and I was somewhat surprised. My mind was recognizing the sound as unfamiliar, but was assigning the sound to a known idea. The process felt a lot like mishearing song lyrics, or hearing someone speak with a lisp. If I heard someone say "tefting tefting one two free", I'd know that I wasn't hearing an S sound, but I would receive the idea of "S" all the same. With Interval Loader, if I respond immediately, I will identify a minor sixth with the wrong idea; but if I wait for just a heartbeat, I'll notice the unfamiliar part of the sound and guess correctly. But it is still just a guess at this point, because I haven't had enough experience with the minor sixth for it to gain its own identity, and so my game keeps ending on level 11 or 12. Nonetheless, my scores just keep getting higher. It's only a matter of time.
Despite the difference between them, musical and linguistic ideas are still both ideas, and they have similar relationships to their respective sounds. For example, musical "interpretation" appears to be a process similar to acting interpretation, as I define it: expressing different ideas using the same sounds. I'd already experienced this, in fact, before I left for vacation. I had found a copy of the sheet music for a 1911 song, "Krazy Kat Rag", and I decided to turn it into a MIDI file. Shortly after finishing the piece, I did a Web search and discovered that another fellow had had the same idea. I confess I didn't like the other version at all; its frenetic pace and total lack of dynamics had turned a pleasant little tune into something almost unlistenable. I've seen plenty of acting monologues ruined by bad interpretation, but I can usually rework them in my head (even as they're being spoken) to understand how they could have been done effectively, mentally "hearing" the same words but with my own ideas added; this gives me a better appreciation of the material regardless of the performer. When I listen to music, I am not practiced at putting my own musical ideas into the sound, or even perceiving a musical idea as "behind" its sound rather than intertwined with it. I receive the idea (or lack of idea) as it's given to me. If I hadn't heard these two MIDI files side-by-side, if I'd only heard the other version, I would probably have thought that the Krazy Kat Rag was a bad song.
Perhaps next I may want to work on hearing the musical ideas in normal speech. Language formants and the fundamental pitch of our speaking voices are two separate physical and psychological events events which seem to be one, and we all use musical ideas without knowing it. Every time you speak, you present a linguistic and a musical idea simultaneously. Listeners, unless made aware that they are listening to "singing", generally don't consciously acknowledge the presence of the musical idea. Diana Deutsch's Track 27 is a clever trick that forces your brain to notice it in ordinary speech.
Although there doesn't seem to be any overlap between the ideas themselves-- a musical idea cannot be expressed literally, and a linguistic idea cannot be expressed musically-- there seems to be considerable overlap in how the sounds are used, and the idea we receive depends largely on what type of sound we believe we're hearing. The most obvious usage is when language sound is recruited to fulfill musical functions, most frequently done in a cappella music; there are people who have attempted to recruit musical sound to fulfill language functions (although I admit I'm skeptical of its effectiveness); and it's common for a person to hear one type of sound and mistake it for another, like my coffee grinder's "green" or the sound at the end of this cartoon.
Language sounds, being composed of musical frequencies, also have musical qualities. My recent Lessac training has made me more aware of these qualities, which helps me to add additional layers of musical meaning to my words as I speak. Many professional writers, especially poets, are already aware of these musical qualities. When we write instead of speaking, our musical idea is completely lost (this is why emoticons exist) and all that remains are the language sounds. The writer attempts to choose language which will inherently communicate a musical idea. For example-- you may not be able to play a funereal dirge in print, but you can describe a "deep, dark, dank dungeon"-- and its long lugubrious vowels, combined with the rhythmic dripping of the "d", help to convey the point.
Well, in any case, classes begin again in a few days, and re-orientation has already begun. I've had my summer fun; now it's back to the books.