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Some thoughts on Perfect Pitch

Posted: Fri Oct 03, 2008 8:12 am
by cjhealey
Hey,

So I've been thinking since Chris (Aruffo) posted his most recent findings on the homepage with regards to the 'function' of a note and have had some thoughts and experiences I figure are worth a mention.

First off, and I'm sure this has already occured to many, but imagine a situation where one's life depended on the ability to differentiate between tones?

How quickly would someone learn to tell the difference between a C and a C# if one meant "Impending Doom" and the other "All is well"?
Chances are they'd very quickly identify a way of differentiating the two.

So it makes you wonder what is the real limitation faced in the learning process?

Well, Chris mentioned that as one 'matures', the way they handle information changes. In many instances, a child's learning by no means has to serve a 'function' or at least not one which would be considered substantial by an adult. Perhaps this is why there is the common missconception that only a young child's brain is in a state of elasticity.

They are able to learn simply for the sake of it, where as, when we age, we start to seperate or filter what is 'required' knowledge and what is unimportant.

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Secondly, and this is in a manner an extenstion of the first sentiment, what really is the nature of perfect pitch?

We continue to hear people say "perfect pitch is being able to recognise tones/notes/chords/scales without a reference" but that is actually a description of the result of having perfect pitch.

What is it ACTUALLY?

I think from what I've started to notice that it IS very much approaching music as a language with notes as syllables.

Where relative pitch is listening between the pitches, perfect pitch is hearing and listening to each pitch itself.

Insterestingly, in spoken language both are used. First of all we identify where a particular word/syllable begins/ends and we observe the change in meaning caused by the change in both duration and pitch between each word/syllable.

I have been led to believe over the past few weeks that perfect pitch develops when one learns to observe where one tone ends and the next one begins.

People with relative pitch identify the shape or contour of music, but seldom do they actually hear where the note chroma changes. Rather they hear where the interval beings.

Honestly, I'm not sure which needs to come first in a spoken language, the knowledge of each syllable or the awareness that there is a change between them.

For me, I'm finding the real way of seeing progress is learning to hear the boundaries between each note. Before I used to simply hear a shape, but not the actual notes but the more I pay attetion to where each pitch ceases and the next pitch begins, rather than what happens when they begin/end, the more I am noticing the subtle differences.

It is like listening to a word, I don't know, say "Absolute" and noticing how it really sounds as "Ab-so-lute". We do this automatically, it's how we know the difference between 'Confetti' and 'confection'

I don't know how this applies to learning perfect pitch but it is food for thought.

Any opinions?

Chris :-)

Posted: Fri Oct 03, 2008 4:35 pm
by aruffo
I don't have much time to respond now, but I'll throw in that I recently read an assertion (backed up by data, but I don't have the reference with me) that language is perceived in the transitions and changes in the sound signal, not by the individuated bits. Grossly put, we recognize an "f" to be an "f" because it is bounded by things that are not "f"; otherwise it's not typically perceived as a linguistic sound-symbol (or even recognized as one!).

Posted: Fri Oct 10, 2008 6:22 am
by cjhealey
Okay, I also have another brief thought.

You asked about the function of an 'E Flat'.

Okay, then what is the function of the colour, Red? (or any colour)

Chris

Posted: Fri Oct 10, 2008 7:26 am
by aruffo
That's easy... traffic lights, stop signs, hot-water knobs, VU meters, etc etc etc

Posted: Fri Oct 10, 2008 12:03 pm
by abminor
That's easy... traffic lights, stop signs, hot-water knobs, VU meters, etc etc etc


Yes, but in my opinion they have been given some functions because we see colors not the reverse (we don't see them because they have functions).

Although i'm sure the fact they are widely used help us to learn to name them, I'm also quite convinced we would perceive them even without any coding scheme.

So, to the question what is the function of absolute pitch, I can only think of two (not very satisfactory) possible answers:

- To allow pitch relations (and therefore music to exist) to exist concretly (not only has mathematical ratios).

- As a sensitive phenomenon bringing another level of music enjoyment. I think everyone is sensitive to tonality differences as something giving colour variation to music even if they don't have permanent memory of thoses colours.

Posted: Fri Oct 10, 2008 9:43 pm
by aruffo
in my opinion they have been given some functions because we see colors not the reverse

Oh, no... the research quite clearly shows that which color-categories we see depends entirely on the language we learn to describe them. I'm thinking in particular of an experiment which shows that, because Russians have two different categories of blue, Russians see two different colors where we see only "blue"-- but there are plenty of other researches, and the point can be generalized.

It is, of course, a virtuous cycle that feeds nicely upon itself (colors are given functions which, in turn, become definitive of those colors), but I'm willing to assert that these are indeed colors' functions. If it weren't for the functions we assigned to them, color would likely be undifferentiated, unrecognized, and unimportant.

Although I wouldn't disagree with the truth of the two observations you've made as being served by pitch, these aren't the kinds of functions I'm getting at. By "functions" I mean unique purposes. Pitch relations can be transposed; tonality effects can be varied; but a stop sign that isn't red is wrong. A Canadian flag that isn't red is wrong. Blood that isn't red is alien. I'm looking for a function for some particular pitch that, if another pitch were substituted, would be wrong.

Posted: Sat Oct 11, 2008 1:46 am
by abminor
If it weren't for the functions we assigned to them, color would likely be undifferentiated, unrecognized, and unimportant.


I may not be a scientist but that sounds very wrong to me. I see all the day infinite shades of color and a lot of them have no functions at all. I may learn to distinguish a new color category when I want I just have to remember it. Don't painters do that all the time (and they don't necessarly have to do that in childhood), they learn new color for esthetic purpose (you may call that artistic function if you wish). In fact don't all of us do that all the time. That's part of visual memory we remember things in color, not in black and white. Then I guess, because we perceive them and because we remember them consistently we can label them and categorize them.

You were talking about russian that have two kind of blue: Can't you think of at least two kinds of blue even if you remember an object in that color. Let say you think of light blue as the sky as opposed to pure blue (r:0 g:0 b:255): you could as well invent a word for this shade if that pleases you and remember it as a label for this color next time you see it.

I don't pretend that we are not influenced by our culture in categorizing colors, we certainly are. It's perfectly possible that russian may have an initially a more refined sense of blue because they use two categories instead of one. But this doens't mean we don't perceive the same things. We just have different (or no) labels for it.

Posted: Sat Oct 11, 2008 4:55 am
by TS
abminor wrote:I see all the day infinite shades of color and a lot of them have no functions at all. I may learn to distinguish a new color category when I want I just have to remember it.


It can be said that we all hear absolute pitches all the time. Just play a tone on a piano, and that's it, you've just heard an absolute pitch. The difference to real absolute pitch ability is how you can use that concept of pitch for something useful.

I've been thinking that if learning absolute pitch requires that the pitches have meaning, does this meaning have to be a meaning that we already know? For example if you had to learn the difference between C and C# to steer your car left and right, then you'd probably learn those pitches, but would you be able to recognise those pitches in music?
It seems to me that ear training is all about learning how different pieces fit to the musical language that you already fully understand. To learn the major third scale degree you already have to know many songs that have a major third in them, and you already have to understand what that major third means in those songs.

Posted: Sat Oct 11, 2008 9:44 am
by petew83
By "functions" I mean unique purposes. Pitch relations can be transposed; tonality effects can be varied; but a stop sign that isn't red is wrong. A Canadian flag that isn't red is wrong. Blood that isn't red is alien. I'm looking for a function for some particular pitch that, if another pitch were substituted, would be wrong.


This is an interesting idea. A few examples that came to mind: Wheel of Fortune letter beep = F, 'prototypical' slot machine or casino = C

'Blood is red' is very different than 'Canadian flag is red' or 'Stop sign is red', for the latter 2 could easily be standardized in pitch. I do not have a worthy analog in chroma to match it even closely. Why is that?

Posted: Sat Oct 11, 2008 9:02 pm
by aruffo
I may not be a scientist but that sounds very wrong to me.

I assure you, if you knew the scientific literature, it wouldn't.
I see all the day infinite shades of color and a lot of them have no functions at all.

And every one of those infinite varieties falls into one of seven categories, whose identities were learned. Varieties of those basic seven are mixtures of different qualities (brightness, saturation, other hues) which, according to information theory, allows us to formulate and remember additional categorizations, but these are not basic categories; they have to be deliberately recognized. The fact that we can recognize the difference between "baby blue" and "deep blue" is not the same as recognizing the difference between "blue" and "yellow", and the Russian distinction is the latter, not the former.
A few examples that came to mind: Wheel of Fortune letter beep = F, 'prototypical' slot machine or casino = C

Early on, I turned up my nose at the idea that absolute pitch was related to recognizing pitches in one's environment, but now I'm not able to think of any better examples of unambiguous functions for pitch. Anything musical I could think of could easily be transposed. And in thinking of stories of children who evidenced absolute pitch, just about every one of them had the child describe some real-world event(s) by their pitch.
'Blood is red' is very different than 'Canadian flag is red' or 'Stop sign is red', for the latter 2 could easily be standardized in pitch. I do not have a worthy analog in chroma to match it even closely. Why is that?

That's why I included that example; the distinction signaled by red blood and green blood is, like any color-coding, associative. A different color "means" something different (a streetlight's red/green/yellow is a similar example). I haven't been able to think of a single example for pitch, because the best I can come up with is the typical statement of "[key signature] is [adjective]" which is totally subjective.

Posted: Sun Oct 12, 2008 12:19 am
by Axeman
I haven't been able to think of a single example for pitch, because the best I can come up with is the typical statement of "[key signature] is [adjective]" which is totally subjective


I was wondering about putting something like C is 1st note of ___ bird call into the above. Or maybe G is male baritone normal speaking voice base pitch. I am only guessing really. It seems as if the voice stays at a pretty constant pitch i.e. the fluctuations in pitch of speech revolve around a basic pitch for each speaker. Maybe this is why people speaking tone languages have high incidence of PP. They are actually using the naturally occurring tones of the voice to construct meaning in language. I suppose that English kind of does that too when we form questions. E.g. 'What are you doing?', has different meanings based on the way we say it. And the different ways usually employ some kind of pitch shift in the spoken phrase as well as stresses on certain syllables or words.
I don't know if this is significant but am just throwing it out there.
Cheers,
Axeman

Posted: Sun Oct 12, 2008 12:33 am
by Axeman
I haven't been able to think of a single example for pitch, because the best I can come up with is the typical statement of "[key signature] is [adjective]" which is totally subjective


Another thought just occurred to me. Maybe this is why we can often recognize a speaker on the phone before they have revealed their names to us. We a are recognizing the pitch and tone qualities of their voices. Maybe AP people who have developed the ability early on subconsciously ascribe the pitches of voices that they know to non human sounds too. So when they hear the door creak as a small child it reminds them of uncle Bob's voice or the tap running water might be equal to mum's voice or mum's voice when she says particular common phrase.
????

Posted: Sun Oct 12, 2008 1:15 am
by Axeman
I haven't been able to think of a single example for pitch, because the best I can come up with is the typical statement of "[key signature] is [adjective]" which is totally subjective


Last thought on this I promise. I'm probably way off but there's no harm in thinking out loud here I suppose.
What if certain environmental sounds that we are surrounded by were also fitted into the above formula. E.g. Dad's chevy at idle is whatever pitch. Or as I distinctly remember from my own childhood - the washing machine at full final spin during the spin cycle is whatever pitch. The AP kid may then see a correlation between any one of these environmental sounds and some other random sound he hears elsewhere. Thinking about the function of the pitch in the above examples - it tells you that a particular event is happening or about to happen. In the case of mum's washing machine you could just about pick the exact moment when there would be a big click as the cycle switched off.
So maybe the little kids who develop AP have enough of these kinds of events happening in their environment producing the same or near pitch within close proximity and occurrance to each other (that way the pitch of the events would be obvious) and so naturally make a correlation between the pitch of the events.
This kind of happened to me myself while playing APA. I was playing a game with the B notes as the target. However, when I start playing sometimes at the start, if I push the enter button to start and then try to press the w button to hear the target melody it wont allow me to and I have to push the button with the arrow (cursor). Anyway, when it doesn't allow me to do that it makes a little beep, which as it happens is a B note. After playing a few games at that time on the target pitch B, I switched to another pitch using the keyboard commands and then tried to start the melody trigger using the w key. Bleep (not allowed) said the computer. It was (i.e. the pitch) immediately recognizable because I had just finished playing a B round. Significantly though (maybe) was that the function of the B pitch in the bleep (not allowed) sound i.e. 'You can't do that' was that it was then connected to the other B pitch events that I had just been hearing.

There all done.

Posted: Sun Oct 12, 2008 1:27 am
by Axeman
I lied.
Maybe if you took a persons voice that you knew and compressed the pitch ranges in a stream of words from them you would arrive at the base pitch for that person. (I know I;m getting carried away here) Then you could call the pitch Uncle Joe or whoever. Later on it would be no trouble to give it another label like say C#.

Posted: Sun Oct 12, 2008 1:30 am
by aruffo
That makes a great deal of sense. I wonder if it's reasonable to distill that to the notion that color-coding indicates different static object-properties, while pitch-coding indicates different types of dynamic events.

The first thing pops into my mind is an elevator that has different pitches for "up" and "down" bells.

And of course it gives me a new perspective of the color-coding scheme used by We Hear and Play.