Absolute Pitch

Absolute Pitch (often referred to as Perfect Pitch) is the ability to recognise and name a musical note without a reference tone. It is possessed by about one in ten thousand people.

I have just finished re-reading This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel Levitin. Levitin is a leading neuroscientist who specialises in music and he tells us that he has read every single research paper on Absolute Pitch (AP). He admits that scientists do not know why some people have it and some don’t. But, he also demonstrates a poor understanding of the nature of AP. For instance he gives the example of a colleague who “discovered a patient who has absolute pitch but is tone deaf! He can name notes perfectly, but he cannot sing to save his life¹.”

Why the exclamation mark, Daniel? As someone with AP, my response to this is “like, d-uh!” As long as the patient were not visually impaired or colour blind, no one would bat an eyelid at his recognition of the colour green or blue, yet in no way would this lead to an assumption that he would be able to paint anything recognisable with them.

So, I thought I’d write about my experiences of AP in an attempt to help further understanding of this ability in those who may be interested. Of course, these are only my experiences and those of others may be very different.

Each Note has a Unique Quality

I can recognise an A or D# as easily as I can recognise my husband’s voice, or which one of my dogs is barking. An F just has a quality of “F-ness”. It is not something I have to pay attention to and it requires no effort – though, as we’ll come to, there are exceptions to this.

I Have No Idea How I Came to Have AP

I can’t have been born with AP because at birth I was unfamiliar with the concept of musical pitch. But I don’t recall acquiring it and it feels like I’ve always had it. In fact, I used to think everyone had it. It was only when I misunderstood an aural test and I wrote down the melody of a piece played on the piano, along with the (required) rhythm, that my music teacher told in a mix of awe and accusation “you’ve got perfect pitch!”

The Pitches of Some Instruments are Harder to Identify than Others

I find the piano the easiest of all to determine pitch, even though I’m not a trained pianist. Instruments with prominent dissonant overtones are the most difficult. There are some singing voices that I cannot identify.

AP Does Not Go On Indefinitely

I cannot identify notes at pitch extremes: either high or low.

AP is a Function of Response, Not Initiation

If you asked me to sing a certain pitch, I could do it correctly 90% of the time. But I have to sing the pitch in my head first. Once I’ve heard it internally and experienced the quality of the required pitch, I will know if my internal starting pitch is correct or if it needs adjusting. I can then reproduce it vocally.

If I just sang without hearing it first, I could be off. This correlates with the research finding that muscle memory is not involved in AP.

AP is a Blessing and a Curse

Yes, I’m pretty good at playing by ear! But sometimes I don’t want to know that the key of a piece is Gm: it doesn’t further my enjoyment or connection with the music and sometimes, I think it even gets in that way of that. Also, transposing can be a challenge. However…

I Run in ‘Parallel Pitch’

When you consider that my first main instrument was the Bb clarinet, a transposing instrument, it is even more peculiar that I should have AP. But it seems that I have the ability to compartmentalise. In fact, when I listen to the clarinet, I can tell you the pitch of the note either from an AP viewpoint, or from the viewpoint of the clarinettist. The note has a certain quality which I recognise because I recognise the pitch, and because I recognise the note as its played on the clarinet. I’m effectively hearing two pitch schemes in tandem and choosing to focus on one or the other.

Another example is the Persian setar, which I am studying. The tradition here is to tune in standard pitch when playing with others, but to tune down a tone when playing solo because the strings have more resonance at the lower pitch and the setar sounds better. So, with a tuned down setar, I recognise that my teacher is playing a G but I have to go to the fret which I know as A in order to play the same note. I’m not quite sure what is going on here, but I don’t believe I’m carrying out an instantaneous transposition, rather that I’m running a double pitch scheme in my head, where the quality of G can be an A if I let it.

I Lose it When I Am Ill

Isn’t this interesting? I can lose it overnight if I’m coming down with something. In fact, there are degrees of AP loss: I may just lose it with some instruments and my AP compass might decrease. Or I may lose it completely. I can even use it as a barometer of how poorly I am. When I’m better, it re-appears.

I Have a Relationship with Pitch that Cannot Be Appreciated by Non-AP Musicians

I once wrote an article on harp tuning and claimed in passing that singers find it easier to sing in flat keys. I was taken to task on this by someone who, virtually apoplectic with rage, insisted that this could not possibly be the case. It was something that a singing teacher (without AP) once told me and it matched my own experience. So, when I was challenged I sat down and paid attention to what was happening. It was true: when I was singing a flattened note (ie, an on-pitch Bb, not an under-pitch, out of tune note), I felt a sense of ‘settling or easing down’ into the pitch; when singing a sharpened note, such as F# or C#, I had to ‘reach up’ for it. Enharmonically, I even found it much more comfortable to think in terms of Db major than C# major. I could well imagine that my critical reader would not readily understand if I were to tell him that, for me, going from note C to D# is more of ‘stretch’ than going from C to Eb, because, ultimately, he does not have the same intimate relationship with pitch that I do. We were, therefore, both right from our respective experiences.

 

¹Levitin, Daniel J. This Is Your Brain on Music: Understanding a Human Obsession, May 2008, page 184

Learning an Instrument – Leaving the Inner Teacher Behind

When I was a child, I had a bike with a handle at the back. Dad and I would go up the road to the shops: me on my bike, him walking behind, holding the handle. One day, he let go and I rode home, not realising that he was no longer with me until I reached our gate.

If Dad had let go before I was ready, I could have crashed to the pavement and possibly ended up too traumatised to get back on a bike again. If he’d not let go when I was ready, I could have become dependent on him for balance and never risked riding off on my own. Luckily for me, he let go at just the right time.

Learning an instrument is like this. Regardless of whether we have a human teacher or not, we all have an inner teacher inside us, reminding us of what we need to put into practice as we develop on our instrument. If we have a human teacher, our inner teacher repeats our teacher’s instructions as we practice. We need our inner teacher’s instructions. Without them, we just hope for the best, tra-la-la-ing along in a willy nilly fashion, never developing a solid enough technique to allow us the freedom eventually to play what we want. To mix metaphors, with one hand on the bike handle, our inner teacher keep us moving forward.

But there comes a time when our technique is solid, we are ready, and our inner teacher must let go. Otherwise, the helpful, nurturing voice, becomes the repressive, critical voice that holds us back.

Unlike me on my bike, the musician doesn’t have a Dad who knows when to let go. We have to pick the moment to say goodbye to our inner teacher ourselves. How do you know when its time to let go of your inner teacher? When you feel like you are 90% where you want to be with your instrument. You can play it fine, the notes are there, but you listen to recordings of yourself playing and there’s something missing that you can’t put your finger on. Then its time.

How do you let go of your inner teacher? Thank them for their help and explain that from now on you are going to play without regard to your technique, trusting that it is within you and you no longer need to think about it. Perhaps you might ask your inner teacher’s help if you are studying a tricky new passage or if there is some technical difficulty that you need to analyse before you can play. But once that is under the fingers, it is time for them to go back into retirement.

This is scary stuff. Having your inner teacher’s voice nearby – by which I mean continuing to play while thinking about technique – feels safe. To play a difficult passage without thinking about the notes is scary. To sing without any attempt to control your pitch is scary. To expose your heart and soul and play from a place of total freedom is scary.

Think of my Dad again. When he let me go, he was 90% confident that I was able to ride on my own: the final 10% was trust in a universal grace that would keep me upright. No doubt he was scared too.

Go on. Do it. Now there’s no one holding you upright, but there’s no one holding you back. Once you realise that you are riding your own bike through a combination of 90% innate technique and 10% universal grace, the fear turns into exhilaration. You will also come to know the nature of the 10% that you were missing before you left your inner teacher behind – and you will be missing it no longer.

Non-Aggression in Music

One of the most difficult things for me to learn as a musician has been the practice of non-aggression. This can be a tricky concept and there is often aversion to it when it is explained. But, as Chögyam Trungpa says “transcending aggression is the root of all the artistic talent one can ever imagine.¹”

It is fair to say that, until recently, most of my music has been aggressive. When I was younger, I thought the purpose of my songs was to tell people exactly where the world was going wrong. I grew out of that, mainly because it stopped feeling right. Instead, my songs became focussed on how we should be nice to each other. This, I realise now, was equally aggressive.

Essentially, being aggressive in an artistic sense is attempting to manipulate your audience into thinking or feeling in the way you want. Even if your message is one of love and peace, it is fundamentally aggressive. That’s a lot to take in, isn’t it?

Non-aggression, on the other hand, is simply presenting reality as it is, without filtering it through your own viewpoint.

When you start to be aware of the ways in which one can be artistically aggressive, you see how many traps there are for the unwary. If you want people to like/admire/desire/envy you, or think that you’re a hot sax player or a genius, but tortured, singer and you play to that end, you are being aggressive.

Another pitfall is in making your work too obvious, too delineated, because you are concerned with your message being received in the way you want. Chögyam Trungpa again:

Spelling things out proves one’s legitimacy, wisdom or artistry. But according to Buddhist tradition, the only thing you can do is hint. If you want to demonstrate something very badly and you achieve that, your work of art is a dead one².


We usually think of spelling things out as a mental process, but you can also spell things out emotionally. We’ve all seen performers put emotion “into” the music. You see their emotions first and foremost and they upstage the music. That is a huge imposition onto the music and onto the audience who are denied their own emotional reaction to the music.

Even the popular viewpoint of art as self-expression can be problematic, unless that self-expression is clear of neurosis and able to express reality as it is.

Some may think that this is a lifeless, dry approach to performing music. This is not so. Let us play music as it is, without trying to change, inform or manipulate and we will be playing not “our music” but Music.

 

¹&² Trungpa, Chögyam, True Perception: The Path of Dharma Art, 1996, page 105

Stage Fright

A little while ago, someone posted a request on Facebook for help with stage fright. I did not know her personally, but a friend of mine had commented on the post, so, by chance, it appeared on my time line.

I read through the suggestions: “picture the audience naked;” “say to yourself that you are better than they are;” “give yourself a high five before going on” and “look at the back wall.” All were intended to be supportive and some suggestions were sound.

Yet every single one of them came from a place of duality – of us against them. Is this really how we want to approach our audience? If playing before people makes us confrontational, defensive, superior, or any other mask of the fearful ego, what are we doing up there anyway? Is this why we became musicians?

The best way to avoid stage fright is to love the audience. It is as simple as that. Just love them.

Before I perform, I sit still and breathe in and out a few times. I then concentrate on drawing my breath down into my heart area until I can feel a sensation of warmth and expansion. Some would call this practice opening the heart chakra. For me, this is usually enough to put me into a calm, centred, joyful and love-filled state. For others, concentrating on a much-loved person or pet works in the same way. The trick is not to try to convince yourself mentally that you love the audience, but to fully experience the feeling of love and then go out on stage and share music from that place.

The audience will know and love you for it too.

Improvisation From Scratch

I know plenty of musicians who would rather be lowered head first into a pit of adders than improvise music. Even some gifted jazz and rock musicians, who would think nothing of creating endless variation on a pre-existing melody, would be petrified at the thought of improvising from scratch.

Which is odd, really. What leads an accomplished musician to be so terrified of putting together a sequence of notes? The answer, of course, is fear of doing it “wrong”.

So, to help anyone in this position, here’s a guide to improvisation that kills the fear of doing it wrong with one fell swoop. Because, in this approach to improvisation, there is no “wrong” to worry about.

1. Start Playing Anything. Anything at all. Music is Optional

You learn how to improvise by improvising. So, go on. Do it. There’s absolutely no need for it to be any good. It will get better, given time.

Now, I could end this post right here as, in a nutshell, you’ve just had the best advice I could give you. But, I hear you say, “I can’t just improvise. That would be improvising and I can’t improvise.”

Ok. Here are some starting points. (Players of harmony instruments, such as piano, guitar, harp, accordion etc, stick to a melody line only):

• Sit somewhere where you can hear everyday noise. A kitchen with an open window would be ideal. When you hear something, play it. A dripping tap? Play it. A plane flying overhead? Play it. Your neighbour coughing? Play it. In this exercise, you are translating what you are hearing into music. This – in essence – is what improvising is.

• How are you feeling? Play it. This is especially useful for vocalists, but instrumentalists can play too. Maybe, you feel a grunt coming on, or a whoop, or a sigh or a scream. Allow them to come. They may want to take you over for a while and this is great, its good medicine. Eventually, after a few minutes, you will reach a point where underneath, there is music waiting to come. It may only be a single tone, but stay with this and it will lead you somewhere very close to improvisation.

• If you feel too exposed doing the above, take on a character. The sillier, the better. What would a one-armed panda play? What would your most/least favourite old school teacher play? What would you, aged 4, play? What you would you, 20 years into the future, play? Try to really feel that you are them/you, as you play.

2. No Judging

Just don’t. Seriously. If you did any of the above exercises, you will see that there is nothing to judge. The sounds you made came from your experience of the environment, emotions or imagination and were a true representation of your reality at that moment.

Feel silly? Annoyed? Vulnerable? That’s fine, but don’t judge that either.

3. Drone On
Shruti Box

Most people in the west continue to believe that melody needs to be underpinned by harmony. You only need a casual listen to Indian classical music, to see that this is not the case. Indian musicians have no need for harmony – everything that needs to be expressed can be expressed through melody.

Choose any drone you like: Shruti box, harmonium, organ, tanpura, didgeridoo – anything that can provide a single sustained note. Pick a note and listen to it.

4. Listen

Few musicians listen enough. Especially score-based musicians. Just listen to the drone for a few minutes. Try focussing in on the drone and try listening to the drone as part of a soundscape that encompasses every sound that you can hear. Next, add your improvisation. Listen to the sound of the combination of the drone and your instrument; listen to the up and down motion of intervals between the two; listen to both instruments as a part of the soundscape; listen to anything that occurs to you. By listening to what is happening, you have no time to think about what is about to happen. You are just playing in the moment.

5. Surrender

Place your awareness on listening to what you are doing, rather than what you will do or have done. Don’t plan or analyse. Just allow what happens to happen.

6. No Wrong Notes

What did you learn from the above exercise? There are no wrong notes. Whatever note you played formed a relationship with the drone that had congruence and meaning. Sure, it is possible to play a note you may not like, but that doesn’t make it wrong. And anyway, that would be judging again and you agreed not to do that.

Its only possible to play a wrong note when you are improvising over a harmonic structure. Once you have chordal patterns, then you have notes that are part of the chords and not part of the chords. Then, there is always one part of your brain looking out for the chord changes. At this point, you stop being free.

7. Modus Operandi

Once you are happy freely improvising over a drone, you may want to start to re-introduce a framework. Chose a mode or scale to improvise in. The key here is to understand that the music is in charge, not the scale – if you find yourself playing a note that does not feature in your particular scale and it feels right, that’s because it is. Go with it. Now you are learning to follow.

8. Follow

This is true improvisation. Think of a musical score, where the tune already fully exists in potential – all you have to do is play it. True improvisation is the same. The tune exists, all you have to do is play it. From here, you start to realise that the role of the musician is simply to translate “unstruck” music into audible music.

So then, if you are truly following the music that already exists, how could you ever play a wrong note?

Happy improvising.

Learning an Instrument – Old, Familiar Tunes

You’ve been working hard at learning your instrument. You are frustrated. No matter how hard you try, you just cannot play that new piece you’re working on. You could give up.

I can help you with this, but first it is only fair that I reveal my own approach to teaching an instrument. If I had my way, no beginner would be let within a mile of a tune they know for about two years. Instead, they would spend the time on technical exercises. I never get my way because my students tell me that playing exercises is oh so boring and that they want to play tunes because then they feel that they’re actually playing something. So, as a result, I watch them trying like crazy to play tunes, feeling for them because I can see exactly what is happening.

Here’s a scenario: my new student has been learning the harp for three months. We’ve gone through the basic technique and she knows what her technical tasks are at this stage of her development. She also knows that she needs to absorb these until they can be executed unconsciously. She plays a five note exercise. Its short enough and easy enough for her to be aware of her fingers, shoulders, wrists, back and the manner of her pluck and replacement and she succeeds in being aware of at least some of these. She turns the page onto Lavender’s Blue¹. “At last”, she thinks, “a tune I know!” I watch as everything falls to pieces. Her technique goes flying out of the window; she gets to a tricky bit and stabs at the strings with any old finger, completely forgetting the fingering we’d just worked out; there is a general sense of panic and enough tension in her body to give both of us a headache.

What’s happening? Simply put, she is trying to play the tune and not the harp. For my student, the tune is the most important thing to achieve and she will sacrifice almost everything we’ve worked on in the vain attempt to do so. F M Alexander, creator of the Alexander Technique, would refer to my student as an endgainer: one who is concerned only with attaining their end (the tune), without giving due consideration to the means whereby that end could be gained (correct technique).

Does this sound familiar? Well, you have two choices. The first is to go back to exercises for two years or so, until your technique becomes such a part of you that it will be there for you, no matter what you are playing. (No one yet has chosen this option.)

The second choice is to change your approach to learning a tune.

We do things wrongly because we want things wrongly. Therefore, we can’t change our doing if we don’t change our wanting. Pedro de Alcantara

Since your desire to play the tune is what is causing your inability to play the tune, your first task is to stop wanting to play the tune. You need to be absolutely ok with the possibility that when you get to the end of your breath, bow or tether, you may or may not have played the tune. It must be of no importance to you, either way. You’re here to play your instrument, not the tune. By stopping wanting to play the tune, you will no longer be triggering the panic and tension that leads to poor technique that leads to you not being able to play the tune. This, in Alexander Technique terms, is called inhibition. Here, inhibition is not meant in the sense of shyness, or self-consciousness, but in its other sense of preventing or holding back: essentially, it is meant in the psychological sense of “a restraint on the direct expression of an instinct”. In effect, inhibition is non-doing.

If your concern is not with doing (playing the tune), but in inhibiting yourself from doing, you prevent yourself from endgaining: you inhibit the misuse that leads to you not being able to play the tune. At the point that you inhibit yourself from misuse, a universe of possibilities opens up. You can pay attention to anything at all: good things to pay attention to are the feel of the instrument against your skin; how you are breathing; the placement of your fingers; the sound you make; your technique.

Of course, it would be beautiful at this stage to say guess what, as soon as you stop trying to play the tune, you will be able to play it. This may be the case later on when you have absorbed your technique, but it is not like that now. You are simply not there yet. You are still learning. You will not be able to play the tune perfectly yet (and that’s totally fine with you, isn’t it?) But if you keep on preventing yourself from misuse and instead, concentrate on focussing on those things you need to absorb, those things that will help you to play your instrument, not the tune, then, one day the tune – any tune – will flow from your fingers like water.

 

De Alcatara, Pedro, Indirect Procedures: A Musician’s Guide to the Alexander Technique, 2nd Ed, 2013

¹ Well known English folk song.